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.


Reviews of David Lodge novels

1960 – The Picturegoers – An ensemble piece following the lives of various characters in the fictional London suburb of Brickley, all linked by their attendance at their local cinema, the Palladium, as they fall in and out of love, practice various degrees of Catholicism and worry about sex.
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 ten young Catholic students in the 1950s, following their adventures as they mature during the 1960s and 70s, with extensive 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. (A pilgrimage novel)
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 friendship.
1991 – Paradise News – Agnostic priest Bernard Walsh is rung up by his dying aunt Ursula who lives in Honolulu (she married an American during the war) asking him to come visit her and bring his father (her brother). Thus begins a ‘holiday’ in ‘paradise’ in which old family secrets are disinterred, old wounds healed, and new life begins. (A pilgrimage novel)
1995 – Therapy – Successful TV scriptwriter Laurence Passmore has it all – hit show, sexy wife, grown-up kids flown the nest, big house, flash car – but is still obscurely unhappy, a problem which turns into a plight when his wife abruptly sues for divorce and he seeks refuge in the past as his life falls apart. (A pilgrimage novel)
2001 – Thinks… – At the (fictional) University of Gloucester, clever, lecherous, married cognitive scientist Ralph Messenger seduces bereaved novelist Helen Reed, in a story sprinkled with lectures on artificial intelligence which feel as if they’ve been cut & pasted from the popular science books of the 1990s.
2004 – Author, Author – A long and fascinating account of Henry James’s life from the mid-1880s to the mid-1890s as he attempted to branch out from writing novels and short stories with a sustained attempt to write plays for the stage, which proved, in the end, to be a humiliating failure – all told in a book which is saturated with interesting stories and gossip from the era.
2008 – Deaf Sentence – A return to the ‘contemporary’ novel, in which Desmond Bates is a retired professor of linguistics struggling with his growing deafness and difficult family, a fractious second wife, a senile father and a dangerously predatory American PhD student, an initially humdrum tale which moves towards some surprisingly dark and harrowing scenes.
2011 – A Man of Parts – A very long novel in which science fiction pioneer, novelist, political columnist and all-purpose social ‘prophet’, H.G. Wells, looks back over his life and recounts in squelchy detail his many, many sexual conquests.

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