Book review: "Lives In Writing" by David Lodge

Art that rises from personal debris

Unless you have the luck of Craig Raine – who was recently invited to bring 20 years’ worth of his literary journalism back to life between hard covers by messrs Atlantic – turning a collection of old book reviews into a commercial proposition requires a certain adroitness. At the very least, the endeavour needs some kind of controlling impulse, the sense of pattern and design, and as a veteran compiler of works of this sort, David Lodge spends most of his short introduction to Lives in Writing trying to convince us of its thematic unity.

“These essays variously describe, evaluate and exemplify different ways in which the lives of real people are represented in the written word,” he insists. Ah, but the book’s title has another meaning. All but one of its subjects – these include  H G Wells, Simon Gray and Frank Kermode – are engaged “in writing”; and so “the connection between their lives and the work they produced makes a thread ....” Meanwhile, another tocsin clangs intermittently. Nearly all the pieces “contain autobiographical passages of my own, and some in the latter part of the book are framed as memoirs”.

The intriguing aspect of this keenness on the life-art connection is that it goes against the doctrinal grain of so much of the world in which Lodge spent his professional life, as Professor of Modern English Literature at the University of Birmingham. As he concedes, in the very first essay – on Norman Sherry’s three-volume life of Graham Greene – Eliot may well have fostered a new movement in academic criticism by detaching the artist from his material. On the other hand, “we” ( “we” are presumably that fabled creature “the general reader”) “are fascinated by the mystery of literary creation, and therefore eager to discover the sources of a writer’s inspiration;  but we also take a simply inquisitive  human interest in the private lives of important writers ....”

As for the essayist’s own curiosity, and its wellsprings, Lodge, as he candidly admits, is a creature of his age: born in 1935 into the Catholic south London lower-middle-class, an upwardly mobile grammar-school boy who made the most of the opportunities offered by a rapidly expanding post-war landscape. For him not to be interested in Greene, Muriel Spark or Kingsley Amis would be the equivalent of Salman Rushdie denouncing Garcia Marquez as a fraud, and when he notes that Amis and his contemporaries “voiced the feelings of a new generation of lower-middle-class youth pushed up the social ladder by free secondary and tertiary education”, you feel you know precisely the impact Lucky Jim must have had on its readers back in 1954.

Terry Eagleton, Malcolm Bradbury and, rather oddly, Princess Diana, follow in – I was going to say “quick succession”, but in fact Lodge’s animating spark is his sedulousness, his ability to marshal the facts, pronounce a judgement and then subtly qualify it. Bright, epigrammatic banter is there none, but the ruminative approach has its advantages, especially when Lodge gets down to tracking some of the evasions practised by the great and good in their comments on public events: Greene’s  inability to grasp that in writing an admiring introduction to the spy Kim Philby’s memoirs he was defending a man who had sent numbers of British agents to their deaths; the faltering steps taken by Alan Bennett whenever he quits the homely and the domestic for international politics;  Richard Dawkins’ disinclination to admit that “scientific materialism” hasn’t done a great deal for the impoverished believer of the shanty town.

Best of all is the memoir, or rather series of memoirs, of Malcolm Bradbury, with whom Lodge talked, corresponded and collaborated for nearly 40 years. Bradbury was a much more complex character than he sometimes seems on paper – Lodge notes his distaste for the incoming Labour government of 1964 on the grounds that they would muck up education – and his formative years are a mark of quite how tough this scramble up the socio-intellectual ladder could be for a young man in the early ’50s.

Just as Lodge’s parents would have made him leave school at 16 had a friendly headmaster not intervened, so Bradbury was denied the chance of an Oxbridge place merely because his father would not allow him to stay on at school beyond his A-levels.

Personal debris of this kind is littered throughout Lives in Writing: its collective impact is enough to suggest that, if he liked, David Lodge could write a fascinating autobiography. In the meantime, I hope he won’t mind me pointing out that Malcolm Bradbury was 68 when he died, that Midnight’s Children won the Booker Prize in 1981 and that there is no such place as  “Peterhouse College Cambridge”.

‘The Windsor Faction’ by DJ Taylor is published by Chatto & Windus