It’s somehow fitting that my first encounter with David Lodge involved an English Literature class taught one hot, Madison summer taught by a German visiting professor who came complete with a barely penetrable accent, a Van Dyke beard, and a buff-colored linen sport coat, invariably worn over a silk Hawaiian shirt. There might have also been a monocle, but perhaps that’s just my memory playing tricks. Little else from that class — not the coffee and cigarettes with a few fellow students at a sidewalk cafe before class, not the brief summertime affair with one of my classmates, and certainly none of the other books* — has marked me in the same way that David Lodge’s The British Museum is Falling Down did. That is, permanently.
The British Museum is Falling Down is a slim volume, and one that encapsulates the greatness of Lodge’s comic and literary abilities. It’s the story of one day in the life of Adam, a nearly destitute graduate student of English Literature, who while not exactly getting anywhere with the research for his thesis (“The Structure of Long Sentences in Three Modern English Novels”) tries to find new ways to make a little money because he fears that his wife Barbara is pregnant yet again. Being Roman Catholic, they are denied access to contraception and already have three children in their little abcedarium: Clare, Edward, and Dominic. Lodge deepens the wry and sometimes silly comedy of Adam’s day by presenting each chapter in the style of a different writer. The scene in which Adam attempts to renew his Reading Room ticket is both Kafkaesque and extremely funny. There’s also, at least in my reckoning, some D.H. Lawrence, Graham Greene, and James Joyce.
I pull this book from the shelves at least once a year — and that gets directly at one of the things I love about David Lodge. While nearly all his novels are comic novels, they’re also all written with such lightly-worn literary artistry that they bear repeated reading. And he continues to write beautiful, funny, and thoroughly enjoyable novels. Here’s a selection of my favorites, though there are more.
Small World is one of Lodge’s many campus or academic novels, set in a series of academic conferences, many discussing medieval romance, the Grail quest, and Arthurian literature while also mimicking and sometimes parodying these romances in the structure of its own story. The main characters, Philip Swallow and Morris Zapp, are also the protagonists of Lodge’s earlier Changing Places. It features one of Lodge’s fictional locales, the University and City of Rummidge — his fictional version of Birmingham.
Nice Work is also set in Rummidge, and is the story of Robyn Penrose, a feminist academic specializing in the industrial novel at the University of Rummidge (and therefore in the same department under Philip Swallow) and Vic Wilcox, a manager of an engineering firm. Their story, and how their relationship spins out, is set against the backdrop of both academic politics and corporate politics.
Therapy is the story of Laurence “Tubby” Passmore, successful writer of sitcoms and failed husband, whose neuroses get the better of him, and who undergoes Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, aromatherapy, acupuncture and becomes fixated on Kierkegaard before making a pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela. The novel is written as a pastiche of journal entries, dramatic monologue, and memoir — all written at one point or another by Tubby himself.
Author, Author is based on the life of Henry James, mostly of the period from James’ voluntary expatriation to England to his death during the early years of the 20th century, and includes an in-depth exploration of James’ friendship with George du Maurier,* author of the wildly (especially in comparison to James’ own books) book, Trilby. In much the same way that Trilby overshadowed James’ books, Author, Author was overshadowed by Colm Toibin’s novel about Henry James’ dramatic ambitions, The Master. Lodge, not to be left in the shadows, wrote a book about it: The Year of Henry James: The Story of a Novel.
Deaf Sentence is Lodge’s latest novel, and one that circles around the comic (and sometimes tragicomic) misunderstandings that arise from the increasing deafness of a retired academic. This is perhaps one of the best examples of making lemonade when left with lemons: it’s based on Lodge’s own increasing deafness and retirement from academia.
Have you read any of David Lodge’s novels? Leave a comment and let us know what you think.
* However, I will not consent to re-read A Clockwork Orange (even with the original final chapter) or Ridley Walker ever again.
* Also, he was the grandfather of Daphne du Maurier, who wrote the exceptionally creepy Rebecca, which Alfred Hitchcock made into an even creepier film.