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

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