Nice Work by David Lodge (1988)

‘I feel as if I’m getting dragged into a classic realist text, full of causality and morality. How shall I get out of it?’ (Part 5, chapter 3)

This is the third of the Changing Places trilogy (Changing PlacesSmall WorldNice Work), often to be seen gathered together in a hefty omnibus paperback edition.

It is linked to its predecessors by being set at the (fictional) University of Rummidge (based on Birmingham University where Lodge taught all his life) and by, peripherally, featuring the two protagonists of Changing Places (mundane Brit Philip Swallow, now going slightly deaf, and the turbo-charged American academic, Morris Zapp) who also featured in Small World.

But it isn’t a real sequel and can be read as a stand-alone book in that it doesn’t require any knowledge of the previous novels and the central protagonists are two characters we have not previously encountered:

  • Robyn Penrose is a highly intelligent lecturer in feminist theory at the University, who reluctantly acquiesces in taking part in a scheme to ‘shadow’ a leader of local industry
  • Vic Wilcox is the short, stubby, hard-headed Brummy recently installed as Managing Director at J. Pringle and Sons, a local metal-working factory, who reluctantly agrees to be shadowed by her

After opening expositions which give us Robyn and Vic’s life stories and current situations – firmly establishing that there could barely be two more different people living in the same city – we watch them thrown together in numerous scenes designed to highlight their different ideas and expectations, lives and lifestyles, and watch as they slowly, grudgingly, develop a sort of mutual respect and then – guess what – fall in love.

The oppression of history

One way Nice Work is very of its time is the way its time seems to oppress the story more than the mere fact of being set in 1969 or 1979 oppressed the previous two books. The 1980s – due to Mrs Thatcher’s belligerent style and confrontational policies – seemed a very embattled era, and the forces of youth and the Left were hammered. Previously characters seemed to live their lives with scant regard of politicians. During the 1980s everyone seems oppressively aware of the plight of the economy, the recession impacts everyone, the decimation of entire industries weighs heavily on the national consciousness and on individuals.

True to the spirit of the age, Robyn and Vic don’t show each other new things – they fight about them.

Changing Places is set in 1969, Small World exactly ten years later in 1979. Although they are intended to be comedies, with a strong element of fantasy and exaggeration, they are nonetheless firmly rooted in Lodge’s default ‘social realism’, the accurate depiction of real life as lived by ‘average’ – not privileged, not rich, not particularly special in any way, people – and a going-out-of-his-way to describe the humdrum details of everyday life. Pants and socks and tumble-dryers and glasses falling off and papers getting lost.

But more so than in the previous novels, social history predominates in this one, from the big-picture political situation to ‘softer’, cultural trends. The very first sentence of Nice Work is: ‘Monday, January 13th, 1986’, setting us firmly amid the Tory party’s privatisation of government-owned industries and the savage cutting back of government budgets, including the budget for Higher Education.

Lodge is careful to establish these cuts as the background to Robyn’s situation and the decisions she must make. Her boss, Philip Swallow, is given a mournful speech declaring that his academic life (closely paralleling Lodge’s) has shadowed the life cycle of post-war academia: limited options in the 1950s, explosion of higher education in the 1960s, with a concomitant eruption of new theories and ideas (all those newly-tenured academics had to make their careers writing about something) – the biggest complaint from academics of that era being the noise of endless new buildings being erected on their campuses. And now, in the 1980s, swingeing government cuts, retrenchment and demoralisation.

As Robyn struggles to finish her second academic book, Domestic Angels and Unfortunate Females, and approaches the end of her three-year contract at Rummidge, she, Swallow and the narrator all point out the harsh truth that there are now no new jobs in academia. It is a dead-end career.

‘I have no choice,’ said Robyn. ‘There’s no future for me in this country.’ (Part 6, chapter 2)

But things are no better for Vic Wilcox. The third-person narrator takes us into his thoughts as he drives the flyover across Rummidge to his metal-casting and engineering plant in rundown West Wallsbury, surveying on his way the landscape of empty factories and bricked-up houses. Low grey cloud, rain, grime.

We are allowed into Vic’s thought processes as comprehensively as into Robyn’s and it is a refreshing departure in Lodge’s fiction to encounter such a fully-developed, rounded character who has nothing to do with literature, Roman Catholicism or sex. His thoughts about the economic and industrial malaise of the mid-1980s are interesting in their own right, as well as fleshing out his character – about the need to be competitive, the need to buy British, the impact of ruinously high interest rates, the struggle to keep a manufacturing business going against stiff foreign competition.

And both he and Robyn note the presence of black youths on the streets, unemployed, hanging round at street corners – the first appearance of immigrants in Lodge’s fiction, associated with menace and off-stage rioting, reported on the radio.

In another sign of the times, Robyn, it turns out, has a go-getting brother (Basil) who is a bond trader in the City of London, younger than her but already on three times her salary, driving up for lunch in a high-powered BMW with his currency dealer girlfriend (Debbie, daughter of a Whitechapel bookie), bubbling with praise for Mrs Thatcher’s remodelling of the British economy, away from old manufacturing and towards service industries (like finance), both gleefully looking forward to the ‘Big Bang’ (the deregulation of City institutions, which took place on 27 October 1986).

(It is a clinching sign of defeat, defeat for the cause of the Left and for the study of literature itself, when Robyn’s long-time boyfriend, Charles, writes her a long letter explaining in detail why the 1960s expansion of university education has run out of steam, why the Left is finished as a vanguard force, and why post-structuralist literary studies are absurd – which is why he is packing it all in to become a merchant banker. Robyn flings the letter to the floor and repeats ‘You shit, you utter shit’, but is appalled because so many of his arguments find echoes in her mind. — Towards the end of the book, even Philip Swallow expresses his approval of privatisation; turns out he bought shares in BT which have trebled in value and will now buy many more in the soon-to-be-privatised British Gas. Mrs Thatcher’s strategy of creating a permanent Conservative majority in Britain, a property-owning, share-owning middle class who would never again allow Socialists into government, is shown to be succeeding at the macro and micro level.)

Travel and optimism, stay-at-home pessimism

Changing Places and Small World had a terrific optimism and comic exuberance as their protagonists flew to new countries, new destinations, meeting new people, exploring new ways of life, finding new possibilities.

Nice Work is the opposite. It is notable for the lack of travel. It almost all happens in the grim, post-industrial landscape of Rummidge. Vic Wilcox’s dad is a kind of epitome of anti-travel, refusing to move from his rundown unheated house at the centre of a Victorian terrace, even when a roaring flyover is built just thirty yards from his bedroom window.

The bleak, exhausted heart of England’s industrial rust belt sucks everyone down. Although both its characters have their eyes opened and change (as in the most traditional Victorian novel), it is a much more limited change than the previous novels, where people’s lives were transformed out of all recognition. There is a strong feeling of pessimism, of belatedness, that the Golden Age is over.

Change, it seems, for most of the novel, is only possible if you escape from Rummidge.

  • In part five of the novel, Vic takes Robyn on a 2-day business trip to Frankfurt. He has become besotted with her; she thinks it is fun to flirt. And when they get tipsy at dinner and have a dance at the disco, it is easy for the liberal, open-relationship-believing Robyn to lead Vic to her hotel room and into her bed. The (three) couplings which follow are described with Lodge’s trademark clinical detachment. But abroad – with its sense of physical, emotional and erotic possibilities – is quickly over, as they fly back to Rummidge, and Robyn is appalled to find Vic now hopelessly in love with her, and wanting to divorce his wife, pestering her with phone calls and letters. Before things take a downward turn for both of them.
  • Robyn can only finish the critical book she has been labouring on throughout the novel – Domestic Angels and Unfortunate Females – by fleeing Rummidge (and Vic’s attempts to contact her) for the haven of her parents comfortable house on the South Coast.
  • And when Morris Zapp, the hyper-ambitious American who brought such vim and energy to the earlier novels, makes a cameo appearance at a party of Professor Swallow’s, once again, as in the earlier novels, it is America which seems a land of hope and opportunity. And boundless money.

There was something about Morris Zapp that inspired hope. He had blown into the jaded, demoralised atmosphere of Rummidge University like an invigorating breeze, intimating that there were still places in the world where scholars and critics pursued their professional goals with zestful confidence, where conferences multiplied and grants were to be had to attend them, where conversation at academic parties was more likely to be about the latest controversial book or article than about the latest scaling-down of departmental maintenance grants. (Part six, chapter one)

The possibility of hope

But almost as soon as he’s appeared, Zapp is gone, flying off to yet another conference, leaving Swallow and his wife and Robyn to the bleak realities of higher education under Mrs Thatcher in the abandoned rust belt of a declining power. Soon after which things take a turn for the worse, as Vic is called in by his boss and abruptly dismissed. The rival firm he had been involved in outwitting have made a bid for Pringles which as been accepted and Vic is given a day to clear his desk and leave.

Vic is really the core of the novel, a character so outwith Lodge’s comfort zone of academia, and one of the best scenes is about neither sex nor post-structuralism, but the family meeting he calls when he gets home, with his long-suffering wife and three layabout children and doddery old Dad. And to his surprise they all rally round him. His wife has mistaken his infatuation for Robyn for worry about work and is tearfully relieved that the worst is over and Vic finds he can’t disabuse her, but is touched by the selflessness of her love. And his son turns out to have got a job with a local recording studio and his daughter says she’ll step up her work at the local hair stylist in order to pay her way through uni. It is heart-warming stuff.

While over on Robyn’s side of the plot, she is inundated by rather fairy tale good luck: Morris Zapp phones up, says he loves her book, and offers her a job at Euphoria State; then she finds her Australian uncle has died and left her his entire fortune in his will, all £150,000 of it. Lodge’s soft-hearted humanism shines through these concluding pages; if you’re going to have a corny happy ending, ahh, what the hell, why not go for it?

And so in the final pages Vic turns up back in Robyn’s office, explains he’s been made redundant but feels liberated by it and might have a go at setting up a firm to produce the widget he described to her on their foreign trip. Well, she says, I’ve just come into some money: can I invest in your firm? How much? £100,000. Wow, yes, of course. And they shake hands on it. And Vic blushes as he tells her he has gotten over his crush and has been reconciled with his wife. She congratulates him and writes a dedication in the volume of Tennyson he wants to borrow off her. Keep it, she says.

And on the last page, harassed Head of Department Philip Swallow says, there’s been a slight reprieve in the unemployment situation: the University has been given the freedom to redeploy resources budgeted for one item to another, if necessary. They might be able to pay her salary and extend her contract.

Should she go down to London to accept the marriage proposal from her old boyfriend, Charles, now making a fortune in the City? Should she accept Morris Zapp’s proposal to start a new life in the Californian sun? Or should she stay here, to battle for what she believes in, to try and use her knowledge and natural talent as a teacher to educate, to promote humane values, to try and build a better society?

‘All right,’ she says, turning back to Philip Swallow. ‘I’ll stay on.’

Despite all the anti-human forces to the contrary, Nice Work has a rousing and resoundingly happy ending which brings a tear to the eye.


TV series

The book was made into a four-part BBC television series, broadcast in 1989, starring the wonderfully grumpy Warren Clarke and the appositely aloof Haydn Gwynne, which won the 1989 Royal Television Society award for best drama series. Which makes it all the odder it’s not available on Amazon – though it is on ebay, starting around £20.

Related links

Hardback cover of Nice Work

Hardback cover of Nice Work

David Lodge’s novels

1960 – The Picturegoers
1962 – Ginger, You’re Barmy – Jonathan Browne is fresh from gaining a First in English when he is plunged into National Service among brutal proles and cruel NCOs in a windswept barracks in Yorkshire. Onto this amiable backdrop is nailed a melodramatic story about his friend at university, Mike the ginger-haired renegade of the title, attacking a cruel NCO, being imprisoned, being spring by the IRA, and then forced to return to make a raid on the barracks which Jonathan, by freakish coincidence, ends up foiling.
1965 – The British Museum Is Falling Down – a day in the life of young academic Adam Appleby, unhappy Catholic father of three, who spends a day at the BM failing to do any research and finds himself embroiled in more and more comic complexities, all the time panic-stricken that his wife might be pregnant for an unbearable fourth time.
1970 – Out of the Shelter – the boyhood and teenage years of Timothy Young, child of very ordinary suburban London parents, who is a toddler during the Blitz, a boy at the end of the war, and a teenager when he goes to stay with his older sister in post-war Germany, where he makes all kinds of discoveries about war and peace and life and love.
1975 – Changing Places: A Tale of Two Campuses – It is January 1969 and two English Literature professors are swapping jobs for a term: down-trodden Englishman Philip Swallow is heading for the Californian delights of Euphoria State University, and lit crit superstar Morris Zapp is heading towards rundown rainy Rummidge University. How will they cope with the resulting culture shocks? A hilariously knowing romp, a sophisticated comedy classic.
1980 – How Far Can You Go? – The stories of 10 young Catholics in the 1950s and their adventures as they mature during the 1960s and 70s, larded with lots of commentary about the sweeping changes to Catholic dogma during this period, and lots and lots of clinical descriptions of sex, in a surprisingly flat and unentertaining novel.
1984 – Small World: An Academic Romance – a brilliantly conceived comedy of manners satirising the world of modern literary scholarship with its cast of jetsetting, globe-trotting, back-stabbing, vaultingly ambitious and goatishly lecherous academics, led by the protagonists of Changing Places, but with a whole lot more characters added, all travelling, questing and falling in and out of love in the artfully contrived and very funny modern-day equivalent of a medieval romance.
1988 – Nice Work – feminist literary academic Robyn Penrose reluctantly takes part in the university’s scheme to shadow figures from local industry, being assigned to the equally reluctant Vic Wilcox, Managing Director of J. Pringle and Sons, a local metal-working factory. Initially antagonistic, they open each other’s eyes to new worlds, rather inevitably, fall in love, but then go beyond that to reach a more mature and realistic accord.
1991 – Paradise News
1995 – Therapy
2001 – Thinks …
2004 – Author, Author
2008 – Deaf Sentence
2011 – A Man of Parts

Small World by David Lodge (1984)

‘I was telling a young guy at the conference just this morning. The day of the single, static campus is over.’
‘And the single, static campus novel with it, I suppose?’
‘Exactly! Even two campuses wouldn’t be enough. Scholars these days are like the errant knights of old, wandering the ways of the world in search of adventure and glory.’ (p.63)

This is a long, brilliantly conceived and brilliantly funny novel. It is a sequel ‘of sorts’ to Lodge’s best-selling 1975 hit, Changing Places, in that it includes the two central figures of that novel (the high-flying American academic Morris Zapp and the put-upon dowdy English academic Philip Swallow), but significantly expands the scope to include scores more characters. And it is a long, dense text, half as long again as Changing Places, some 340 pages in the densely-worded Penguin edition. Rich and complex and very funny.

Based on romance

It was a stroke of genius to see that the peripatetic, jet-setting lifestyle of the modern globe-trotting academic and the networks of international colleagues who he or she is continually bumping into at conferences around the world, resembles the tangled interlinking plot structures of late medieval and Renaissance romances, and that an entire novel could be written in which themes and motifs and names and incidents borrowed from that old genre could be recycled to provide the structure, characters and incidents of a 20th-century novel.

The romance genre

Romances flourished as a genre in the high Middle Ages and early Renaissance (1400-1600). They differed from epic or tragedy by their focus on love (rather than war and death), generally between one handsome knight and his lady, and detailed the setbacks and difficulties they encounter before finally being united; although other romances also described quests in search of wisdom or some other object – most famously, the Holy Grail. The hundreds of poems written about the knights of King Arthur come under this heading. One of the longest is the Italian Orlando Furioso (1530), which I haven’t read, and the classic late example is Spenser’s The Faerie Queene (1590-1600), which I have.

The latter is over 1,000 pages long and that’s in its unfinished state. It tells the increasingly complicated stories of a confusing host of knights and their helpers, the damsels they rescue, fall in love with and lose to sorcerers or dragons, and the allegorical places they visit – the Bower of Bliss, the Garden of Adonis etc.

Lodge deploys his academic knowledge of the genre to create a text which pays homage at every level to the conventions of romance (The Faerie Queene is name-checked several times, just to make it obvious). As Cheryl Summerbee, the airport check-in girl, (unexpectedly) explains:

‘Real romance is a pre-novelistic kind of narrative. It’s full of adventure and coincidences and surprises and marvels, and has lots of characters who are lost or enchanted or wandering about looking for each other, or for the Grail, or something like that.’ (p.258)

The text also refers to post-Renaissance works which reference or rework romance, from Keats’s ‘Romantic’ poetry, through to T.S. Eliot, whose Modernist masterwork The Waste Land is also quoted throughout. (There is even an amusing scene where the jet-lagged hero arrives in Lausanne only to find everybody dressed as characters from The Waste Land walking round quoting lines from it. It turns out to be the annual Waste Land festival.)

Romance themes

There are so many characters – at some points a bombardment of characters – and we are so often introduced to them for only half a page before being whisked off to meet others, only returning to the first ones 30 or 40 pages later – and so many incidents, scattered and comic, that only make sense when we return to them after a break and begin to piece them together, and which develop and unfold at distant intervals throughout the book – that the book is more like a soap opera with twenty or more strands all moving forward simultaneously in brief cameos (which is exactly the structure of something like The Fairie Queene).

Given all this, it’s easier to approach the book by looking at the themes it incorporates and some of the characters and events which bring them to life, rather than at the ‘story’. For there is no one story: there is a complex web of storyettes. Storylings. Stortions.

Quest The fundamental theme of romance is the Quest and the core strand in the novel is the quest of young Irish academic Persse McGarrigle (his name reminiscent of the Arthurian Sir Percival) – ignorant of literary theory, the academic racket and still a virgin – for the ravishingly beautiful and dazzlingly intelligent Angelica, who he pursues from conference to conference around the world. Except that she – in a standard but very funny comedy convention – has always just left for the next conference, and so his quest never ends.

Confused identities It is a running joke that, although Persse (thinks he) is passionately in love with the intelligent, enchanting Angelica, she has a twin sister, Lily, who is a stripper. The outraged Persse glimpses Angelica in a porn movie and then at a strip club, both sightings only spurring him on to ‘save’ this poor damsel. At the climax of the novel Persse excitedly loses his virginity to Lily under the impression she is Angelica. Until she reveals she is Lily, whereupon he is distraught. But she then confuses him (and the reader) by saying she’s really Angelica pulling his leg. At which he is deliriously happy. But then confirms she is in fact Lily. All this is designed to show him he is pursuing a ‘dream’, an idealised version of a woman.

In another strand, the homely old spinster, Miss Sibyl Maiden, reveals that she is in fact the long-lost mother of both the girls, who she was forced to abandon 27 years earlier and hasn’t seen since, and in the final scenes of the novel, she is reunited with the ageing academic who (typically) seduced her all those years ago.

Character Romances are often populated by types and allegorical figures. It is part of the pleasure of reading them to see a skillful author orchestrate meetings between ‘characters’ which are also encounters between ‘Chastity’ and ‘Temptation’, or ‘Greed’ and ‘Temperance.’

All the characters in Small World have the same level of ‘realism’ as in other Lodge novels, but they are also quite plainly romance types: Persse is a knight errant, Angelica is his Dark Lady, Miss Maiden is the wise woman who, in one striking scene set at Delphi in Greece, parks herself over a cleft in the rock and has a dizzy spell, accurately predicting the end of the plot – because for that moment she is re-enacting the role of the prophetess or sibyl at Delphi who sat in a chair astride a cleft from which holy gases emerged and prophesied the future. There is the ferociously competitive and beautiful and sexually manipulative female Italian academic, Fulvia Morgana, whose name recalls Morgan le Fay in the Arthurian legends. This wonderfully decadent creation not only lures Morris Zapp back to her apartment for what (he is surprised to discover) is meant to be a threesome, but is also an insouciant Marxist critic, relentlessly unmasking the bourgeois assumptions of literature and criticism alike, while herself enjoying a high-powered jetsetting lifestyle, luxury apartment and fast cars. So, sexually and morally corrupt.

There is a brilliantly funny strand involving Cheryl Summerbee, the check-in girl at Heathrow, who therefore interacts with almost all the characters at some stage. We learn that she brightens up her day by seating people according to how they treat her. Nice polite people get the seats with long leg-room near the exits. Anyone who’s rude gets sat next to the toilets or a mother with two screaming children. We only have to meet her a couple of times before she can be referred to obliquely by characters at parties saying things like, ‘God I had an awful flight; first I got into a row with some chit of a girl at the check-in and then spent 8 hours sitting next to a mother with a screaming baby.’ It gets funnier each time it happens.

In fact, Cheryl also plays the role of guide or helper when she directs Persse to Heathrow’s little-visited underground chapel, and – unexpectedly – actually pulls out a copy of The Faerie Queene when Persse needs to consult one (to discover the meaning of a cryptic reference Angelica has left for him).

Verbally At a simple verbal level Lodge has his characters casually use the language of the romance: they are said to be ‘lured’ into situations, to experience ‘peril’, think of each other as a ‘sorceress’ or a ‘hero’, to cast a ‘spell’ on each other. In these tiny verbal details Lodge very enjoyably brings out his theme – but also demonstrates how much contemporary diction is in fact based on this forgotten world.

Incidents large and small also bear out the theme. I particularly liked the moment when Hilary, the long-suffering wife of weedy Philip Swallow, one of the two protagonists of Changing Places, waves him off as he leaves in an early morning taxi – having stuffed a bundle of pants and socks just out of the tumble dryer into his lap – and finding herself left with an odd sock waves it at the departing husband ‘like a makeshift favour’ (p.168), like the handkerchief or scarf which a fair lady waved at her knight in a joust.

Locations The novel flits around the world following the frantic globe-trotting of its characters, with scenes placed in realistic settings in New York, London, Ireland, Hawaii, Heidelberg, Israel, Australia and so on, in hotel rooms, conference rooms, pubs and bars and cinemas and streets. But some of the locations take on an obvious symbolic meaning, like the underground Chapel at Heathrow (reincarnation of the countless chapels which Arthurian knights seek rest in). And there is rather a lot of hanging round in brothels or strip clubs or porn movie cinemas, which are both ‘realistic’ settings for characters sneaking off for a quiet afternoon to bump into other characters with embarrassing consequences, and more symbolic places of temptation and misunderstanding.

Sterility and fertility T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land was partly based on his reading of Jesse Weston’s  From Ritual to Romance, an early 20th century academic book (1920) identifying the roots of romance in pre-Christian fertility rites associated with spring and the rebirth of the natural world. Thus the novel deals very heavily and thoroughly with sex – not romance – sex, in all positions and circumstances between all possible combinations of characters (see below for more about the sex in the book).

In a rather touching thread the ageing American academic Arthur Kingfisher (a jokey reference to the central role of the Fisher King in The Waste Land, itself a reference to pagan myths about the sterile king presiding over a barren country) has become impotent and associates it with his inability to generate new insights into literature. We meet him at intervals throughout the book, in various hotel rooms, being stimulated by his sexy Korean secretary, Song-mi Lee, and forever wanly failing to get an erection. In the final pages he experiences a physical and mental rebirth and finally gets it up, on the back of which revival of virility he proposes to his secretary, in one of the few actually ‘romantic’ gestures in the novel.

In fact, the closing pages describe a rebirth which affects not just Kingfisher but all the characters in the book.

They are set at the annual mega-conference of the Modern Languages association, the grand-daddy of literary conferences, attended by up to 10,000 academics all jostling for position, networking and seeking jobs. In the novel this one is being held in New York just after Christmas, a city famous for its freezing winters. And yet, at the climax of the novel, there is a freak outbreak of warm weather, characters open the windows to let in sweet spring air and experience epiphanies: Arthur Kingfisher gets an erection, Desirée Zapp (divorced wife of the exuberant Morris Zapp) realises her non-fiction book is good after all, the ageing English novelist, Robert Frobisher, who’s been blocked for eight years, suddenly conceives the first line of a new novel, and so on.

It is a happy ending for most of the characters, and it is based on the theme and numerous incidental details, of fertility arising in the dead land.


 

The business of literature

Maybe this all sounds terribly contrived, but it reads perfectly naturally because the overt subject of the novel is the hectic travel schedules and love lives of a host of modern academics and writers, and since they talk of nothing except literature and sex (and literary theory and jobs and grants and money) it is perfectly reasonable that literature and sex dominate the text.

The ‘story’ is entirely about characters thinking, eating and breathing literature and literary criticism, attending conferences, and writing papers, about Shakespeare or the Romantic poets or Icelandic sagas or Augustan satire or any of a host of other academic subjects which are raised and discussed by all concerned. The content couldn’t be more academic. Therefore, it is entirely appropriate for the entire novel to be based on a literary archetype, and to be strewn with literary references at every level.

And anyone expecting literary critics to spend their time discussing the moral or spiritually elevating nature of the art they handle will be bitterly disillusioned. The text is stuffed with insights, comments and asides on the dog-eat-dog nature of the contemporary academic world, and the cut-throat competition to develop and promulgate the next anti-humanist, technocratic and unconventional literary theory. (There is a handy summary of the ideal career path on page 151.)

Morris Zapp is such a great comic creation because he is the most cynical of careerists – his ambition is to become the highest-paid academic in the world and he explains several times to the naive Persse just how cunning and calculating you have to be to forge a career in modern literary studies – but he is also strangely loveable, unhealthily puffing on his outsize cigars, having long angry phone calls with his venomous ex-wife, sitting in his hotel room watching the porn channel while he explains structuralism to a dazed beginner.


 

Comedy

But many of the situations are straight-out funny without any allusions or special knowledge. The comedy can perhaps be categorised into types:

The extended comic situation A particularly unpleasant academic, the linguist Robin Dempsey (who we saw Philip Sparrow inadvertently pass over for promotion in Changing Places) through a further set of coincidences develops a loathing for Sparrow, whose career (and sex life) go stratospheric once he gets onto the international conference circuit. Dempsey tries out a new experimental computer program being developed on his campus, which is designed to offer the user the probing questions and sympathetic responses of an agony aunt or therapist. Very slowly, Dempsey finds himself spending more time in the computer room typing his problems onto the primitive screen and waiting for the computer’s replies (‘Tell me more about your divorce’) which prompt him to ever-longer frenzies of typing.

It is one of the novel’s funnier strands to return to Dempsey at intervals to witness his slow descent into crippling dependency on the machine, and Lodge’s writing is absolutely pitch perfect in creating the blank, affectless but somehow provoking prose style for the machine.

But the whole gag steps up a gear when the geeky technician who created and maintains the machine starts to get resentful at the amount of time Dempsey is hogging it for, and starts to interfere with the replies, slowly steadily shifting the program’s responses from the neutral to the deliberately provocative. This running gag climaxes withl the stunning moment when Dempsey types, ‘What shall I do?’ and the computer comes back, quick as a flash – ‘Shoot yourself’ – at which moment Dempsey realises he’s been had and his fury is magnificent to behold.

The farcical moment Swallow, on his trip to Turkey, is intimidated by the armed soldiers everywhere and especially intimidated when he and the British Consul and his Turkish host go to pay their respects to the tomb of Atatürk. You’ll be fine, they tell him. Just do everything the Consul does. So they are nervously walking up the guard-lined avenue towards the tomb when the Consul accidentally trips and sprawls headlong – and is astonished to find Swallow manically copying his gesture and throwing himself headlong on the ground beside him.

Character as comic plight The philosopher Henri Bergson said one of the roots of comedy is treating people like machines; there is something funny about predictability. (Tag lines are a sub-set of this approach: viewers of the old TV classic Dad’s Army are waiting for Captain Mainwaring to say ‘Stupid boy’, or Jonesy to say ‘They don’t like it up ’em’ or Fraser to say ‘We’re doomed’. There are innumerable similar tag-lines in hundreds of TV sitcoms.)

Thus one way to create a comic character is to make them embody a plight which they are doomed to mechanically reenact over and over again. So more or less the only thing about the ageing Angry Young novelist Robert Frobisher is his epic writer’s block, which is flung in his face by his wife and mentioned by everyone who knows him, and comes to seem more and more laughable.

Similarly, we keep getting shown the Australian academic Rodney Wainwright, sweating in North Queensland over the paper he’s due to deliver at a conference which hasn’t got past the first paragraph, while he fantasises about all his young students out freely frolicking on the beach. And each time we return to him, his plight seems more intense and funny.

In Turkey we are introduced to Dr Akbil Borak, who will be hosting Philip Swallow on the latter’s lecture visit to Ankara. Swallow has recently published his (very old-fashioned critical book) about the Romantic essayist, William Hazlitt, and so we periodically drop in on Borak throughout the novel, gamely reading his way through the university’s 25-volume edition of the Complete Writings of Hazlitt, and peppering his conversation with quotes from the latest Volume he’s just finished.

Maybe none of these look so funny here, but it’s a testament to Lodge’s brilliant comic timing that we return to each of these characters at unexpected moments, when we’ve more or less forgotten about them, to find them in ever-more inventive and absurd complications of their plights.

Comic dialogue The pompous old Oxford don Rudyard Parkinson is showing off his grand literary connections to a graduate student.

‘I’m not much of an expert on air travel,’ said the young man. ‘A charter flight to Majorca is about the limit of my experience.’
‘Majorca? Ah yes, I remember visiting Robert Graves there once.Did you happen to meet him?’
‘No,’ said the post-graduate. ‘It was a package holiday. Robert Graves wasn’t included.’
Rudyard Parkinson glanced at the young man with momentary suspicion. (p.157)

The one-liner

Hilary snorted derisively. ‘Matthew says that when I run I look like a blancmange in a panic.’ (p.58)

‘There was a story in the paper the other day, about a man who’d had a heart attack and asked his doctor if it was safe to have sexual intercourse, and the doctor said,”Yes, it’s good exercise, but nothing too exciting, just with your wife.”‘ (p.62)


Romance and sex

‘It all comes down to sex, in the end,’ Miss Maiden declared firmly. ‘The life force endlessly renewing itself.’ (p.12)

Before reading David Lodge’s novels, I read about 40 thrillers and spy novels from the 1930s to the 1980s and, despite their reputation, there is actually more sex in one David Lodge novel than in all those 40 thrillers put together. If Lodge’s novels are to be believed, Roman Catholics and literary academics are at it, hammer and tongs, every day. Things get off to a gentle start with the mere ogling of outstanding breasts.

[Persse] inclined his head towards the magnificent bosom, appreciating, now, why Professor Swallow had appeared to be almost nuzzling it in his attempt to read the badge pinned there… (p.9)

[Angela’s] beauty looked a little tousled, and she was out of breath – indeed her bosom was swelling and sinking in the most amazing fashion under the high-necked white silk blouse she was wearing. (p.37)

But anyone who’s read this novel’s predecessor, How Far Can You Go, with its cool and clinical descriptions of sexual activities, won’t be too surprised by the graphicness of the scene where the virginal Persse pops into a porn cinema, supposedly to find out what the fuss is all about.

The images on the screen shifted, close-up gave way to a wider, deeper perspective, and it became apparent that the owner of the vagina had another penis in her mouth, and the owner of the first penis had his tongue in another vagina, whose owner in turn had a finger in someone else’s anus, whose penis was in her vagina; and all were in frantic motion, like the pistons of some infernal machine… The moans and groans rose to a crescendo, the pistons jerked faster and faster, and Persse registered with shame that he had polluted himself. (p.49)

That’s more like the Lodge I’ve gotten used to. And now the subject has been graphically broached, there’s no holding back:

Swallow tells Zapp about the woman he had an affair with years earlier:

Then we made love. There was nothing particularly subtle or prolonged about it, but I’ve never had an orgasm like it, before or since. I felt I was defying death, fucking my way out of the grave. (p.74)

Zapp’s ex-wife, at her writer’s retreat in America, can’t sleep for worry about her new book.

Desirée wonders whether to try and relax with the help of her vibrator, but it is an instrument she uses, as a nun her discipline, more out of principle than real enthusiasm, and besides, the battery is nearly flat, it might run out of juice before she reached her climax – just like a man. (p.87)

Flying to the latest conference, humourless creep Howard Ringbaum tries to get his wife to help him join the Mile High Club.

In the same airplane, some forty metres to the rear of Fulvia Morgana, Howard Ringbaum is trying to persuade his wife Thelma to have sexual intercourse with him, there and then, in the back row of the economy section… ‘Take off your pants and sit on my prick,’ says Howard Ringbaum, unsmilingly. (p.91)

The impotent Arthur Kingfisher receives his nightly attentions from his devoted Oriental acolyte.

Kneeling on the bed beside the man, in the space between his left arm and his left leg, is a shapely young Oriental woman, with long, straight, shining black hair falling down over her golden-hued body. Her only garment is a tiny cache-sexe of black silk. She is massaging the man’s scrawny limbs and torso with a lightly perfumed mineral oil, paying particular attention to his long, thin, uncircumcised penis. (p.93)

Back home in England, Philip snuggles up to his wife, Hilary.

He snuggled up to her spoonwise, curving himself around the soft cushion of her buttocks, passing his arm around her waist and cupping one heavy breast in his hand. Unable to sleep, he became sexually excited, lifted Hilary’s nightdress and began to caress her belly and crotch. She seemed moist and compliant, though he was not sure if she was fully awake… (p.95)

Fulvia Morgana drives Zapp back to her luxury Italian villa and makes it clear she is available.

Morris ran his hands down her back and over her hips. She appeared to be wearing nothing underneath the white robe. He felt desire stirring in him like dull roots after spring rain. (p.136)

Bertha is the wife of ex-Wehrmacht tank driver and fearsome German literary theorist, Siegfried von Turpitz who, in one of the novel’s countless running gags, always wears a black leather glove on one hand to conceal some terrible wartime injury and to intimidate people with.

When he comes to her bed she is not always sure, in the dark, whether it is a penis or a leather-sheathed finger that probes the folds and orifices of her body. (p.144)

Felix Skinner is the disorganised, shabby, randy publisher of Philip Swallow’s bad book about Hazlitt.

Felix Skinner was in fact already back from lunch at the time of Philip Swallow’s phone call. He was, to be precise, in a basement storeroom on the premises of Lecky, Windrush and Bernstein. He was also, to be even more precise, in Gloria, who was bent forwards over a pile of cardboard boxes, divested of her skirt and knickers, while Felix, with his pinstripe trousers around his ankles, and knees flexed in a simian crouch, copulated with her vigorously from behind. (p.160)

In a rather touching plot strand, Philip is reunited in Turkey the woman he had a brief affair with years earlier and, as with almost all Lodge characters, this is the prelude to days and days of love-making.

When the sun shone full upon the window, he angled the blinds so that bars of white-hot light striped Joy’s body, kindling her blonde pubic hair into flame. He called it the golden fleece, mindful that the Hellespont was not far away. When he kissed her there, his beard brushing her belly, he made a wry joke about the silver among the gold… He nuzzled her, inhaling odours of shore and rockpool; the skin of her inner thighs was as tender as peeled mushrooms; she tasted clean and salty, like some mollusc from the sea. (p.226)

And much, much more in the same vein.

Where does all this sex in David Lodge’s novels come from? You could argue that the romances he’s referencing are all about love and fertility; and The Faerie Queene is surprisingly overt about sexual encounters. But obviously nothing like this.

Maybe he’s accurately conveying what it felt like to be born in 1935, to grow up a young man in the ferociously repressed 1950s, and to live on into the astonishingly liberated 1970s (the novel is set in 1979, exactly 10 years after the date of its prequel, Changing Places)? So it is an accurately 20th century recasting of the theme of fertility, it is modern fertility in (all kinds of) action.

And maybe he knows that sex is strange, unpredictable, disruptive, comic in the deeper sense without being laugh-out-loud funny. Sex is where human beings often find a kind of secular redemption, just as often experience disgust and humiliation – but either way, it punctures any pretensions we may have to being ‘higher’, spiritual beings.

Literary criticism as pornography

Also, Lodge is undoubtedly reflecting the trend in Literary Studies in the 1970s to turn away from ‘traditional’ questions of morality and character and towards questions of language and meaning which, unexpectedly – following the sensual evolution of French post-structuralist thinkers like Barthes and Foucault – turned out to be dripping in sexual overtones. (See, for example, the use of the concept of jouissance/orgasm in French literary and feminist theory.) If you think literary criticism is about discussing the moral choices of characters in novels, then modern specialisms like Queer studies will make your hair stand on end.

Thus Zapp – the ahead-of-the-curve, highly professional and competitive American academic – delivers a paper to a conference about ‘Literary Criticism as Striptease’ in which he doesn’t shy away from describing a striptease in detail, and the way the reader/voyeur ends up not only staring at the stripper’s vagina, but closely examining it and trying to escape up it back into the womb! And the heroine, Angelica Pabst, delivers a paper late on in the novel which gives a Freudian explanation of the way that, if epic is the phallic genre and tragedy is about castration, then romance is the vaginal genre, a source of unending desire and fascination but which, once entered, turns out to be an empty space.

Seen from another angle, those other genres are male in that they lead to one-off, generally bloody climaxes, just as male desire all builds through foreplay to the one big ejaculation. Whereas romance is a feminine genre, where complex storylines entwine and lead to numerous climaxes, none of which ends the story, but merely sets the scene for further quests and further climaxes, as a woman can climax multiple times to the man’s one-off effort.

I’ve heard and read English lit papers like that. (What makes it comic is the description of the stunned English audience of Zapp’s rodomontade, the women who noisily walk out, and the young man who faints at the climax of the paper.) These are not exaggerations. In fact they’re both genuinely insightful papers, of the kind that makes and sustains careers in contemporary literary theory.

And they both go some way to explaining how the study of literature – which for our parents was something to do with morality and spiritual values – had become by the 1970s absolutely soaked in sexual language and imagery, creating the perfervid atmosphere in which the academics themselves all too easily give way to the temptation to rut like rabbits.

And expose themselves to the satirical eye of a comic writer of genius like Lodge.


Computers

Worth noting Lodge’s engagement with computers as early as the novel’s setting, 1979. I’ve described the Dempsey-computer plotline at length. Turns out the blocked writer-Robert Frobisher strand is also computer-related. After a disastrous literary party aboard a houseboat on the Thames, a tipsy Frobisher explains to Persse the origin of his block. He was invited to a university where bright young things had been studying his works with the aid of a computer. They had fed it his complete works and then asked it to analyse his style. Thus, during his visit, they ask Frobisher what he thinks his favourite word is (after excluding ‘a’, ‘the’, ‘and’, all the obvious connnectives). Joy, beauty, hope? he wonders. No. ‘Greasy’. ‘Greasy’ is the word he uses more than any other. Along with ‘grim’ and ‘grey’. They rattle off sentences from his oeuvre with these words in. Then reveal lots of other aspects of his style. Then show him pastiche sentences they’ve made up using the computer analysis.

Next morning, back at his desk, Frobisher sits down to write and… can’t. Can’t think of a thing to say which doesn’t include what he now, fatally, knows to be his favourite words or phrases. Tries writing sentences with them and is horrified. Tries writing sentences deliberately avoiding them but they don’t seem right. Stares at the empty page all morning, then gives up. Been like that for the past eight years.

It is a typical Lodge incident: not only does he understand the possibilities of computers, he can already seen their potential for harm as well as good, and for comedy. Positioned where it is – just after the literary party – and told late one drunken night to Persse, it manages to be both very funny and also very sad. Clever, penetrating, very funny, poignant – the Lodge Effect.


This is a brilliant novel, brilliantly clever and brilliantly funny, surely one of the best comic novels in English since the war.

Related links

David Lodge’s novels

1960 – The Picturegoers
1962 – Ginger, You’re Barmy – Jonathan Browne is fresh from gaining a First in English when he is plunged into National Service among brutal proles and cruel NCOs in a windswept barracks in Yorkshire. Onto this amiable backdrop is nailed a melodramatic story about his friend at university, Mike the ginger-haired renegade of the title, attacking a cruel NCO, being imprisoned, being spring by the IRA, and then forced to return to make a raid on the barracks which Jonathan, by freakish coincidence, ends up foiling.
1965 – The British Museum Is Falling Down – a day in the life of young academic Adam Appleby, unhappy Catholic father of three, who spends a day at the BM failing to do any research and finds himself embroiled in more and more comic complexities, all the time panic-stricken that his wife might be pregnant for an unbearable fourth time.
1970 – Out of the Shelter – the boyhood and teenage years of Timothy Young, child of very ordinary suburban London parents, who is a toddler during the Blitz, a boy at the end of the war, and a teenager when he goes to stay with his older sister in post-war Germany, where he makes all kinds of discoveries about war and peace and life and love.
1975 – Changing Places: A Tale of Two Campuses – It is January 1969 and two English Literature professors are swapping jobs for a term: down-trodden Englishman Philip Swallow is heading for the Californian delights of Euphoria State University, and lit crit superstar Morris Zapp is heading towards rundown rainy Rummidge University. How will they cope with the resulting culture shocks? A hilariously knowing romp, a sophisticated comedy classic.
1980 – How Far Can You Go? – The stories of 10 young Catholics in the 1950s and their adventures as they mature during the 1960s and 70s, larded with lots of commentary about the sweeping changes to Catholic dogma during this period, and lots and lots of clinical descriptions of sex, in a surprisingly flat and unentertaining novel.
1984 – Small World: An Academic Romance – a brilliantly conceived comedy of manners satirising the world of modern literary scholarship with its cast of jetsetting, globe-trotting, back-stabbing, vaultingly ambitious and goatishly lecherous academics, led by the protagonists of Changing Places, but with a whole lot more characters added, all travelling, questing and falling in and out of love in the artfully contrived and very funny modern-day equivalent of a medieval romance.
1988 – Nice Work
1991 – Paradise News
1995 – Therapy
2001 – Thinks …
2004 – Author, Author
2008 – Deaf Sentence
2011 – A Man of Parts

Visions of War Above and Below @ Imperial War Museum London

The Imperial War Museum owns a collection of almost 20,000 artworks, including paintings, prints and drawings, sculptures and other works in photography, sound and film. Not only did it inherit the works of Official War Artists both famous and less well-known produced during the two world wars, but the Museum has also bought or commissioned works covering more recent and contemporary conflicts, including Northern Ireland, the Falklands, Bosnia, Iraq and Afghanistan.

The challenge for curators must be finding new and interesting ways of selecting from this vast portfolio. In the exhibition rooms on the third floor, opposite the Peter Kennard show, is a new exhibition of works illustrating the theme of war seen from above, and from below.

Not all the works are masterpieces. Not all the artists are masters. But it is a welcome opportunity to explore paintings which are rarely seen, and discover new names among the more familiar ones.

©IWM (Art.IWM ART 3082) Damascus and the Lebanon Mountains from 10,000 Feet by Richard C. Carline, 1920 Oil on canvas

Damascus and the Lebanon Mountains from 10,000 Feet by Richard C. Carline (1920) Oil on canvas © IWM

The theme of ‘Above’ tends is pretty consistently the view from airplanes and bombers (it might have been interesting to have something about Zeppelins or V1 and V2 rockets). For example, the large painting of Damascus and the Lebanon Mountains which dominates the first room, as well as Dogfight 1919 by Harold Wyllie and the hilarious Follow The Führer by Paul Nash.

Not really an art work at all, I was struck by a display of technical diagrams detailing how an Allied air raid should be carried out, the sequence of flares and then bombs which ought to be dropped in such and such a pattern over such and such a target. A subject harrowingly depicted in Len Deighton’s 1970 masterpiece, Bomber.

The works are predominantly realistic or at least figurative, with a few more contemporary exceptions such as Night Flight by Harry Hellawell.

© The artist's estate (Art.IWM ART 17165) Night Flight by Harry Hellawell, 1980 Mixed media on paper

Night Flight by Harry Hellawell (1980) Mixed media on paper © The artist’s estate

Peter Kalkhof’s Stealth is a large striking painting, the silver fragments representing the disorienting affect of stealth technology on enemy radar, which breaks up the solid image of the plane into scraps and shreds, as the painting does.

©The Artist’s Estate (Art.IWM ART 16824) Stealth by Peter Kalkhof, 1995 Acrylic on canvas

Stealth by Peter Kalkhof (1995) Acrylic on canvas © The Artist’s Estate

The theme of ‘Below’ is a bit more varied, with images of air raid shelters and submarines. David Bomberg is a favourite British modernist, all Vorticist angles, and is represented here by a vividly claustrophobic image of Canadian sappers, or combat engineers, at work.

©IWM (Art.IWM ART 2708) Sappers at Work Canadian Tunnelling Company, R14, St Eloi by David Bomberg, 1918 Charcoal on paper

Sappers at Work Canadian Tunnelling Company, R14, St Eloi by David Bomberg (1918) Charcoal on paper © IWM

Much though I warm to modernist and abstract art, for me the stand-out pieces were a couple of ravishingly realistic pastels of men in a submarine created by Francis Dodd in 1918. The detailing of the engines is powerfully conveyed but it is the faces of the men which leap out at you, astoundingly individuated, you can hear their voices, intuit their characters and movements. Stunning.

The Engine Room; Repairing a Diesel, HM Submarine by Francis Dodd RA (1918) Crayon and pastel on paper © IWM

The Engine Room; Repairing a Diesel, HM Submarine by Francis Dodd RA (1918) Crayon and pastel on paper © IWM

Next to Dodd’s two paintings were a couple of lithographs from Eric Ravilious’s Submarine series, made 20 years later, during the second war (Google images of Ravilious’s Submarine pictures) These were pretty much the lightest and most luminous works in this small but stimulating show. (Anyone who likes them is encouraged to go and see the wonderful exhibition of Ravilous at Dulwich Picture Gallery until 31 August.)

If you’re passing anywhere near the Imperial War Museum, this and the Peter Kennard show – both on the third floor and both free! – make for a packed, varied and very rewarding experience.

Related links


Reviews of other Imperial War Museum exhibitions

Peter Kennard @ Imperial War Museum London

A five-room retrospective of the 50-year career of Peter Kennard, the English master of political photomontage. It’s free and on for another year, it is inventive and interesting – so no excuses for not checking it out.

Biography

Kennard’s career started in 1968 when he was a student and witnessed at first hand the violent confrontations between students and police of that year: here in the UK, in France and America, and behind the Iron Curtain in Czechoslovakia. He quickly established a fiercely left-wing, polemically accessible visual style based on cutting up and juxtaposing photographic, magazine-style images to create startling montages, which became familiar to readers of the Guardian newspaper or New Statesman magazine in the 1970s, and especially the 1980s.

©Peter Kennard Crushed Missile (1980) Original photomontage

©Peter Kennard Crushed Missile (1980)
Original photomontage

The exhibition reveals Kennard’s artistic practice to be wide-ranging, including straight oil paintings, photomontage and sculptures. The show proceeds in roughly chronological order, establishing that, not only has he been a prolific creator of images for newsprint, magazines and posters, but conforms to the more traditional artistic practice of creating works grouped by theme or technique.

STOP (1968-72)

Still a student reeling from the disorientating political violence of the 1960s, Kennard created a series named STOP. He wanted to produce a more immediate and approachable art and so, in this series, used a photographic enlarger to transfer photographic images to canvas, along with the accompanying ‘dirtying’ marks and blotches, as if the image is the result of a rough, crude, industrial process.

©Peter Kennard STOP 30, (1970) oil and canvas

©Peter Kennard STOP 30 (1970) oil and canvas

His whole approach is here in embryo: a left-wing, politicised image featuring the police/military, handling sleek shiny weapons – set against an image of the ‘victim’: women, the Irish, beaten-up protesters, the starving millions in the Third World.

It was the late 60s/early 70s, so the writings of Marxist playwright Bertolt Brecht were very current, particularly his theory of the ‘alienation effect’ – that people must be moved by a work of art, but not in a lulling way that reinforces their ‘bourgeois’ sensibilities (eg such as the Impressionist works currently on display at the National Gallery); they must be able to see how the work is made, and made to realise that the entire ‘reality’ around them – in the papers and media, TV, adverts and movies – is as constructed, as smoothed and airbrushed as a pop star’s publicity pictures.

Reacting against this smoothness, the radical committed art work must foreground its own constructedness and thus show people that everything is constructed. That is part of the process of helping people to realise that society doesn’t need to be this way. This society is a construction and it could be constructed differently, more fairly and justly, without exploiters and exploited, without the grotesque inequalities in wealth and life experiences which capitalist society says, via every channel available, are sad and regrettable but, alas, unchangeable. It is not unchangeable. There are alternatives. We don’t have to live this way.

So the raggedyness of the montages and other works is part of the message.

The 1970s and 1980s

One room is devoted to maybe a hundred of his images – posters on stands and display cases showing scores of covers of New Statesmen magazine or special features in The Guardian, illustrated by Kennard. I recognised loads of them and realised his cutout style was a dominant visual motif of the strife-torn 70s and then the violent and fearful 1980s.

©Peter Kennard Protect and Survive (1981) Photomontage on paper

©Peter Kennard Protect and Survive (1981)
Photomontage on paper

I rather wished the display had separated out the 1970s and the 1980s.

The 1970s were dominated by the power of the trades unions and the feebleness of successive governments, whether Labour led by Harold Wilson and Jim Callaghan or Conservative led by Ted Heath, in dealing with them or with the numerous economic shocks which played havoc with the British economy and society at large: namely, the 1973 Oil Crisis which led to the Three-Day-Week and the slow strangled death of the old heavy industries – coal and steel and car- and ship-building – which needed more and more state intervention to compete against younger international rivals.

But if the Left thought it had a strong case and was fighting a tough battle in the 1970s, it turned out to be as nothing compared to the 1980s, when America was led by two-term President Ronald Reagan and Britain rejoiced in the premiership of Mrs Thatcher (1979-1990).

Not only did Mrs T tackle the trades unions head on with punitive and restrictive legislation, but provoked and then won the bitter year-long Miners’ Strike (recently featured in Tate Britain’s Fighting History exhibition), hugely reduced state support for heavy industry, before stumbling across the money-making device of privatising government-owned industries.

Thatcher’s premiership was saved by the patriotic Falklands War and, along with her soul mate across the Atlantic, she engaged in strident and confrontational rhetoric directed at the Soviet Union, notoriously described by Reagan’s speech-writers as ‘the Evil Empire’. The deployment of cruise missiles carrying nuclear warheads to Greenham Common in Berkshire in 1982 led to an escalation in fear among ordinary people, and political activism on the Left against what seemed to many the real and present possibility that there might be some kind of a conflict, whether by accident or design, a Third World War, a nuclear holocaust which would wipe out humanity.

Kennard responded with numerous images which tackled all these issues head-on in vivid cutups and montages – missiles bursting forth from planet earth, from soldiers’ heads, from the bodies of starving Third World children, Mrs Thatcher cutting off life support to a baby, the earth devastated by an oil explosion, people being forced to eat money.

Among the many vibrant, compelling (and bitterly funny) images of the era is his montage of cruise missiles superimposed on Constable’s famous painting of rural idyll, The Haywain.

© Peter Kennard Haywain with Cruise Missiles (1981) Original Photomontage

© Peter Kennard Haywain with Cruise Missiles (1981) Original photomontage

Looking back, we can see that Mrs Thatcher represented the end of the old Left, as defined in the 1960s, which had dragged itself on across the violent, strife-torn 1970s. A rump fought on throughout the 1980s but against steeper and steeper odds, surviving the defection of the Social Democrats; and then the old ‘hard’ Left was marginalised into insignificance by the election of New Labour in 1997. New Labour was ‘new’ in that it had successfully jettisoned all the policies which made it unelectable throughout the 1980s, but which had also made Labour distinctive (unilateral nuclear disarmament, mass nationalisation of key industries, reinstatement of trade union rights etc).

Protest movements continue to this day, outraged by the West’s wars or the crimes of the bankers, but seem small-scale and ineffective compared to the permanent ongoing sense of crisis and fear, the mass strikes, the marches and street fighting with the police, which I remember from the 1980s.

That era was probably Kennard’s heyday and most prolific period, and this room – festooned with posters, newspaper and magazine covers, all sporting his harsh, brilliant images – brings it all back.

©Peter Kennard Warhead 1 (1981) Original photomontage

©Peter Kennard Warhead 1 (1981) Original photomontage

Newspaper (1994)

A series of cases containing real copies of financial newspapers, often the Financial Times, onto which Kennard has photocopied his own hand or arm, or those of an obviously emaciated Third World victim, clutching and clawing and tearing the paper. Reminding us of the realities of exploitation – generally far away in developing countries – which underpin our comfortable lifestyles in the West.

©Peter Kennard Newspaper 1 (1994) Carbon toner, oil, charcoal, pastel on newspaper, wood

©Peter Kennard Newspaper 1 (1994) Carbon toner, oil, charcoal, pastel on newspaper, wood

Reading Room (1997)

In the same room, a series of cases showing double spread broadsheet newspapers over which Kennard has drawn in charcoal, smudged and blurred, large and haunting faces of the poor and dispossessed.

The wall panel explains it stems in part from memories of going to Paddington library as a boy, where the papers were set up on tall wooden lecterns which helped lend them an aura of authority and permanence. Whereas, of course, the newspapers are man-made like anything else, and tell anything but the truth, generally retailing distracting garbage about celebrities or validating the behaviour of big business and politicians as if they know best, as if they are acting in our best interests…

Decoration (2002-2003)

Five of these very big portrait-shaped works open the show dramatically. They are digital prints worked over in oil. Inspired by the Gulf War they depict campaign medals and ribbons, the ribbons made from the tattered flags of the UK and US and the medals themselves icons of death and destruction, such as shattered bloody helmets, or the hooded body of an Iraqi ‘prisoner’.

© Peter Kennard Decoration 8 (2003-4) Oil and pigment on canvas

© Peter Kennard
Decoration 8 (2003-4)
Oil and pigment on canvas

Face (2002-3)

It will be seen from Newspaper, Reading Room and Decoration that Kennard’s art incorporates a lot more than the photomontages which made him famous. Face is another departure, a series of medium size canvases, very dark, in which you can just about make out the lineaments of human faces, portraits almost buried in the gloom and – as with victims everywhere – eerily depicted without mouths.

Boardroom (2015)

The fifth and final room is small and comprises one work, the installation Boardroom, festooned with images and posters pinned to the wall and hanging from protruding supports, as well as the business cards or logos of the world’s great multinational corporations, while the handrail around the room is covered with ‘shocking’ statistics, designed to outrage us, galvanise us, inspire us to rise up and overthrow this wicked, militaristic and greedy society. (See photo at the end of this post)

Heartfield – Kennard – Banksy

Having studied 1930s politics and art at school then at university I was fairly familiar with the photomontages of John Heartfield, born Helmut Herzfeld, a radical artist active between the wars, an early member of the German communist party and the German branch of Dada, an extremely prolific creator of satirical photomontages.

The Meaning of the Hitler Salute: Little man asks for big gifts.

The Meaning of the Hitler Salute: Little man asks for big gifts by John Heartfield

Heartfield fled the Nazis in 1938 and returned to East Germany after the war. Interestingly, his Wikipedia article states:

In 1967, he visited Britain and began preparing a retrospective exhibition of his work, photomontages, which was subsequently completed by his widow Gertrud and the Academy of Arts, Berlin, and shown at the ICA in London in 1969. (Source: Wikipedia)

1969. Just the time Kennard was defining his own artistic practice and approach. Kennard has explained the way the ‘alienation effect’ of photomontage has a vividly political aim:

That sense of ripping into an image, unveiling a surface, going through that surface into an unrevealed truth, is at the core of photomontage. I sit in a room with the tools of my trade and try to pummel these pictures into revealing invisible connections.

There is a direct lineage. No Heartfield, no Kennard.

But various people have made a further connection between Kennard’s deliberately populist, accessible practice and the street, anti-art of Banksy – not only in ‘attitude’ but in actual visual style. The screaming face in STOP 30 looks exactly a piece of Banksy graffiti, as does the whole idea of making unexpected juxtapositions, like the rioter throwing flowers, designed to make you ‘think’.

Rioter throwing flowers by Banksy

Rioter throwing flowers by Banksy

And on the cover of the book of the Kennard exhibition, there is a quote from Banksy: ‘I take my hat off to you Sir.’

No Heartfield, no Kennard.
No Kennard, no Banksy.

Conclusion

I was, probably unfairly, amused to exit the exhibition into the shop and be confronted by the ‘Peter Kennard range: poster £8, book £12.99, T shirt £18.’

It is as if we have to go into a special space to feel our outrage, an Outrage Chamber, to get very irate about the amount the US spends on weapons, the number of people living below the poverty line, the fact that the 85 richest people own as much as the poorest 3.5 billion people on the planet etc etc and all the other scarifying statistics which fill the Boardroom installation and the exhibition book — and then step out of the Outrage Chamber back into our real lives, where we dilly-dally, wondering whether to buy the book and the poster, whether our rather lefty nephew might like the t-shirt, or whether there’s time for a coffee at the nice new IWM café.

I am still digesting the argument of Gerard DeGroot’s popular history, The Seventies Unplugged which I read a few weeks ago. He argues that the political activities of all types of radical in that decade woefully overestimated the number of people who saw the world like them – ie as a swamp of corporate greed and political oppression requiring comprehensive overthrow – and lamentably underestimated the number of people who actively want an ordered, conventional society with a strong police force, the unions kept in their place, established social and cultural conventions, the possibility of getting a job, buying a house and a car, and the annual holiday in the sun. Most people want normal.

And looking at the nicely laid-out display of Kennard t-shirts and books and posters, all supposedly meant to prompt us towards revolt and rebellion, made me think that even radicals like things more or less the way they are: to camp out in front of banks or march through Whitehall, enjoy a bit of fisticuffs with the cops, and then home for a nice shower and an evening playing on their X-boxes or watching I’m a Celebrity, texting each other on their Samsung phones, posting photos of their radicalism on Facebook.

Kennard’s art is innovative, visually exciting and energising, consistently inventive and his lifelong commitment to a cause is impressive and moving, and his art may well have prompted revelation and politicisation in many of its viewers over the past 40 years, leading them to take up causes, to protest against nuclear weapons, to march against the Iraq War.

But the cruise missiles came to Greenham Common, regardless. Mrs Thatcher was elected three times, destroyed the unions, privatised industry, introduced market forces to the NHS, regardless. Ronald Reagan’s hair-raising rhetoric in the end forced the Soviet Union into bankruptcy, despite all his clever critics. Blair and Bush took us into the Iraq War, regardless of all the photos and t-shirts and posters and marches, despite millions protesting. Because many millions more acquiesced in it or actively supported it.

And who just won the election? The opponents of everything Kennard believes in.

© IWM Portrait of Peter Kennard 2015

Peter Kennard in his new installation The Boardroom, part of Peter Kennard: Unofficial War Artist, at Imperial War Museum London.

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Reviews of other Imperial War Museum exhibitions

How Far Can You Go? by David Lodge (1980)

Ten characters is a lot to take in all at once, and soon there will be more, because we are going to follow their fortunes, in a manner of speaking, up to the present, and obviously they are not going to pair off with each other, that would be too neat, too implausible, so there will be other characters not yet invented, husbands and wives and lovers, not to mention parents and children, so it is important to get these ten straight now… (p.14)

This is a strangely unattractive and unenjoyable book. It has most of Lodge’s virtues (plain prose, social history, well-observed humour, plausible characters) but a fair few of his vices as well. Overall it fails. Why? Because it is more like a report or an essay in social history than a novel. It contains lots of historical generalisations, along with lengthy disquisitions on Catholic theology or literary theory – but relatively few actual scenes featuring specific characters. As a result it doesn’t engage the imagination. It is a bit boring and a bit earnest, as Lodge himself is aware.

This book is not a comic novel, exactly, but I have tried to make it smile as much as possible. (p.74)

Tricks

Anyone familiar with Lodge’s previous novels will be asking themselves what literary tricks or structural novelties will he be deploying this time? The most obvious ones are:

  1. this is a group biography – we follow, in a very programmatic way, the lives of ten characters, young students when we meet them in 1952, through to the early 1970s ie some 20 years
  2. it is told by a highly intrusive narrator

Themes

The novel is swamped by two themes which dominate and overshadow everything else:

  1. Roman Catholicism It is about the revolutionary changes in Catholic belief and practice between 1952 and 1973.
  2. Sex And it is about how sex – the fear of sex, the ban on using contraceptives for sex, the ignorance of sex, the slow discovery of the joys of sex – dominated the lives of Catholics from the 1950s to the 1970s. This involves numerous descriptions of all the characters’ sexual activities told in graphic but strangely clinical detail. More than enough.

Group biography

The simple polarity of Changing Places made it easy to process: bumbling Brit goes to California; high-powered Yank is dumped in the Midlands. Compare and contrast their parallel adventures. Their wives were the moons of these two planets, easy enough to remember and get to know, with a number of lesser characters dangling from them in states of greater or lesser vividness. Easy to visualise, assimilate and follow.

By contrast this, its successor novel, sets out to depict no fewer than ten main characters and, since they marry others, an extra ten or so secondary ones. Despite reading the opening chapter twice, I still found it difficult to remember all their names and characteristics and was forced to make a list to refer to:

  1. Dennis, burly youth in a duffel coat, Chemistry student, in love with…
  2. Angela, attractive blonde, French student, Head Girl at her Merseyside convent school
  3. Adrian, wears glasses
  4. Michael, a dark slab of greasy hair falling forward over a snub-nosed white face, thinks continually of women’s breasts and masturbates compulsively
  5. Polly, posh convent boarding school, touches herself as she falls asleep but would be horrified if you suggested it was ‘masturbation’
  6. Ruth, thickset, bespectacled, flat-chested, plain, converted to Catholicism in adolescence thus horrifying her agnostic parents
  7. Edward, first-year medical student with a rubbery comic countenance
  8. Miles, ex-public schoolboy, a convert, posh, repressed homosexual
  9. Violet, small, dark-haired, pale, eczema, bitten-down fingernails, melodramatic, marries her tutor
  10. Father Austin Brierly, devout priest who is destined to have his eyes opened by the theological revolutions of the 1960s and 70s, leading him eventually to leave the priesthood

We meet them all together in 1952, in a gloomy Catholic church where they habitually assemble for pre-lecture Masses. The narrative then progresses programmatically through the next 20 years or so, observing the characters’ various pairings-off, marriages, children, divorces etc. And their sex lives.

The chapter headings give a clear indication of how schematic the approach is going to be:

  1. How It Was
  2. How they Lost Their Virginities
  3. How Things Began To Change
  4. How They Lost The Fear Of Hell
  5. How They Broke Out, Away, Down, Up, Through, etc.
  6. How They Dealt With Love and Death
  7. How It Is

The Intrusive Narrator

It is well known that one of the central challenges of telling a story is deciding what kind of narrator you’re going to have.

You can have a story narrated by one of the characters – a first-person narrator, very immediate, very powerful, particularly where the narrator is finding something out. A variation on this is the Unreliable Narrator, who, in telling their story, reveals that they don’t know about or understand everything that’s going on. A clever author can make the reader aware of things the unreliable narrator hasn’t spotted or grasped, making for Dramatic Irony between what we know and they don’t know.

Or a story can be recounted by a third person narrator, of which there are several flavours.

The Omniscient Narrator knows everything that is going on and recounts it authoritatively, keeping their own character and opinions rigorously hidden. They recount it as it happens. Most of the thrillers I’ve been reading recently are like this; for example, The Day of The Jackal, with its scrupulously factual, dry, emotionless presentation by an omniscient narrator.

The polar opposite is the Intrusive Narrator, a teller with a character and opinions. Historically, most narrators have in fact been quite intrusive: the narrator of Henry Fielding’s Tom Jones, an early classic of the novel genre (1748), starts each chapter with a little essay about fiction or the story or characters. Similarly inclined to buttonhole the reader with their opinions and interpretations are the narrators in novels by William Thackeray, Dickens, George Eliot and Tolstoy. In fact, the non-intrusive ‘clinical’ narrator is a relatively modern invention, a creature of the end of the 19th century, and becoming dominant in so-called genre fiction – spy novels, thrillers – where the illusion of scientific accuracy is important.

Lodge the Intrusive Narrator

Continuing his habit of experimenting with narrative forms, Lodge makes the narrator of this novel very intrusive. From the start he is dropping in little explanations of Catholic theology like an overhelpful teacher.

As they murmur their responses (it is a dialogue mass, a recent innovation designed to increase lay participation in the liturgy) … (1981 Penguin paperback edition, p.1)

The priest on the altar turns, with a swish of his red vestments (it is a martyr’s feast day, St Valentine’s) … (p.2)

Attendance at mass on ordinary weekdays is supererogatory (a useful word in theology, meaning more than is necessary for salvation) … (p.3)

But he also wants to give us a similar helping hand to understand the characters he’s created and the world they live in.

Before we go any further it would probably be a good idea to explain the metaphysic or world-picture these young people had acquired from their Catholic upbringing and education. (p.6)

Note the ‘we’. It is like the academic ‘we’. ‘In this paper we will explore the ways Shakespeare demonstrates blah blah blah.’ Sometimes the intrusive narrator uses this ‘we’, but more often – and more intrusively – Lodge intervenes as himself, ‘I’.

Initially, I thought, this could be any ‘I’, a fictional ‘I’ – the ‘I’ telling a story, obviously doesn’t need to be the same as the author. Except that Lodge goes out of his way to identify the ‘I’ of this novel with himself, the real historical David Lodge.

Thus, when one of the characters in the book goes off to do his National Service, the narrator mentions that he has already written a novel about National Service. He is referring, of course, to Lodge’s second novel, Ginger, You’re Barmy (‘I have described it in detail elsewhere’ p.37). And when he describes the young married Catholic couples’ attempts to implement the Church’s Rhythm Method of birth control, he mentions (at length) the fact that he’s also written a novel on this subject (The British Museum Is Falling Down):

They relied upon periodic abstinence as a way of planning their families, a system known as Rhythm or Safe Method, which was in practice neither rhythmical nor safe. I have written about this before, a novel about a penurious young Catholic couple whose attempts to apply the Safe Method have produced three children in as many years, and whose hopes of avoiding a fourth depend precariously on their plotting a day-to-day graph of the wife’s body-temperature to determine the time of her ovulation, and confining their enjoyment of conjugal love to the few days between this putative event and the anxiously awaited onset of her period. It was intended to be a comic novel and most Catholic readers seemed to find it funny, especially priests, who were perhaps pleased to learn that the sex life they had renounced for a higher good wasn’t so marvellous after all. Some of these priests have told me that they lent the book to people dying of terminal diseases and how it cheered them up, which is fine by me – I can’t think of a better reason for writing novels – but possibly these readers, too, found it easier to bid farewell to the pleasures of the flesh when they were depicted as so hemmed about with anxiety. Healthy agnostics and atheists among my acquaintance, however, found the novel rather sad. All that self-denial and sacrifice of libido depressed them. I think it would depress me, too, now, if I didn’t know that my principal characters would have made a sensible decision long ago to avail themselves of contraceptives. (p.74)

The Boring Narrator In, say Tom Jones or Tristram Shandy, the intrusive narrator emerges as the most entertaining and amusing character in the text. What’s striking about the long sections in this novel written in Lodge’s own voice is how flat and dull they are: they strike just the same lucid, sober, informative tone he uses in the afterwords to the 1980s reprints of his early novels, where he lucidly and plainly explains what inspired them and the biographical details behind them.

It is engaging enough, in those contexts, as memoir or autobiography. But it is not fiction, it is factual explication. Only in the last sentence in the passage quoted above does the narrator ‘remember’ that he’s writing a novel not an essay. ‘Oh yes. My characters…’ Lots of this book feels like that and is deliberately meant to. He will launch on a five-page explanation of Catholic theology, thinking he can redeem these dry and tendentious passages with a larky phrase or two, but he can’t. I am bored and alienated.

Academic mind-set and style Although the passage quoted above is all about the ‘I’ narrator, in fact the most important word in it is ‘they’. Numerous sections convey the passage of time and the fate of his characters en masse, all grouped together – ‘they this’, ‘they that’. The approach, the mind-set, the tone of voice, is of a magazine essay, an article in History Now, discussing ‘a generation’.

For Dorothy and Adrian, Tessa and Edward, Miriam and Michael, Angela and Dennis, then in the early sixties, it was babies, babies, all the way. Nappies, bottles, colic, broken nights, smells of faeces and ammonia, clothes and furniture stained with dribble and sick. Well, that was all right. They were prepared to put up with all that… (p.74)

Of the four couples, Edward and Tessa probably suffered least under the regime of the Safe Period, for several reasons. They were comparatively well-off, they wanted a large family anyway, and they managed to space their first three children at two-year intervals without much difficulty. (p.77)

If you add the words ‘in this study’ after ‘Of the four couples’ to make ‘Of the four couples in this study…’ it brings out how this flat academic language – and the rational enumeration of reasons which follows – could easily come from some social history or sociology report or paper. It doesn’t live. It’s sort of interesting, in the way a good academic paper is, or his afterwords and essays are. But it’s not dramatised, it’s barely ‘fiction’.

They [the couples in our study] had been indoctrinated since adolescence with the idea, underlined by several Papal pronouncements, that contraception was a grave sin, and a sin that occupied a unique place in the spiritual game of Snakes and Ladders. For unlike other sins of the flesh, it had to be committed continuously and with premeditation if it was to have any point at all. It was not, therefore, something that could be confessed and absolved again and again in good faith, like losing one’s temper, or getting drunk, or, for that matter, fornicating. (A nice question for casuists: was fornication more or less culpable if committed using contraceptives?) It excluded you from the sacraments, therefore; and according to Catholic teaching of the same vintage, if you failed to make your Easter Duty (confession and communion at least once a year, at Easter or thereabouts) you effectively excommunicated yourself. So, either you struggled on as best you could without reliable contraception, or you got out of the Church; these seemed to be the only logical alternatives. Some people, of course, had left precisely because they could no longer believe in the authority of a Church that taught such mischievous nonsense. (p.79)

Historical references The narrator peppers the text with references to contemporary history. Many paragraphs start with a potted summary of a specific year and its key events before going on to tell us what happened to the couples in our study during that year. This is quite an easy-going way to revise your post-war 20th century history…. but not really fiction. They remind me of the school-level background notes, or even the voiceover in some ‘100 Greatest Hits of the 60s’-type, cheap TV show.

England was less boring in 1956 than it had seemed to Polly in the coffee bar with Michael the year before. At Easter there was the first CND march. The Outsider and Look Back In Anger made a great stir and the newspapers were full of articles about Britain’s Angry Young Men. In the autumn there was the Suez crisis and the Hungarian uprising. (p.48)

In the same year that Masters and Johnson published the results of their sex research, England won the World Cup at football, which millions saw as the bestowal of a special grace on the nation; John Lennon boasted that the Beatles were more popular than Jesus Christ and, to the disappointment of many, was not struck dead by a thunderbolt. (p.102)

They’re chatty enough, but add to the sense that the text is more full of notes and lectures and historical reminders, than it is of fully-imagined fiction.

All this helps explain why the book feels less like a novel and more like a sequence of episodes calculated to bring out pre-determined themes. But it’s in the many long sections explaining Catholic theology that the narrator crosses a line from being mildly entertaining popular historian into a determined and oppressive lecturer.

Catholicism

All the fancy structuring and self-referential narrator and occasional comic moments can’t really conceal the thumping obviousness of the subject of the novel. Young Catholic students were innocent and miserable back in the 1950s. They married and had children and were poor and slaved away, especially the women, as was expected of them. But then, during the 1960s, they slowly learned to drop their silly life-hampering beliefs and experienced various forms of liberation and freedom.

I don’t know why I didn’t warm to this story, except that I feel I’ve read it so many times before, from so many of the novelists a generation older me, who all experienced the same thing and are all at great pains to tell me all about it.

Since the novel’s dominating theme is the radical changes to Catholic teaching during this period and the impact this had on ‘the couples in our study’, Catholic teaching has to appear in the text and, probably, has to be fairly thoroughly explained in order for us to understand the revolutionary changes it underwent.

But dropping 3-, 4- or 5-page passages of unleavened factual explanation into the text damages any sense that this is fiction, a novel, rather than a series of articles or papers. Along with the Brody’s Notes-level historical references and the programmatic approach to the characters, the long passages of Catholic exposition teach you to read the text in encyclopedia mode, with the factual part of the mind. The net result is that you almost resent the return to the rather silly sections with fictional characters in. Why not go whole hog, and turn it into a personal essay on the subject?

The Lecturing Narrator A good example is his treatment of Humanae Vitae, the long-awaited proclamation on birth control which was finally promulgated in 1968. After all the liberalising tendencies unleashed by the Second Vatican Council (1962-65), Humanae Vitaie cruelly disappointed reformers by not conceding an inch to the new ‘permissive society’, instead robustly affirming the Church’s traditional, stifling and wildly impractical teachings about sexual relations and birth control. Lodge spends three pages (pp.113-115) explaining its contents and the events around its publication, but this turns out to be just the prologue:

Let me explain. (Patience, the story will resume shortly.) (p.115)

There follow another five-and-a-half pages (pp.116-121) of closely-written, completely factual exposition, which could be extracted from a highbrow magazine article or part of an academic textbook, explaining why the Church’s teachings on birth control have central importance to faith, because they imply an entire worldview about the human body and its purpose.

The text – the ‘story’, such as it is – once again simply grinds to a halt. And it seems to me that Lodge using his intrusive narrator to make a joke of it – ‘(Patience, the story will resume shortly)’ – can’t hide or patch over the fact.


Compassion

In Lodge’s fiction, and that of his hero, Graham Greene, Roman Catholicism is the cause of an enormous amount of pain and suffering, psychological self-torture leading more often than not to suicide (in Greene).

In Lodge’s novels Catholicism is seen as a practice, a set of rules about how to live your life, rules designed to mark you out as special, separate and superior to the non-believing ruck of humanity (there are occasional jokey references to slackening this or that rule ‘will make us no better than Protestants’; but I don’t think these are jokes; half the value of Catholicism is the strictness of its beliefs make you heroic in obeying them; a high level of masochistic smugness is always present).

The result – judging from Greene and Lodge’s novels – is a quite staggeringly narcissistic, navel-gazing obsession with your own obedience of the rules down to the tiniest degree and, here as elsewhere in Lodge, the sharpest, most private and personal conflict occurs where Catholic teaching impacts on the characters’ sex lives. So all the rhetoric about love and charity and what-have-you, again and again – and very dispiritingly – boils down to a terribly narrow obsessiveness about sex, sex, sex, contraception, sex, the rhythm method, sex, the pill, sex and more sex.

As a lapsed Anglican I rather thought Christianity, occasionally, had something to do with love for others, compassion for others, loving your neighbour. Agape. Charity. What makes Lodge’s Catholicism (or the Catholicism dramatised in his fiction) just like the Catholicism in Greene’s fiction, so repellent is its relentless self-obsessed, self-examining selfishness.

It comes as a wonderful relief, then, when the narrator talks about something which isn’t sex and isn’t about navel-gazing self-scrutiny going in permanent fear of the Catholic Church’s myriad punishing rules. When Lodge demonstrates the kind of decent, compassionate, liberal-minded humanism that in fact, despite the Catholic straitjacket, underlies all of his fiction.

It’s a couple of weeks since I read it, but several moments stand out in memory as exemplifying what good fiction can do:

  • Ruth, the plain, chunky girl who didn’t marry or need men, who became a nun, but then went to the States in the late 1960s and experienced the standard Lodgesque mind-opening, visiting various hyper-modern, liberal Catholic convents and prayer groups. There is one very vivid scene when she spends a weekend at a tacky prayer meeting at – of all places – Disneyland, populated with talkative Yanks, where she is initially repelled by the almost Protestant (yuk) sense of gushy open-ness. But in the key moment, she is invited by her small group to say something about herself and, as sometimes happens in these situations, finds herself opening right up about her life and in particular the way she’s been a dutiful nun all her adult life but never experienced real, divine love. And starts crying from the bottom of her heart. And one of the tacky talkative American women says, ‘Would you like us to pray over you, honey?’ And Ruth kneels and the half dozen others link hands over her and pray their banal prayers and suddenly Ruth feels an enormous sense of liberation and bliss, the most intense feeling of her life, thrill through her body (p.179). After all the long, lecturing passages detailing Catholic teaching in such numbing detail, Lodge here has the novelist’s tact not to pass comment, leaving it entirely to the reader to decide whether this was a religious, or a purely personal, psychological, moment, making it all the more mysterious and impactful.
  • At the party to celebrate the birth of Dennis and Angela’s third child, their friend the doctor, Edward, realises the little baby is mute and passive for a reason. It is a Down’s Syndrome baby. He discusses it in a panicky aside from the party with his wife and says he will have to tell the happy parents, then cooks up a pretext to get Dennis off to one side. Shall we go into the garage, you can show me all those new power tools you’re so proud of. Sure, come this way, says Dennis, and Edward follows him ‘feeling like an assassin with a loaded gun in his pocket’ (p.112). Now, we know from Wikipedia that Lodge himself had a Down’s Syndrome child (in fact it was his third, exactly as in this fiction). And in later scenes we learn of the devastating impact on Michael and on Angela and their marriage, less scenes than disquisitions or essays in psychology by the author. What fiction does uniquely – and what Lodge rises to here – as author and as person – is to feel sorry for the doctor – for the person who has the fateful life-changing knowledge and has to decide how and when to utter it. I thought that was a genuinely selfless perception.
  • There is another, relatively minor strand, about the diagnosis with fatal cancer of one of the characters’ fathers. Here again, we see the grown-up children and relatives debating whether to let him know or not (amazing that they were in that position; surely hospitals have to let people know, nowadays), and learn the subtle reasons different characters have for a) revealing b) concealing the diagnosis from the patient. For once a prolonged scene that wasn’t about sex and only peripherally touched on Catholic teaching, but dealt with an all-too-common event in people’s lives and dealt with it imaginatively, showing us the impact on various characters, showing us life.

The book in fact contains quite a few scenes like this, scenes which, if allowed to breathe and connect organically, would have been the core of a much stronger novel.

JRR Tolkien was a devout Roman Catholic. One of the most interesting things about his epic fantasy The Lord of The Rings is that, when he had finished it, he went back through it, reviewing it carefully (no doubt for the usual authorly reasons) but also to expressly remove every element which could be interpreted as referring to his religion. I was struck by what a wise and tactful thing that was to do.

Lodge’s strategy in How Far Can You Go?, as in The British Museum Is Falling Down, is the precise opposite. To stuff the books to overflowing with expositions of Catholic doctrine and practice which, as you will have gathered, I find hectoring and off-putting.

However, Lodge is a great novelist and so – despite the religious lecturing and the doctrinal pedagogy in this book – there are also moments when a truly humane sympathy for his characters and, by extension, a compassionate attitude towards suffering humanity, manages to emerge.


Sex

I’m no prude but I found the obsession with sex in this novel distinctly queasy.

Their sexuality may be a dominating part of people’s lives but there’s a reason most people hide it most of the time. There may be more or less levels of shame or embarrassment involved, but the fundamental reason is that it has a reducing, lowering effect on human dignity to be continually reduced to a sexual cipher.

In the first chapter Lodge tells us that Michael masturbates compulsively and is obsessed with breasts. I found this mildly comic but when he went on to discuss the masturbatory habits of the other characters, and when he began to describe how Polly likes to slip her finger between her pink lips and onto her love bud every night before she goes to sleep, I began to feel a little queasy. A middle-aged, male narrator enjoying describing a very young woman masturbating. Hmm. As this first chapter progresses all the other characters are reviewed on a scale of their masturbation habits. Hmm. Is that the most interesting thing about them? And Michael’s breast fixation gives the narrator license to comment on the breasts of all the female characters for the whole of the rest of the book. Hmm.

Hmm means I’m inclined to give the author the benefit of the doubt, it’s fine to make comedy out of people’s sexual habits, it’s possibly alright to dwell on your characters’ masturbatory habits… But the hmm begins to turn negative in the next chapter – How they Lost Their Virginities – which describes just that, describes the engagements and weddings of the various couples and then dwells in great detail on the ghastly wedding nights in scene after scene of brutal sexual explicitness.

It turns out that strictly-brought up Roman Catholic young adults in the 1950s were ignorant and clumsy about sex. a) This is a tiresomely familiar theme. b) The subject could have been handled with, let’s say, some delicacy. Instead of which Lodge adopts what I considered to be a clinical and heartless approach.

By the second week, Polly and Rex had reached the stage of petting to climax. (p.36)

The head of the family was a count, a handsome, charming man who deflowered Polly quite quickly and skilfully on what was meant to be her afternoon off. (p.38)

They made love four times that weekend, and on each occasion Violet had an orgasm under digital stimulation, but not during the act itself, when Robin had his. (p.47)

‘Digital stimulation’. It is the same science paper tone as ‘the four couples in our study’. ‘Four times, eh? And 100% orgasm by digital stimulation but not from penetrative sex. Add that to the spreadsheet of results.’

She was a virgin of, course – so much so that when, prior to retiring to bed on their wedding night, he kissed her attired only in a dressing-gown, she inquired what hard object he was concealing in his pocket. Under the bedclothes she snuggled up to him happily enough, but when he tried to enter her she went rigid with fear and then grew hysterical. (p.51)

Adrian lay on top of his bride and butted at her dry crotch while she winced and gasped faintly beneath him. When at last he succeeded in penetrating her, he ejaculated immediately. (p.52)

Desperately he rolled on top of Tessa and, with a fluke thrust at the right place and angle, entered her in a single movement. Tessa uttered a loud cry that, if it was heard in the house, was probably not recognised; and Edward, groaning into the pillow, pumped rivers of semen into her willing womb. (p.57)

There seemed to be no way that Michael could get his penis to go in and stay in… They struggled and heaved and muttered ‘Sorry’ and ‘It’s all right’, but after a while the atmosphere became slightly desperate. Had Miriam grasped Michael’s penis and guided it to its target, there would have been no problem, but it never occurred to her to do so or to him to suggest it. None of our young brides even touched their husbands’ genitals until weeks, months, sometimes years after marriage. (p.63)

‘None of our young brides even touched their husbands’ genitals until weeks, months, sometimes years after marriage.’ ‘Very interesting results. I think we should add this to the spreadsheet and include in the main presentation.’

The book Dennis had lent her had not prepared her for the physical messiness of the act of love, and the orgasms she had read about in its pages eluded her. On the honeymoon Dennis was ravenous for her, begged her to make love twice, three times a night, he groaned and swore in his rapture, said over and over again, I love you, I love you, but always reached his climax as soon as he entered her, and she felt little except the unpleasant aftertrickle between her legs, staining her new nighties and the hotel sheets. (p.72)

There’s more, much more. Continually, throughout the book, we hear about the characters’ changing attitudes to, and practices of, sex to the exclusion of much else that makes up human life. A few have jobs, briefly referred to. They have children, they move town. But none of them seem to have pets or favourite cars or hobbies or go visit art galleries or make anything. No. Instead Lodge informs us that Michael developed an addiction to German porn movies and the TV producer (there’s always one in these novels about the 1960s), Jeremy, spent a lot of energy trying to persuade his wife to attend swinger parties.

Edward and Tessa… found that the most satisfactory arrangement was for Edward to lie supine and for Tessa to squat on top of him, jigging up and down until she brought them both to climax. (p.153)

If [Robin] was honest, what he enjoyed most was a slow hand-job performed by Violet while he lay back with his eyes closed and listened to Baroque music on a headset. Violet herself was most readily satisfied by lingual stimulation, and gradually this arrangement became customary, both taking it in turns to service the other. (p.155)

Over the years they had composed an almost unvarying ritual of arousal and release which both knew by heart. Their foreplay was a condensed version of their courtship: first Dennis kissed Angela, then he pushed his tongue between her teeth, then he stroked her breasts, then he slid his hand up between her thighs. They usually reached a reasonably satisfying climax, and afterwards fell into a deep sleep. (p.151)

Well, I’m glad it was ‘reasonably satisfying’. The funny thing about all this sex talk is that none of it is arousing. Just as none of the lengthy explanations of Catholic teaching have the slightest shred of spirituality. Both lack that sense of magic or inspiration, of lift and strangeneness. Lodge is never strange. He is always sober and straight-talking and factual and reliable.

That’s why none of the ‘experimentalism’ which he so cannily deploys in his novels actually feels experimental. Not only is he ripping off (copying, pastiching, paying hommage to) experimental techniques pioneered much better 50 years earlier (in Ulysses), but it’s all put to the service of a mind which is relentlessly mundane, earth-bound and practical. It is all reported as if in a clinical paper.

The permutations of sex are as finite as those of narrative. You can (a) do one thing with one partner or (b) do n things with one partner or (c) do one thing with n partners or (d) do n things with n partners. (p.152)

I know in this snippet he’s parodying a scientific paper, or the scientistic approach of contemporary structuralist literary theory. But it also accurately sums up the blank, unemotional, observational style used throughout this novel and which a few chatty interventions by a supposedly intrusive narrator can do nothing to lighten.


The end

The final section embodies these issues, bringing together a number of elements which the Whitbread prize judges evidently liked, but I didn’t. Since the novel amounts to a chronicle of events, without any single ‘plot’, the storyline can’t come to a head and be resolved. The text could, in fact, have continued on indefinitely, to the election of Mrs Thatcher and right up to the present day, chattily telling us what the key events were of each year and then informing us how the couples in our study were doing.

Having to end somehow, Lodge arbitrarily concludes the text by having Jeremy, the smug TV producer (such an easy figure of fun from that era, the epitome of the jumped-up, superficial arriviste) make an observational documentary about his friends and their new, liberated, Catholic beliefs at a trendy ‘Paschal Festival’. And, being Lodge, this final section takes the form of a typescript of the programme (cut to.. zoom in on… wide shot of…). The form is, if not experimental, then confident pastiche, although I found it very boring, very passé. More importantly, it conceals the fact that the characters’ stories are not really resolved. The narrative doesn’t end so much as stop.

In an epilogue, the intrusive if rather boring narrator tells us that while he was writing the final section, Pope Paul died and was replaced by Pope John Paul I – who himself died unexpectedly – to be replaced by Pope John Paul II (in October 1978), the first non-Italian pope in 500 years, an actor and writer – but a theological conservative.

A changing Church acclaims a Pope who evidently thinks that change has gone far enough. What will happen? All bets are void, the future is uncertain, but it will be interesting to watch. (p.242)

The passage captures Lodge’s fundamental niceness along with his enthusiasm and his banality. The end-with-a-TV-transcript felt lame. But in these last paragraphs, it is as if this ‘novel’ has reached the rock bottom of just telling us what the author read in the newspaper this morning. The very last words are a flourish of narratorial intrusiveness, no doubt intended as a light-hearted reference to the end of Jane Eyre.

Reader, farewell!

But it’s too late to redeem this heavy, pedagogic text with a parting gag.


Conclusion

Storytelling, for the most part, relies on some kind of warmth or empathy between the teller and audience. Establishing that basic rapport is vital, for once they ‘have’ the audience, the teller can play with it, tease and please and provoke and entertain. But if the audience isn’t won over in the first few minutes, if that rapport isn’t established, chances are the audience will sit in stony silence for the entire performance and you will ‘die’, as the stand-ups say. This novel’s core components are:

  • an obvious, yet rather minority, theme (young Catholics from the 1950s grow up and come of age)
  • long expositions of theology or history which swamp character and incident
  • a prurient and eventually repellent obsession with sex

For me, the rapport fails. I watch Lodge go about his business with mild interest (the theology and social history), occasional amusement (there are some mildly comic moments), occasional disgust (sex, sex and more sex), occasional compassion (like the Ruth and Downs Syndrome moments I highlighted) – but without ever entering into the spirit of the book. For me, in this text, Lodge ‘dies’.

Related links

David Lodge’s novels

1960 – The Picturegoers
1962 – Ginger, You’re Barmy – Jonathan Browne is fresh from gaining a First in English when he is plunged into National Service among brutal proles and cruel NCOs in a windswept barracks in Yorkshire. Onto this amiable backdrop is nailed a melodramatic story about his friend at university, Mike the ginger-haired renegade of the title, attacking a cruel NCO, being imprisoned, being spring by the IRA, and then forced to return to make a raid on the barracks which Jonathan, by freakish coincidence, ends up foiling.
1965 – The British Museum Is Falling Down – a day in the life of young academic Adam Appleby, unhappy Catholic father of three, who spends a day at the BM failing to do any research and finds himself embroiled in more and more comic complexities, all the time panic-stricken that his wife might be pregnant for an unbearable fourth time.
1970 – Out of the Shelter – the boyhood and teenage years of Timothy Young, child of very ordinary suburban London parents, who is a toddler during the Blitz, a boy at the end of the war, and a teenager when he goes to stay with his older sister in post-war Germany, where he makes all kinds of discoveries about war and peace and life and love.
1975 – Changing Places: A Tale of Two Campuses – It is January 1969 and two English Literature professors are swapping jobs for a term: down-trodden Englishman Philip Swallow is heading for the Californian delights of Euphoria State University, and lit crit superstar Morris Zapp is heading towards rundown rainy Rummidge University. How will they cope with the resulting culture shocks? A hilariously knowing romp, a sophisticated comedy classic.
1980 – How Far Can You Go? – The stories of 10 young Catholics in the 1950s and their adventures as they mature during the 1960s and 70s, larded with lots of commentary about the sweeping changes to Catholic dogma during this period, and lots and lots of clinical descriptions of sex, in a surprisingly flat and unentertaining novel.
1984 – Small World: An Academic Romance
1988 – Nice Work
1991 – Paradise News
1995 – Therapy
2001 – Thinks …
2004 – Author, Author
2008 – Deaf Sentence
2011 – A Man of Parts

Changing Places by David Lodge (1975)

This is Lodge’s fifth novel and the one that made his name and cemented his reputation as a leading exponent of the ‘campus novel’ ie comic novels depicting the foibles and absurdities of modern university life. It is a comic masterpiece, still very funny 40 years later. It won the Hawthornden Prize and the Yorkshire Post fiction  prize.

Plot

It is 1969 and Philip Swallow, down-trodden and rather directionless English teacher at shabby Rummidge university (clearly based on Birmingham Uni where Lodge taught from 1967 to 1987) has been awarded the opportunity to teach for a term in the beautiful setting of Euphoria university in the fictional state of Euphoria (a thinly disguised version of Berkeley university, San Francisco). Meanwhile, high powered and ruthless academic operator, Morris Zapp, has likewise been offered the chance of teaching at Rummidge. And so they are changing places.

Schematic

We have observed in Lodge’s earlier novels a fondness for structuring devices – the use of three distinct timeframes for Ginger, You’re Barmy and the use of the day-in-a-life structure for The British Museum Is Falling Down, along with the deployment of literary pastiches.

Basic parallelism Changing Places is similarly self-aware. The fundamental structure (job swap) is not just the starting point for the novel but structures the entire plot: the novel opens by cross-cutting between their flights  – which are occurring at the same time – and goes on to describe their arrivals in their respective cities, their struggles to find accommodation, their first impressions of their new campuses and colleagues. The most obvious parallelism is that, after various amorous adventures and mishaps, they both find themselves having affairs which each other’s wives.

The parallelism isn’t subtly buried. It is prominent from the start, in the opening chapter where the narration cuts between the two protagonists in their respective flights, coping with airplane food and eccentric fellow passengers.

And the obviousness of the devices is part of their humour. Lodge is saying: ‘See! It is all a construct, all a game.’ The overtness of the contrivance contributes to its comic effect.

Literary forms This is further emphasised by the use of Modernist literary devices ie the novel is divided into six part, several of which are written in highly artificial, very literary, formats. Section three – titled Corresponding – contains letters between the errant professors and their wives, who have stayed at home. It is a homage to, or pastiche of, the classic epistolary novel of the 18th century (in fact the earliest novels all consisted entirely of letters between the main characters eg Pamela or Clarissa). Section four – Reading – moves the plot on by means of cuttings taken from newspapers, press releases and student newspapers. And the final, sixth, section – Ending – describing how the two professors and their wives converge on New York for a summit conference about their marriages – is cast in the form of a movie screenplay (cut to… close up of… sound effect… etc).

The funny thing is that none of this detracts from the comedy. On the contrary, it makes the reading experience more enjoyable, makes you feel the book is smart and witty, and makes you feel smart and witty for ‘getting’ it.

Watered down It is noteworthy, in passing, how the use of effects like this – first, and often best, deployed in the great masterpiece of Modernism, James Joyce’s Ulysses – caused outrage and confusion back in 1922 – but 50 years later has been tamed and domesticated. What was – and still reads as – an epic disruption of the entire notion of reading in Joyce’s hands, has been made totally acceptable to a Sunday supplement audience in what is, essentially, a tale of suburban wife-swapping.

Maturity

Describing it as a ‘masterpiece’ makes it sound a little too hard-edged, a little too cut-throat for the amiable Lodge universe. What makes it so brilliant and so much better than its predecessors is, I think, its imaginative depth. Given the extent of the overt schematic described above, the surprising thing is how persuasive the characters and incidents are: they manage to be predictable but also, unexpectedly ‘real’.

For example, both professors have difficulty finding accommodation in their new cities, and the stereotypical depiction of Rummidge’s freezing, unheated and badly plumbed houses is as funny as Swallow’s adventures in wonderfully convenient but liable-to-subsidence Californian apartment. The topic is all-too-predictable, but the treatment is highly observant and full of persuasive details.

The irksome English student, Charles Boon, who Swallow encounters on the flight out and fancies he’ll impress with his knowledge of America, takes him and the plot by surprise by turning out to be a kind of student radical superstar, with his own radio phone-in show, leading various protests, totally at home in the world of pot parties and very available young women.

I smiled when Zapp discovers his flight to England is populated almost entirely by young American women travelling here to take advantage of the newly-liberalised abortion laws. He is disconcerted by the questionable morality of this, but sinks his head in his hands when his blithely confident neighbour explains that she’s not only pregnant but the father is her Catholic priest. O tempora, O mores. So far, so wryly funny. But this woman, Mary Makepeace, goes on to play a larger role than you might have expected, turning up later on in a strip club Zapp visits on a bored weekday, having decided not to go through with the abortion but finding herself penniless. Zapp helps her out of that situation and, through a series of comic coincidences, into finding accommodation and then friendship with Swallow’s wife, Hilary.

In a peculiar way, the very schematicness of the design ends up giving the story greater plausibility. Comedy needs the right ambience: there must be an establishing mood which permits laughter. (Although, admittedly, you can still have the comedy of hate or of despair.) But the right kind of humane comedy can go to a deeper level, where it mingles with or reveals – not epically profound truths about human nature – but what we recognise as something like the actual warp and woof of experience, unexpected turn-ups, strange coincidences, who’d-have-thought-it moments.

The wives

This depth of experience is exemplified by the wives in the novel, Desirée Zapp and Hilary Sparrow. It would have remained a kind of comedy of manners and an exercise in comparing rainy embarrassed Englishmen with sunny go-ahead Yanks, if not for the presence of Desirée and Hilary. They very effectively throw cold water on their husbands’ horny fantasies. They remind us of the difficulties and challenges of middle age, of looking after children, of responsibility, which the holidaying men are all too ready to throw off.

Possibly the funniest part of this consistently funny book is the series of letters between husbands and wives in part three. Lodge shows how the epistolary form is still remarkably effective because it allows the characters to express what’s important for them in a quick, flexible way, without the author having to set up and describe elaborate scenes. A character can just write ‘Oh and another thing…’

A lot of the comedy comes from the wives’ deflation of their husbands’ heroic self-images, but they quickly emerge as strong, well-defined characters in their own rights. Desirée is a tough, no-nonsense, ‘ball-breaker’ as her husband describes her, who, during the course of the novel, discovers and starts taking part in the new Women’s Liberation movement. A lot of her repartee is laugh-out-loud funnily frank and blunt and crude and spot-on in its skewering of her pretentious husband.

But I found myself coming to like Hilary most of all. She is the model of the harassed, embarrased, prudish English stay-at-home wife, worrying if they can afford central heating and whether the irritating knocking noise from the washing machine means they need to buy a new one. Her response to Philip’s furtive admission that he’s been unfaithful is both funny and oddly moving. She responds with cold fury (she goes straight out and buys the central heating system she’s abstained from for so long) but is also plunged into confusion about how to deal with the horny advances of Professor Zapp – now Philip has been unfaithful, should she match him? (It is one among many comic strands that Zapp, fed up of eating TV dinners, is interested at least as much in her wonderful cooking as her body.)

Hilary’s disorientation, her on-again, off-again reponses to the randy Yank, her uncertainty about how to cope with the completely unprecedented situation, are at the same time very funny, but also moving and ‘real’. And also a fascinating indication of the social history of the time, when millions of traditionally-minded people were having to assimilate radical disruptions in society and behaviour.

Hilary to Philip

… But quite apart from the expense and the problem of the children, Philip, I don’t think I would want to fly out anyway. I’ve read through your letter very carefully and I’m afraid I can’t avoid the conclusion that you desire my presence mainly for the purpose of lawful sexual intercourse. I suppose you’ve been frightened off attempting any more extra-marital adventures, but the Euphoric spring has heated your blood to the extent that you’re prepared to fly me six thousand miles to obtain relief. I’m afraid I’d find it a strain coming over in that kind of context, Philip. Even the 17-day excursion fare costs £165-15-6, and nothing I can do in bed could possibly be worth that money. (1978 Penguin paperback edition, page 150)

It’s funny. It’s clever. It’s moving. It’s thought-provoking. Changing Places is a really brilliant novel.

Related links

Oh happy day

This song is referenced in the text as a hit of early 1969, on the radio in the background while the characters go about their adventures.

David Lodge’s novels

1960 – The Picturegoers
1962 – Ginger, You’re Barmy – Jonathan Browne is fresh from gaining a First in English when he is plunged into National Service among brutal proles and cruel NCOs in a windswept barracks in Yorkshire. Onto this amiable backdrop is nailed a melodramatic story about his friend at university, Mike the ginger-haired renegade of the title, attacking a cruel NCO, being imprisoned, being spring by the IRA, and then forced to return to make a raid on the barracks which Jonathan, by freakish coincidence, ends up foiling.
1965 – The British Museum Is Falling Down – a day in the life of young academic Adam Appleby, unhappy Catholic father of three, who spends a day at the BM failing to do any research and finds himself embroiled in more and more comic complexities, all the time panic-stricken that his wife might be pregnant for an unbearable fourth time.
1970 – Out of the Shelter – the boyhood and teenage years of Timothy Young, child of very ordinary suburban London parents, who is a toddler during the Blitz, a boy at the end of the war, and a teenager when he goes to stay with his older sister in post-war Germany, where he makes all kinds of discoveries about war and peace and life and love.
1975 – Changing Places: A Tale of Two Campuses – It is January 1969 and two English Literature professors are swapping jobs for a term: down-trodden Englishman Philip Swallow is heading for the Californian delights of Euphoria State University, and lit crit superstar Morris Zapp is heading towards rundown rainy Rummidge University. How will they cope with the resulting culture shocks? A hilariously knowing romp, a sophisticated comedy classic.
1980 – How Far Can You Go?
1984 – Small World: An Academic Romance
1988 – Nice Work
1991 – Paradise News
1995 – Therapy
2001 – Thinks …
2004 – Author, Author
2008 – Deaf Sentence
2011 – A Man of Parts

Out Of The Shelter by David Lodge (1970)

This is a really good novel, head and shoulders above its predecessors. A plainly-written memoir of a London childhood during the second world war and into the early 1950s, it grows in its later sections into something rich and moving.

Autobiography

Having described his two years’ National Service in Ginger, You’re Barmy, and what it feels like to be a poor, harassed, Catholic, academic researcher in The British Museum Is Falling Down, the latest part of Lodge’s fictionalised autobiography revisits his childhood during the Blitz and his teenage years in the Age of Austerity which followed the war.

Bildungsroman

No real plot. In fact, it raises the question, What is a ‘plot’ and what is just a sequence of the kind of random, arbitrary events which make up an ordinary life? The Germans had thought about this. As long ago as 1819, they invented the term Bildungsroman, a ‘formation-novel’, what we might call a ‘coming-of-age’ novel, where the focus isn’t on a set of discrete events shaped into a ‘plot’, but on how a character is changed and moulded by the forces acting on it during a person’s most impressionable years. Cohesion isn’t created by the progression of one or more storylines in the real world, but by the centrality of the main character who experiences, learns and ‘grows’ through the events which happen to him.

Famous 20th century Bildungsromane include Sons and Lovers by DH Lawrence (1913), A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man by James Joyce (1916), The Catcher In The Rye (1951) and To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee (1960).

Whereas those novels are famous for the intensity of their imagining and the power of their style, Lodge’s contribution to the genre is – in line with the tone and character of the previous two novels – a much more modest, plainly-written account of a shy, timid, arty boy brought up in a narrow, parochial, lower-middle-class environment who, in the book’s second half, begins to feel his intelligence is exceptional and singles him out from his insular environment.

He looked at their faces, seeing his success reflected unselfishly there, and for the first time in his life he sensed the possibility that he might not be entirely ordinary. It was a wonderful feeling, but there was no vanity in it: he merely accepted it humbly, like a grace which had descended upon him. (1985 Penguin edition, p.212)

Sections

The novel (or lightly novelised autobiography) is divided into four sections:

1. The Shelter (pp.3-53)

Lodge was born in 1935 to parents who lived in south-east London, so would have been 5-years-old during the Blitz. The central character, Tim Young, is the same age, as we see through his eyes the terrifying world of grown-ups – his father an Air Raid warden, his uncle Jack in the Air Force, his harassed mother and much older sister – as they eat little meals, worry about the war, and cower in the small metal shelter at the end of the little garden from the Nazis’ murderous bombs. One catastrophic night the house of his best friend is bombed, and so he and his mother are evacuated to the countryside.

There were no more nights of getting up and going up the road to Jill’s house. Jill’s house wasn’t there any more, and Jill had gone to heaven and so had her Mummy, and her Daddy had gone back to the Air Force. Timothy and his mother went to live in the country where they didn’t have air raids. They lived in a place called Blyfield, in a dark narrow house near the gasworks. The house belonged to Mrs Tonks, who was fat and smelled funny. (p.15)

Anyone who’s read their Eng. Lit. will recognise the influence of James Joyce, who starts The Portrait of The Artists As A Young Man in baby language appropriate to the very earliest memories of the protagonist, before slowly maturing the language and phraseology to match the development of his hero. Lodge does the same here, but in his characteristically low-key, undemanding way. Whereas Joyce is deadly serious and makes it completely programmatic for his text, Lodge takes what he needs to create the effect but doesn’t apply it slavishly. His attitude can either be seen as dilettantish or as relaxed and realistic. He is no Modernist pioneer. It is 1970 and all the good ideas have been had.

2. Coming out (pp.57-117)

It is 1951, the Festival of Britain is on, and Tim, now a timid, but precociously intellectual 16-year-old, is invited out to Germany by his much older sister, Kate, who started off working for the American forces in England, and was invited first to Paris, and then onto Germany, where she has settled. Her horizons have been hugely expanded and she invites her kid brother to come and share.

The text is full of convincing details and descriptions of a teenage boy leaving home for the first time. It powerfully conveys the sense of trepidation, embarrassment and excitement at leaving a suburban, parochial England of small minds and narrow horizons, to escape abroad, crossing the Channel then getting the train to Heidelberg by himself, alert to the dizzying foreign smells and situations and languages.

The train stopped three times in Brussels, but nobody got out. On the contrary, hundreds more people got in. The corridor filled up. His bag disappeared under a mountain of other people’s baggage, and he was unable even to reach it. The air was thick with pungent cigarette smoke, the odours of cheese, garlic and perspiration, and a mixture of foreign accents – French, German and something in between which he thought was probably Flemish. (p.78)

Once arrived at the historic and picturesque old city of Heidelberg, Timothy mingles little with the German population, instead moving in the charmed circle of his sister and her swanky, exciting American friends and the book conveys the dazzling impact of American wealth: mountains of food, burgers, fries, milk shakes and sodas, huge cars, drive-in movies; everything designed for pleasure and convenience, the precise opposite of his cramped, Little England Catholic family, where everything seemed designed for embarrassment, failure, shame and humiliation.

3. Out of the Shelter (pp.121-259)

In this, the third and longest section, Timothy learns about life. He (and we) enjoy trips to the Alps, dinners at restaurants half way up mountains, cruises in huge American cars, as we find out more about Kate’s circle of go-getting Yanks, the two cheerleaders Vince Vernon and Geoff, and a handful of couples with their bickering and jealousies, all observed and mulled over by Timothy with growing confidence. But Vince is the most interesting character, a playboy fun guy but who shows a surprisingly deep feel for the Nazi regime, its successes and failures and weirdness.

Another thread is the character of Don Kowlaski, separate from the group, intellectual, restlessly haunted by the Holocaust, left wing in an American way, feeding Timothy ideas about the rights and wrongs of the war.

In another strand, Timothy befriends a young German boy, Rudolf, a bit older than him, who fought in the Hitler youth and lost an arm in combat, before being captured and sent a prisoner of war back to England. Timothy goes cycling with him, visits his down at heel Nazi father, ekeing out a living in a dismal village, and is confronted by the confusion of war and the post-war, comparing his own life to Rudolf’s, puzzled by the contradictions of adult life.

It all came back to him suddenly, and it was as if a cloud had passed over the sun. Jill and Auntie Nora, killed in the garden. And Uncle Jack afterwards, shot down over Germany. He felt a sudden coldness for Rudolf. Not that he was to blame personally: but it seemed a kind of betrayal of the dead to be, to be… well, too easy and friendly with a German. Surely if two countries hated each other enough to kill each other in hundreds and thousands, the hate ought to last a bit longer than six years? (p.185)

While all this thoughtfulness about the war is going on, on the one hand – as well as Timothy’s never ending bewilderment at the sheer wealth and luxury of the Americans in their sealed-off camp – he is also discovering sex. A friend of Kate’s lets him camp out in her room in a young woman’s hostel while she is away on holiday, on condition that he stays hidden until the girls have all left for work. He is old enough now to get erections, to be looking at girls his own age and a little older and imagining them naked.

In a great scene, Timothy realises that the room’s walk-in wardrobe has cracks in it which allow and even amplify the sound from the next room, and one night he overhears a young couple going for it hammer and tongs next door, and finds himself ejaculating unavoidably. I worried this might give rise to shudders of Catholic guilt but here, as at the other moments of Timothy’s sex life, Lodge is blissfully realistic and accepting of teenage male sexuality.

Similarly, I feared that at the pinnacle of the novel, Lodge would impose the kind of melodramatic incident which concludes Ginger, You’re Barmy; that there’d either be a garish tragedy – someone would die or commit suicide – or his sexual experiments would lead to disaster – discovery and punishment by some girl’s parents.

In the event, to my immense relief, neither of these things happens. The love strand slowly evolves over the last 50 pages as Timothy attends a brilliantly observed teenage party (aboard a cruise boat on the river), featuring the American girl he’s been shyly making eyes at and – wonder of wonders! – when the lights go out, she not only lets him kiss her, but lets him touch her breast. In fact, he manages to invite her the next day to his room at the women’s hostel where they lie all one afternoon, shyly kissing then exploring each other’s bodies, in a natural, unembarrassed and touching scene.

Which moves straight into the next and final tableau, the climax of the adult strand, where all the grown up gang of Kate’s friends are invited to a party at Vince and Geoff’s flat which looks over the town on the night of the big fireworks display. They are getting drunk, badly loudly drunk, oohing and aahing at the fireworks, when Vince impishly brings out his collection of Nazi regalia and persuades them all to dress up. Tim’s sister, Kate, is already rebelling against the dark mood of the party, when Don, the left-leaning academic Yank arrives, and insists Kate and Tim leave with him, and – in the section’s final flourishes – throws the accusation at Vince that he is gay and having an affair with Rudolf, the young one-armed ex-Hitler Youth boy.

– I think I know what you are, Vernon, said Don. You get off on one-armed guys, do you?
Timothy felt Vince’s grip loosen on his sleeve and fall away.
– That Kraut… he said thickly.
– He didn’t say much, but I can read between the lines, said Don. (p.259)

And there it ends, abruptly and puzzlingly, not really explained, like so many events and encounters in ‘real’ life.

4. Epilogue

Some 15 years later Tim is a successful academic, with a wonderful wife and two gorgeous children and has been invited by Kate to come meet her at a resort in southern California. In these last pages they chat about his Heidelberg trip, so long ago, so formative, his first experience of the big wide world. And then Tim realises his big sister is crying. She never married and hasn’t thought about those far-off happy times for years and is somehow crying for her lost, carefree youth.

Go swim, she says, and as he dives into the warm American pool he thinks how lucky he has been, not to be snuffed out in a war, not to have died in a car crash, to be alive now, in the warm pool under the blue Californian sky, in love with his wife, in love with life. And the book ends with an almost panic-stricken moment as he feels how wonderful life is, but how fragile, something terrible could happen at any moment, as he swims over to embrace his wife in the water.

Style

The classic coming-of-age novels I mentioned above are all famous not only for their taboo-breaking treatments of childhood and adolescence, but for the innovative style they used, whether set in Nottingham, Dublin or New York.

Lodge is not an extravagant stylist. In this novel you can see him shedding some of the more literary pretensions which clung around the earlier books in favour of a plain-speaking style, generally devoid of metaphor or simile, avoiding description or the lengthy creation of a scene and setting for their own sake, preferring a brisk set-up and then factual notation of what is done and what is said.

The news of his GCE success made Timothy suddenly anxious to get home, to reconnect himself with reality again. He had made a mistake, he felt, in agreeing to stay in Heidelberg for another week, just for the sake of seeing a fireworks display. The weekend of their return from Garmisch was dull. The rain continued. (p.213)

In his previous novels Lodge had demonstrated an interest in the architectonics of literature ie he gave a lot of thought to shaping, to structuring what was essentially (quite banal) autobiographical material, in order to give it more interest, whether by adding a rather melodramatic plot (Ginger) or elaborate literary parodies and pastiches (British Museum). Both felt rather bolted-on.

This novel felt distinctly more mature, in that the events were left to speak for themselves. If there were any ‘themes’ they emerged quite naturally from the conversations of the characters, from the inevitable events of his holiday. Nothing felt contrived or heavy-handed.

When he is on the bed in the hostel room with the 16-year-old girl, slowly stripping and ‘petting’, he tries his best but ejaculates the moment she touches him and then is overcome by mortification and embarrassment. What makes the scene is the way she touches his back and says his name, and recalls him, and then they talk sweetly and honestly for many more pages. It feels sweet and uncontrived and natural and candid.

Similarly, I had a bad moment when Vince, the Nazi regalia-loving party animal, at the height of his rather crazy party, as he is describing how Hitler’s last days led up to his suicide, put an antique Luger to his head, and I thought ‘Oh Christ, he’s going to kill himself’, and it will ruin the book by shedding a melodramatic and lurid light back over the entire novel.

But, thank God, he doesn’t. The gun just goes click and the worst that happens is Don says, ‘Come on Kate, let’s get out of here,’ and throws the accusation that Vince is gay at him in such a quick veiled way, that his guests wouldn’t understand even if they heard it over the loud party jazz.

And that’s it, the end of the main text. These are the kind of memorable but not particularly earth-shattering things which do happen and which you remember as changing your opinion about something or someone, giving you insights into people and the world. They’re the kind of fairly striking but not epochal moments which fairly ordinary lives are made out of, but are rarely so well captured in fiction.

And that’s why I think this novel is a real triumph, one of the best books I’ve read in ages, for the quiet undemonstrative way it captures the fabric of actual lived life, and makes it interesting and memorable, without melodrama or contrivance. Very difficult thing to do, to judge by how rare it is.

And so the short Epilogue is intensely moving, not because it ties up any particular loose ends or reveals any great secrets, but because it has the presence of real, lived experience – building on the laborious detail of the previous 260 pages, Timothy’s sense that he has lived a charmed life and then his small panic at the fragility of it all, seems suddenly as intense and real as one of your own thoughts or feelings.

This is a really good novel -I’d strongly recommend it to anyone.

Related links

Penguin paperback edition of Out Of The Shelter

Penguin paperback edition of Out Of The Shelter

David Lodge’s novels

1960 – The Picturegoers
1962 – Ginger, You’re Barmy – Jonathan Browne is fresh from gaining a First in English when he is plunged into National Service among brutal proles and cruel NCOs in a windswept barracks in Yorkshire. Onto this amiable backdrop is nailed a melodramatic story about his friend at university, Mike the ginger-haired renegade of the title, attacking a cruel NCO, being imprisoned, being spring by the IRA, and then forced to return to make a raid on the barracks which Jonathan, by freakish coincidence, ends up foiling.
1965 – The British Museum Is Falling Down – a day in the life of young academic Adam Appleby, unhappy Catholic father of three, who spends a day at the BM failing to do any research and finds himself embroiled in more and more comic complexities, all the time panic-stricken that his wife might be pregnant for an unbearable fourth time.
1970 – Out of the Shelter – the boyhood and teenage years of Timothy Young, child of very ordinary suburban London parents, who is a toddler during the Blitz, a boy at the end of the war, and a teenager when he goes to stay with his older sister in post-war Germany, where he makes all kinds of discoveries about war and peace and life and love.
1975 – Changing Places: A Tale of Two Campuses
1980 – How Far Can You Go?
1984 – Small World: An Academic Romance
1988 – Nice Work
1991 – Paradise News
1995 – Therapy
2001 – Thinks …
2004 – Author, Author
2008 – Deaf Sentence
2011 – A Man of Parts

The Shepherd by Frederick Forsyth (1975)

Christmas Eve 1957. A young RAF pilot takes off in his de Havilland Vampire from Celle airfield in Germany to fly back to England. But somewhere over the North Sea his instruments fail. And when he radios for guidance, all 12 channels are dead. Beneath him is an unbroken sea of cloud, giving no indication of landmarks or his position. With only 50 minutes of fuel left, he realises he is flying blind, and begins to fly in triangles, a standard emergency procedure, hoping radar monitors will spot him.

With only five minutes of fuel left he is nerving himself to fly East, blindly out over the North Sea (to avoid crashing on land, into inhabited areas) and bail out into the freezing water. He’ll be dead in under an hour.

And it’s at  this point he notices that a plane has appeared just above the cloud layer and is shadowing his triangles. He descends low enough to see the pilot through his perspex canopy signalling him to follow. Controlling his panic, our man indicates he only has five minutes of fuel left. He is amazed to see his guide is flying an old turbo-prop de Havilland Mosquito, a relic of the war. He follows it in a wide circle and then the other pilot indicates they’re going to plunge down into the fog layer.

Because all the description up to this point in the narrative has been so technical, with lots of detail about navigation aids and signals, about how radio direction finders work, even about how fog forms easily off the Norfolk coast, that the description of the pilot’s fear is all the more gripping. He signals with controlled panic to the other pilot that his fuel gauge is now on zero. He can feel the sweat making his suit stick to his back.

The other pilot guides him down through the fog and suddenly there are the lights of an airfield. He pushes down onto the landing strip then clamps on the brakes, bringing the Vampire to a juddering halt just yards from the end of the runway. It takes a while for an old lorry to come lumbering out to him from the airfield buildings, which all seem to be dark for some reason.

A super-annuated and rather tipsy Flying Lieutenant Marks greets him and drives him back to the base buildings. He isn’t at RAF Merriam St George, as he expected, but at a disused, all-but-abandoned airfield called RAF Minton, which was decommissioned soon after the war. The narrator confidently puts to Marks his theory that one of the pilots from the weather station at RAF Gloucester, who still use Mosquitoes, must have guided him in. But when he phones RAF Gloucester there have been no flights that evening, and they stopped using Mosquitoes months ago. He calls RAF Merriam but they haven’t had their GCA location finder equipment turned on that evening. He is deeply puzzled. Who was his mystery saviour? And why guide him to this almost derelict airfield?

The only other employee on the base, an old boy named Joe, fixes the narrator a bath then a hot meal of bacon and eggs. There’s an old photo in the bedroom he shows him to, of a certain Johnny Kavanagh, star of the Mosquito squadron which was based there during the war. Joe explains that Johnny was the best pathfinder in the squadron, could fly blind through fog and rain. Once back from missions, he made it a personal task to go back out to find any heavy bombers which had been damaged during their mass raids on Germany, guiding them back to the nearest landing field in England.

Having eliminated all the other possibilities of who the mystery Mosquito pilot was, the narrator now builds an elaborate theory around this ‘Johnny’. Must have retired, built up a nice business, maybe bought one of the old Mosquitoes and kept it as a going concern himself. Must have been him who found the narrator and guided him to safety with literally only seconds to spare as his fuel ran out.

‘Oh no,’ says Joe the servant. ‘Johnny went out on his last patrol on Christmas Eve 1943. Never came back.’ Then… then… was the narrator rescued by… a ghost?

***

This is a nice, tidy Christmas ghost story, told with Forsyth’s habitual concern for practical and technological detail, all of which ground it in a prosaic reality – and with a typically short story-esque shock ending.

The slender text is padded out into a slim 120-page long paperback by the wonderfully atmospheric black-and-white illustrations of Chris Foss. There are lots of them – I counted 48, sometimes filling two pages – and they vividly convey the black and white night-time ambience of the story, with especially vivid wide shots showing the plane in the huge empty sky, or looking like a tiny toy on a huge airfield, or a vivid picture of the restlessly cold waves of the North Sea.


Credit

The Shepherd by Frederick Forsyth was published by Bantam Press in 1975. All quotes and references are from the 2016 Corgi paperback edition.

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Forsyth’s books

1971 The Day of the Jackal – It is 1963. An international assassin is hired by right-wing paramilitary organisation, the OAS, to assassinate French President, Charles de Gaulle. The novel follows the meticulous preparations of the assassin, code-name Chacal, and the equally thorough attempts of the ‘best detective in France’, Commissaire Lebel, to track him down. Surely one of the most thoroughly researched and gripping thrillers ever written.
1972 The Odessa File – It is 1963. German journalist Peter Miller goes on a quest to track down an evil former SS commandant and gets caught up in a high-level Nazi plot to help Egypt manufacture long-range missiles to attack and destroy Israel.
1974 The Dogs of War – City magnate Sir James Manson hires seasoned mercenary Cat Shannon to overthrow the dictator of the (fictional) West African country of Zangaro, so that Manson’s mining company can get its hands on a mountain virtually made of platinum. This very long novel almost entirely amounts to a mind-bogglingly detailed manual on how to organise and fund a military coup.
1975 The Shepherd – A neat slick Christmas ghost story about a post-war RAF pilot whose instruments black out over the North Sea but who is guided to safety by an apparently phantom Mosquito, flown by a pilot who disappeared without trace during the war.
1979 The Devil’s Alternative – A Cold War, geopolitical thriller confidently describing machinations at the highest levels of the White House, Downing Street and a Soviet Politburo riven by murderous factions and which is plunged into emergency by a looming grain shortage in Russia. A plot to overthrow the reforming leader of the Soviet Union evolves into a nailbiting crisis when the unexpected hijacking of an oil supertanker by fanatical Ukrainian terrorists looks like it might lead to the victory of the hawks in the Politburo, who are seeking a Russian invasion of Western Europe.
1982 No Comebacks Ten short stories combining Forsyth’s strengths of gripping technical description and clear fluent prose, with his weaknesses of cardboard characters and improbable plots, but the big surprise is how many of them are clearly comic in intention.
1984 The Fourth Protocol – Handsome, former public schoolboy, Paratroop Regiment soldier and MI5 agent John Preston, first of all uncovers the ‘mole’ working in MI5, and then tracks down the fiendish Soviet swine who is assembling a tactical nuclear device in Suffolk with a view to vaporising a nearby US Air Force base. the baddies’ plan is to rally anti-nuclear opinion against the Conservatives in the forthcoming General Election, ensuring a Labour Party victory and then (part two of the plan) replace the moderate Labour leader with an (unspecified) hard-Left figure who would leave NATO and effectively hand the UK over to the Russians. A lunatic, right-wing fantasy turned into a ‘novel’.
1989 The Negotiator – Taciturn Clint Eastwood-lookalike Quinn (no first name, just ‘Quinn’) is the best negotiator in the business, so when the President’s son is kidnapped Quinn is pulled out of quiet retirement in a Spanish village and sent to negotiate his release. What he doesn’t realise is the kidnap is just the start of a bigger conspiracy to overthrow the President himself!
1991 The Deceiver – A set of four self-contained, long short stories relating exciting incidents in the career of Sam McCready, senior officer in the British Intelligence Service, as he approaches retirement. More gripping than the previous two novels, with the fourth and final story being genuinely funny, in the style of an Ealing comedy starring Alec Guinness.
1994 The Fist of God – A journalistic account of Saddam Hussein’s 1990 invasion of Kuwait and the ensuing US-led ‘Desert Storm’ operation to throw him out, complete with insider accounts of the Western military and intelligence services and lavish descriptions of scores of hi-tech weaponry. Against this backdrop is set the story of one man – dark-skinned, Arabic-speaking Mike Martin who goes undercover posing as an Arab, first in occupied Kuwait, then – even more perilously – in Baghdad itself, before undertaking a final mission to locate and assist the destruction of Saddam’s atom bomb (!) and the Supergun designed to fire it at the Allies. Simultaneously gripping in detail and preposterous in outline.
1996 Icon – Hot shot CIA agent Jason Monk is brought out of retirement to foil a fascist coup in post-communist Russia in a novel which starts out embedded in fascinating contemporary history of Russia but quickly escalates to heights of absurdity, capped by an ending in which the Russian people are persuaded to install a distant cousin of our very own Queen as the new Tsar of All The Russias! Sure.
2001 The Veteran – Five very readable short stories: The Veteran, The Art of the Matter, The Miracle, The Citizen, and Whispering Wind – well engineered, sleek and almost devoid of real human psychology. Nonetheless, the vigilante twist of The Veteran is imaginatively powerful, and the long final story about a cowboy who wakes from a century-long magic sleep to be reunited with a reincarnation of his lost love has the eerie, primal power of a yarn by Rider Haggard.
2003 Avenger – A multi-stranded narrative which weaves together the Battle of Britain, the murder of a young American aid worker in Bosnia, the death of a young woman in America, before setting the tracking down of a Serbian war criminal to South America against a desperate plot to assassinate Osama bin Laden. The least far-fetched and most gripping Forsyth thriller for years.
2006 The Afghan – Ex-SAS man Colonel Mike Martin, hero of The Fist of God, is called out of retirement to impersonate an Afghan inmate of Guantanamo Bay in order to infiltrate Al Qaeda and prevent their next terrorist attack. Quite a gripping thriller with an amazing amount of detailed background information about Afghanistan, the Taliban, Al Qaeda, Islamic terrorism and so on.
2010 The Cobra – Two lead characters from Avenger, Paul Devereaux and Cal Dexter, are handed the task of wiping out the illegal cocaine trade on the authority of Barack Obama himself. Which leads to an awesome display of Forsyth’s trademark factual research, scores of pages building up a comprehensive picture of the drugs industry, and to the detailed description of the multi-stranded operation which almost succeeds, until lily-livered politicians step in to halt it.
2013 The Kill List – Another one about Islamic terrorism. The Preacher, who has been posting jihadi sermons online and inspiring a wave of terrorist assassinations, is tracked down and terminated by US marine Christopher Carson, aka The Tracker, with a fascinating side plot about Somali piracy thrown in. Like all Forsyth’s novels it’s packed with interesting background information but unlike many of his later novels it this one actually becomes genuinely gripping at the end.
2015 The Outsider – At age 76 Forsyth writes his autobiography in the form of a series of vignettes, anecdotes and tall tales displaying his characteristic briskness and dry humour. What an extraordinary life he’s led, and what simple, boyish fun this book is.

The British Museum Is Falling Down by David Lodge (1965)

‘It’s a special form of scholarly neurosis,’ said Camel. ‘He’s no longer able to distinguish between life and literature.’
‘Oh yes I can,’ said Adam. ‘Literature is mostly about having sex and not much about children. Life is the other way round.’ (p.56)

This is a short comic novel about a young academic, Adam Appleby, struggling to finish his PhD on time, a Roman Catholic who has followed Vatican teaching on birth control and as a consequence has three small children and a harassed wife, all living in narrow poverty in a seedy flat at the top of a rickety old building.

Appleby is strikingly similar to the protagonist of Ginger, You’re Barmy (a timid shy literature-minded man enduring his two years of National Service before getting unhappily married) and shares with him a naive inexperience of life, a painfully embarrassed approach to sex, a feeble inability to make decisions or get anything done – all compensated for by a superior feeling that his Catholic faith makes him the privileged actor in Grand Moral Decisions.

And like Ginger, this Penguin paperback edition has a lengthy afterword from the author appended to it.

The afterword

The afterword freely reveals the motivation for the novel and the ideas behind its treatment. Its over-riding theme is the issue of Catholic doctrine on birth control (ie don’t use any), an issue made pressing by the arrival of the Pill in the years leading up to the historic Second Vatican Council, which attempted wide-ranging modernisation of the Church.

Appleby and his wife have obeyed Catholic teaching on birth control to the letter, which is why they currently have three children and are petrified that she’s pregnant with child number four. The novel describes an anxious day in the life of the harassed young researcher who undergoes all sorts of mishaps and indignities as he struggles to get even five minutes research done in the British Museum Reading Room – but underneath all the comedy lies the genuinely desperate anxiety of the miserable Catholic.

There was no doubt, he thought wryly, that the conditioning of a Catholic upbringing and education entered into the very marrow of a man. It unfitted him for the prosecution of an affaire with the proper gaiety and confidence. The taking of ‘precautions’ which was, no doubt, to the secular philanderer a process as mechanical and thoughtless as blinking, was to him an ordeal imbued with embarrassment, guilt and superstitious fear; and one which, Adam now saw, might easily come to overshadow in moral importance the act of sexual licence itself. (p.131)

Just as with Ginger, in many ways the afterword is the most interesting part of the book. The novel is funny alright, its incidental portraits of competitive academics and the failed, sad types who populate the BM Reading Room, keeping a constant smile on the reader’s lips. But, as with Ginger, it is regrettable that the novel has to have an issue as its central thread and, as a non-Catholic, it was hard to put up with page after page of the lead character bitterly complaining about his Church’s doctrines and the ruinous affect they are having on his sex life and his marriage, without eventually wanting to give him a slap and say, ‘Well, why don’t you leave your bloody awful church, then?’

Which, of course, millions of Western Catholics did during the 1960s and 70s. Though many preferred to stay on and suffer, filling their lives and minds and souls with mousy exasperation. And writing quietly cross novels like this.

Comedy

An example of the kind of comedy: In his anxiety Adam keeps phoning his wife back at the flat, to see whether she’s pregnant, on the Museum’s antique coin-operated phones. On one occasion he finds himself waiting for a fat American who has been on a long-distance call to the States to vacate the booth. Later, the phone rings as Adam arrives at it and an American calling himself Bernie tries to leave a message with him to pass on to the fat one. When Adam tries to explain that he isn’t the fat Yank, he finds the caller has left and that, instead, he is dealing with the operator, and is also caught on crossed lines with a complete stranger who’s trying to make an emergency 999 call to tell the police his books have been stolen.

Three people end up talking at once in a quite funny confusion, and when Adam says he received a call from Bernie the operator mishears and says, ‘Burning? You need the fire brigade.’ Adam puts the phone down on this confusing conversation and makes his way back to the Reading Room only to find an agitated crowd building up, because someone has called the fire brigade and big booted firemen are at that moment dragging hefty firehoses across the floor and into the Reading Room telling everyone not to panic. Adam slinks off to one side and desperately hopes the operator didn’t catch his name…

Even if you don’t find all the comic scenes that funny, I think you still have to admire the thoroughness with which Lodge sets various comedic strands going in the first part of the novel and then cleverly interweaves them and brings them to an artfully contrived climax.

Pastiches

Speaking of artful, it becomes apparent about half way through that the text is undergoing sporadic changes in tone or register. When Adam is sent on a wild goose chase to a house in Edgeware where he thinks he might be able to pick up a valuable manuscript from a lonely old lady, I recognised that the whole style became a parody of Henry James. (I guessed that this was also a tribute to The Aspern Papers which is about the attempt to purchase literary remains from a reluctant seller. Score double 🙂

From that point onwards I realised the text contained a number of deliberate pastiches of literary authors (Lodge, in his afterword, identifies ten of them). If you hadn’t realised before, this fact was rammed down your throat by the final section, an Epilogue, which suddenly switches the point of view to that of Adam’s long-suffering wife.

It had already struck me that the day-in-a-life structure mimicked that of James Joyce’s Ulysses. Now, as Barbara’s thoughts become increasingly freeform and without punctuation, I realised the epilogue was a homage to Molly Bloom’s soliloquy which concludes Ulysses – except that Lodge’s version leads up to a knowing joke: whereas Molly’s (and Ulysses’) last word is Yes – a heroic affirmation of life and love – Lodge’s much more constrained, English, embarrassed and parochial story ends with… ‘perhaps’.

Funny? Sort of. Clever clever? Very.

David or Len?

It’s hard to believe that Lodge’s feebly timid, mouse-like academics, in books published in 1962 and 1965, inhabited the same world, let alone the same London streets, as the stylish, decisive protagonist of Len Deighton’s fabulously cool Ipcress novels – The IPCRESS File (1962), Horse Under Water (1963), Funeral in Berlin (1964). The movie of The Ipcress File features a scene set in the British Museum in the same year as Lodge’s dowdy comedy is set there (1965), and Deighton’s stylish spy works from an office only a few hundred yards from the Museum, in Charlotte Street.

Same city, different worlds.

Related links

David Lodge’s novels

1960 – The Picturegoers
1962 – Ginger, You’re Barmy – Jonathan Browne is fresh from gaining a First in English when he is plunged into National Service among brutal proles and cruel NCOs in a windswept barracks in Yorkshire. Onto this amiable backdrop is nailed a melodramatic story about his friend at university, Mike the ginger-haired renegade of the title, attacking a cruel NCO, being imprisoned, being released by the IRA (!), and then forced to return to make a raid on the barracks which Jonathan, by freakish coincidence, ends up foiling.
1965 – The British Museum Is Falling Down – a day in the life of young academic Adam Appleby, unhappy Catholic father of three, who spends a day at the BM failing to do any research and finds himself embroiled in more and more comic complexities, all the time panic-stricken that his wife might be pregnant for the fourth time.
1970 – Out of the Shelter
1975 – Changing Places: A Tale of Two Campuses
1980 – How Far Can You Go?
1984 – Small World: An Academic Romance
1988 – Nice Work
1991 – Paradise News
1995 – Therapy
2001 – Thinks …
2004 – Author, Author
2008 – Deaf Sentence
2011 – A Man of Parts

Sonia Delaunay @ Tate Modern

What a fabulous show! The EY Exhibition: Sonia Delaunay brings together over 100 paintings, lithographs, designs, fabrics, dresses and scarves and shoes, photos and films to present a sumptuous summary of the extraordinary life and art of a twentieth century great, Sonia Delauney.

Life summary

She was born Sonia Terk in 1885 into a cultured Jewish family in the Ukraine and as a young girl was sent to her uncle who brought her up in an atmosphere of art and galleries. She showed early promise, taking art lessons before going to Germany and on to Paris to study. She took to the bold anti-realistic colouring of the Fauves and, aged just 22, in 1907, was exhibiting her paintings alongside Picasso, Dufy and Derain.

Sonia married the French artist Robert Delauney and the pair applied new ideas of colour contrast, the notion that colours react off and against each other rather than referencing the modern world, creating a universe of abstract shapes and designs. (A notion fully explored in the National Gallery’s recent exhibition on Making Colour.) She and her husband christened this ‘Simultanism’ and the name stuck for decades; after the war she called her workshop after the movement, the Atelier Simultané and critics and journalists used it liberally to describe her designs.

But she didn’t only make wonderful bold paintings: she was already collaborating with avant-garde poets to create poem-paintings, poem curtains, poem doors ie objects covered in words interacting with her exuberant designs.

Sonia Delaunay, Yellow Nude (1908) Musée des Beaux-Arts de Nantes, Nantes  © Pracusa 2014083

Sonia Delaunay, Yellow Nude (1908)
Musée des Beaux-Arts de Nantes, Nantes
© Pracusa 2014083

The first room contained a lot of these wild fauvist portraits all of which I really liked:

Sonia moved quickly from the wonderful portraits shown in the first room of the show, to develop the juxtaposition of vibrant colours in primary shapes, generally focusing on circles and sections, which was to dominate her vision for the rest of her very long life. Initially you can discern figures in them – for example the couples dancing at the fashionable Bal Bullier, depicted in a big rectangular painting – and the next few rooms fascinatingly show how images of dancing people are slowly absorbed into the design as her vision progresses to complete abstraction.

Sonia Delaunay, Prismes electriques (1914) © Pracusa 2013057 © CNAP

Sonia Delaunay, Prismes electriques (1914)
© Pracusa 2013057
© CNAP

But she was a world class designer as well. Back in Paris after the Great War Diaghilev, no less, asked her to design costumes for a ballet about Cleopatra, and this exhibition includes photos of the original production with the dancers posing in their costumes, and a couple of the costumes themselves.

She set up a highly successful boutique selling clothes and accessories of her own design. The centrepiece of the show is an enormous room showing scores of paper designs and then how they were converted into dresses, skirts, coats, hats, shoes, bags, scarves, swimsuits and a lot more, as well as numerous photos of models modeling them and some rare colour footage of high-class skinny 1920s ladies showcasing them.

In fact, it’s worth visiting the exhibition just to see the large number of brilliantly evocative, arty black and white photos which capture the style and energy of the Jazz Decade and show how seamlessly her art and design wasn’t limited to painting and high art, but overlapped and brightened every aspect of life.

Sonia Delaunay, Coat made for Gloria Swanson (1923-24)  Private Collection © Pracusa 2014083

Sonia Delaunay, Coat made for Gloria Swanson (1923-24)
Private Collection
© Pracusa 2014083

It may be a trivial detail but I noticed how most of her paintings and designs are roughly finished, deliberately leaving white patches between the loose edges of the colour shapes; but the manufactured clothes and objects can’t afford to be so ragged-edged: the shapes on the clothes and fabrics tend to be more precise and geometric. And so, because I like harsh Modernist lines, I found I often preferred the finished clothes to the looser designs and paintings.

My favourite items were a pair of turquoise court shoes.

Thus the exhibition not only features the rather wonderful dress she made for the impossibly glamorous Hollywood movie star, Gloria Swanson (made from 10 different shades of brown wool, shown above) but also a painting which features it in a very ‘simultanist’ context (below).

Sonia Delaunay, Simultaneous Dresses (The three women) (1925) Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza, Madrid  © Pracusa 2014083

Sonia Delaunay, Simultaneous Dresses (The three women) (1925)
Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza, Madrid
© Pracusa 2014083

Dropped into the middle of the show was one room dedicated to three enormous, really vast, wall-sized paintings created for the 1937 Paris Exhibition which had a strongly technical theme. They took two years to conceive and create and, although featuring the bright bold colours of her other works, are very unlike it in the draughtsmanlike precision of their depictions of bits of contemporary airplanes.

Sonia Delaunay, Propeller (Air Pavilion) (1937) Skissernas Museum, Lund, Sweden © Pracusa 2014083 Photo: Emma Krantz

Sonia Delaunay, Propeller (Air Pavilion) (1937)
Skissernas Museum, Lund, Sweden
© Pracusa 2014083
Photo: Emma Krantz

Along came another war when Sonia and Robert were forced south into Vichy France where Robert died in 1941. After the war she worked to promote his work and memory but continued to evolve her own style of abstraction. With the dominance of abstract expressionism she found herself feted as a pioneer, and again at the forefront of international art, with regular shows through the 1950s and her first retrospective in Germany in 1958.

Sonia Delaunay, Rhythm Colour no. 1076 (1939) Centre National des Arts Plastiques/Fonds National d’Art Contemporain, Paris, on loan to Palais des Beaux-Arts de Lille © Pracusa 2014083

Sonia Delaunay, Rhythm Colour no. 1076 (1939)
Centre National des Arts Plastiques/Fonds National d’Art Contemporain, Paris, on loan to Palais des Beaux-Arts de Lille
© Pracusa 2014083

Her post war works feature more black. One of the final rooms brings together gouaches from this period which seem darker and denser, not precise, exactly (note the shapes are still not ruler-straight and often feature crevices of white between the colouring); but the shapes themselves are more discrete and don’t bleed into each other so much as back in her early works.

She continued working, producing paintings, gouaches, illustrations, lithographs as well as tapestries, collaborating with writers and poets as she always had, producing striking and vibrant works into advanced old age. She made this when she was 83.

Sonia Delaunay, Syncopated rhythm, so-called The Black Snake (1967) Musée des Beaux-Arts, Nantes, France  © Pracusa 2014083

Sonia Delaunay, Syncopated rhythm, so-called The Black Snake (1967)
Musée des Beaux-Arts, Nantes, France
© Pracusa 2014083

What a woman! What a life! What an inspiration!

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