Writer’s Luck: a Memoir 1976-91

Harvill Secker £25

David Lodge

Review by Hugh MacDonald

CURIOUSER and curiouser. The first slab of David Lodge’s memoirs, Quite a Good Time to Be Born, generally confounded reviewers. A writer of wit and invention had produced a book of genuine dullness. The second tranche is even more baffling.

When it is bad – and that is quite often – it is awful, like being stuck in a snug bar with the chap who knows the best route from Poole to Birkhamstead, avoiding the M25. And when it is good – and this is only in intermittent flashes – it is infuriating because it only reminds the reader of what could have been.

Its form and focus is imprecise, even distorted. Early in what becomes a tortuous ascent of Writer’s Luck, Lodge presents his disintegrating Catholicism, a sliver of reminiscence of a boating trip and a discussion of literary theory, though in the last he does advise uninterested readers to a skip a few pages in what can be seen as an unconscious attempt to push the boundaries of post-modernism.

Any one of these three strands could have provided a spine to the book that, at best, is curious in its choices and content and at worst seems a spoof.

Lodge was one of the most deft English authors of the end of the last century. This memoir covers the years of his breakthrough to considerable success with the publication of novels such as Changing Places, How Far Can You Go?, Small World, Nice Work and Paradise News. It is also a time of Lodge writing for TV and the stage and becoming a star in the word of academia.

Yet there is a perfunctory tone to most of all this, almost in the manner of one confessing some venial sins or admitting to some minor successes. The man is lost in a flurry of airline schedules, a veritable cascade of university conferences and a tedious telling of contracts signed or translation rights sold.

Family matters are largely restricted to the demise of his elders, educational arrangements for his children and the ethereal presence of his wife, Mary, who is tantalisingly glimpsed raising the author’s libido by parading naked around a swimming pool in her seventies but otherwise is restricted to sentences in which she offers advice that Lodge largely ignores.

Incidentally, this nod to sex flits and flirts throughout the book. He watches the pornographic movie Deep Throat in France, characteristically finding in it ‘the binary opposition between metonymy and metaphor’, he is propositioned by prostitutes in a New York cab and similarly resists advances by female academics. He is of that noble species: the person who goes to a conference specifically not to get laid.

The clue to this admirable fidelity may lie in a happy marriage and Lodge’s adherence to the principles of Catholicism if not to its dogma. This is a guess. Lodge is not for telling.

What remains inexplicable is Lodge’s judgment of what is important to be recounted. There are six pages about Center Parcs, a woodland holiday resort. I counted them, dear reader. The combined accounts of meetings with such as Anthony Burgess, Muriel Spark, Germaine Greer, Joyce Carol Oates and Seamus Heaney amount to about half of the space given to a nondescript if pleasant holiday retreat and about the same as the notation of the decoration and ornament of his London pied a terre, right down to the Bang and Olufsen sound system.

This is all the more exasperating because Lodge recounts a post-prandial sing song with Ted Hughes and Heaney in Boston. But there is a diffidence about Lodge that strangles any insight into either poet in personal terms.

This is a memoir that is smothered by a blanket of displacement activity or diversionary prose. A caption to the sort of photograph that would be rejected by a Birmingham property magazine reads: “The rear garden of our house in Edgbaston, with the new study extension visible to the left. Late 1980s.’ Has Armando Iannucci invaded the editing process, has Lodge taken structuralism to its literal lows?

Who knows? Except this caption and photograph takes up the same space as Lodge’s description of anxiety and depression that led him to a therapist. What appears to be a breakdown on one of his literary/academic tours is also dealt with cursorily. His debilitating deafness is not discussed because it is the subject of his novel, Deaf Sentence.

There is thus a lack of both genuine disclosure and passion about Writer’s Luck. These traits are bleakly evident throughout both volumes of Lodge’s memoirs but perhaps can be illustrated by two references.

The first is when Lodge is asked to present a paper on Why the Novel Matters. He declines, preferring to discuss The Novel Now: Thesis and Practices. The second is when he recounts the aftermath of a personal tragedy. He writes: “I did not weep. I never do.”

So why does he shy from discussion of the sheer vitality that surely lies at the heart of the novel? Why does he not cry? Who and what is David Lodge? And how did a writer of extraordinary gifts and a man of obvious, if restrained honesty come to assemble such a rickety edifice as Writer’s Luck?

Curiouser and curiouser.