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Laughing Matters

James Moran

Quite a Good Time to be Born, by David Lodge, Harvill Secker, 488 pp, £25, ISBN: 978-1846559501

Many writers have scripted moments that develop an existence outside the original texts in which they appeared. People who have never read Oliver Twist will nonetheless correctly identify the image of Oliver with bowl in hand, asking for gruel with the words, “Please, sir, I want some more.” Those who have never leafed through or watched Hamlet will correctly identify the protagonist clutching a skull and declaring “I knew him, Horatio.” And, for sure, there are many who have never opened a copy of Lady Chatterley’s Lover who would tell you precisely what kind of thing Connie might encounter in a gamekeeper’s hut.

None of David Lodge’s novels have yet achieved that kind of popular status. Yet he has scripted a number of moments that have developed a life outside of the texts in which they originally appeared, whether in online reviews, dictionaries of quotations or discussions on television and radio. At least some readers of the drb might recognise his line “Literature is mostly about having sex and not much about having children. Life is the other way around.” without necessarily remembering that it comes from his 1965 novel The British Museum is Falling Down. Other readers might recall his sentence about a fundamental “law of academic life: it is impossible to be excessive in flattery of one’s peers”, but may not instantly be able to place that phrase as coming from his 1984 book Small World.

One of Lodge’s best-known set pieces, perhaps because it easily lends itself to unwise recreation, is the parlour game of “humiliation”. This is pure Pierre Bayard (How to Talk About Books You Haven’t Read) in competitive format, a game that involves naming the works from the literary canon that you have failed to read. Lodge portrays a driven American academic playing this game, and being caught in a bind: tell the truth and win the game? Or lose the game and progress happily with his career? In the end the academic is too competitive not to beat his rivals during the game. He manages to win by admitting that he has never read Hamlet.

Quite possibly you know about “humiliation”. You may well have played it. But you may not necessarily remember that it comes from Lodge’s 1975 campus novel Changing Places. The fact that it can sometimes be difficult to place some of those moments is possibly an indication of Lodge’s sustained literary output. His ability to maintain, for well over half a century, his position as well-regarded novelist (as well as literary critic) makes him a rare bird among his contemporaries. For example, in 1956, when Lodge was setting about writing his first novel, the Wunderkind of British literature was Colin Wilson. Wilson’s prestige lasted for all of one year. In 1960, that same first novel by Lodge was reviewed alongside another much-praised debut, Stan Barstow’s A Kind of Loving. But whereas Lodge produced a series of bestselling follow-ups, A Kind of Loving is probably the only novel that most people now remember by Barstow, if they remember Barstow at all.

One of the other reasons why it can be difficult to place distinct moments from Lodge’s fiction is that, although he varies his narrative style, his books repeatedly focus on similar themes, not least by frequently concentrating upon the realms of higher education and Catholicism. Here Lodge has found a rich seam of comic material. The modern university is exquisitely well-designed to cultivate exactly those traits of careerism, personal animosity and bureaucratic incompetence that are so ripe for skewering by the comic novelist. The Catholic Church, meanwhile, exists in the self-evidently absurd situation of having a group of predominantly celibate and elderly men established as the arbiters of what should, or should not, be performed in the bedroom by the rest of the faithful. Lodge’s fiction could have been far more acerbic about both of these topics, but, as his new memoir, Quite a Good Time to be Born, makes clear, he has long felt a particular commitment and loyalty to both the ivory tower and the barque of Peter. As an insider, he has therefore been able to write about both in a way that is very funny and which manages to hit home.

Lodge was born into a lower middle class London family in 1935, and was raised during the years of war and postwar austerity by a musician father and a Catholic mother. He proved sufficiently bright and sufficiently fortunate to take advantage of the educational opportunities offered in Butler-era Britain, and ended up studying at University College London, which led (after a period of national service in the army) to a job as an English lecturer at the University of Birmingham. He subsequently maintained a twin-track career as literary academic and author of prose fiction and remains best known for the latter today.

Quite a Good Time to be Born maps these biographical details of Lodge’s first forty years against the social and cultural changes of the mid-twentieth century, not least the period of glasnost and retrogression that affected the church from 1958. During the pre-Vatican II years, Lodge had been an extremely devout Catholic teenager. Remarkably – to me at least – he writes that that between the age of fifteen and a half and seventeen and a half, “I didn’t masturbate. I knew neither the word nor the deed. I handled my penis in bed as a comforting accompaniment to reveries of various kinds, sometimes sexual in content, but it did not occur to me that by more vigorous manipulation I could provoke an ejaculation.” He goes on to write that “I had no ambitions to have sexual intercourse as a teenager – it was simply not imaginable”, and then describes having a “long, celibate courtship” with the woman who would become his wife. Lodge was well into his twenties by this time. According to Lodge, after the pair became formally engaged, “at the end of the working day I would often pop round on the Vespa for cocoa and a cuddle”. No bouts of self-abuse are described, not even in the most perfunctory Patrick-Kavanagh style; as though Lodge is reacting to the Oxford don Valentine Cunningham, who, on Radio 4 in 1980, identified the real-life Lodge with his fictional character of Michael, the guilty and troubled Catholic masturbator of the newly published novel How Far Can You Go?

Lodge is keen to emphasise that his youthful abstinence was not only motivated by religion but by a generally conservative cultural environment, and he repeatedly points out his broader naivety: he describes for instance how, during his late teens, he remained innocent enough to walk arm-in-arm with a male school-friend down the road without noticing any catcalls or jeers. Nonetheless, it is clear that the young Lodge’s decision to refrain from acting on any sexual instinct was something strongly informed by a traditional form of penny-catechism Catholicism, with its potentially alarming set of rules and eternal punishments.

After his marriage, however, Lodge developed his early career as a novelist at the same time as the Catholic Church threatened to re-evaluate sex, with Pope John XXIII setting up a special commission to focus on the hot-button issue of birth control. In 1966 a beefed-up version of this commission (which included several women) reported back to John’s successor, Paul VI. Those involved in the commission had voted overwhelmingly in favour of altering Church teaching to allow artificial contraception, and the expectation from the pews was that change was around the corner. However, Paul VI was spooked by a minority report, secretly prepared by four dissenting members of the commission, which argued that the ascendancy of the papacy itself would be undermined by any shift in teaching. In 1969 Paul VI therefore issued the papal encyclical Humanae Vitae (Of Human Life) to reaffirm the traditional approach, using an intellectually shoddy appeal to “natural law”. Needless to say, Humanae Vitae proved to have precisely the reverse effect to that intended and Vatican teaching about birth control is now regarded as sufficiently coco-bananas that even practising Catholics largely disregard it (a Tablet survey in 2008 found that about seventy per cent of British Mass-goers were happy to use condoms). Intriguingly, although the current pope, Francis, has praised Humanae Vitae as “prophetic”, he has also stated that Catholics do not need to breed “like rabbits”.

By the early 1960s, although Lodge had been trying to lead his sex life in accordance with official teaching, he was one of those Catholics who hoped that more liberal voices might prevail in Rome. He was now “seized with the idea of a novel about the moral dilemma of married Catholics over birth control. As far as I was aware, the subject had never been treated in any detail in a novel, and I knew all about it, in theory and practice.” From the start, Lodge felt that the only way to treat the subject was through comedy. The book subsequently became one of his most widely read and admired works, the 1964 volume The British Museum is Falling Down, which revolves around a character who is both an impoverished Catholic and a postgraduate literature student, living in fear that his wife might become pregnant with their fourth child. The novel ends with the main character’s wife, Barbara, reflecting that “well perhaps the church will change and a good thing too there’ll be much less misery in the world but it’s silly to think that everything in the garden will be lovely”.

Under John Paul II, the Vatican of course set its face determinedly against such change, and Humanae Vitae continued to echo in other Lodge novels, including Paradise News (1991), a fine novel which goes unmentioned in the new memoir. However, what Quite a Good Time to be Born does emphasise is that Lodge’s novelistic treatment of Catholic teaching about sex was only one side of his engagement with this issue, and that his well-known witty treatment of the subject in fictions has also had a less familiar and less comic counterpart. Lodge may always have had an eye on the comedic potential of Catholic doctrine in his novels, but his memoir reveals that has long felt that “the Church’s teaching has undoubtedly had tragic consequences for countless lives, in sexual deprivation, marital stress and damage to women’s health”.

One of the most momentous moments in Lodge’s life and thought came in 1966, when his third child, Christopher, was born with Down’s syndrome. This had an initially devastating effect on Lodge, who describes how “In those early days it crossed my mind, as I suppose it does with many people in that situation, that it would be a blessing if the child died peacefully and painlessly.” In the longer term, Lodge reflects that Christopher “turned out to be a very rewarding child to bring up, with a distinctive personality that charmed most people who met him – confident, affectionate, and for a Down’s remarkably articulate – even witty.” Nonetheless, as Lodge puts it:

In one respect Christopher caused a positive improvement in our marriage. Not long after he was born Mary decided to go on the pill, without any prompting from me but with my unhesitating agreement. Suddenly it seemed a very simple decision. Random though the extra copy of chromosome 21 was, mothers who gave birth to a Down’s baby were more likely to have another, and the effort of bringing up one was going to be demanding enough. We made a simple pragmatic decision, but it was enormously significant: we took responsibility for our own life, instead of being governed by a code invented by theologians which looked increasingly irrational and had no demonstrable basis in the teachings of Jesus Christ.

Consequently, when Paul VI produced Humanae Vitae in 1969, Lodge felt compelled to join a campaign by the laity (the “Catholic Renewal Movement”) that sought to overhaul the patriarchal approach of the church. He co-authored an article in the Catholic Herald arguing in favour of female ordination and deploring the way that the icon of the Virgin Mary had been used to subordinate women. He also wrote a leaflet setting out the conscientious grounds for dissent from Humanae Vitae, of which 100,000 copies were distributed in clinics of the Family Planning Association before, inevitably, the bishops stepped in and censored the publication. Fascinatingly, for a writer with such a distinguished list of critical and creative publications to his name, Lodge describes this leaflet by saying “I doubt if anything I wrote before or after it did as much good.”

It should be emphasised that Lodge was not becoming a cheerleader for sexual licentiousness. In Quite a Good Time to be Born, he sounds a distinctly conservative note when he writes about a British behavioural survey of 2001 showing that “a quarter of girls and nearly a third of boys were sexually experienced before the age of sixteen”, commenting:

Every newspaper reader is aware of the social consequences: teenage promiscuity, schoolgirl mothers, fatherless families, the spread of sexually transmitted diseases, and psychological damage from addition to pornography. The repressive sexual ethos of the 1940s and ’50s had its drawbacks, but we seem to have exchanged them for a different and more extensive set of problems.

Lodge too continues to offset the spiritual consolations of Catholicism against the consequences of its more regressive teachings, a generosity that many other writers and commentators have not felt able to extend towards an organisation that has, for example, protected paedophile priests and which has appeared indifferent in the face of homophobia and AIDS. At the same time, when Lodge describes his in-laws, a Catholic family with seven children, he reflects that much of their “unhappiness was connected, directly or indirectly, with their Catholic faith, but for most of them only the faith made it bearable”.

Somewhat frustratingly, however, Lodge fails to say very much about why he himself became more devout in his teenage years, at an age when most of us are scarcely prioritising religion. The octogenarian prefers to point out that he does not now have particularly good insight into the mind of his younger self, stating that “It is very difficult to recall accurately how one felt and behaved sixty years after the event”. And so Quite a Good Time to be Born repeatedly relies on direct quotations from Lodge’s fictions for evidence of the real-life circumstances of his own youth.

Equally, he does not really reveal how his own devotional position has evolved or where it has left him. The book ends with the thought that, by the age of forty, “my faith had been demythologised, and I had to recognise that I no longer believed literally in the affirmations of the Creed which I recited at mass every Sunday, though they did not lose all meaning and value for me. But that is a subject, among others, for another book.” Famously, Lodge told The Tablet in 2004 that he was now an “agnostic Catholic”. But in making that assertion, which appeared off-the-cuff, he was actually recycling an earlier phrase that was given to the very same publication by Graham Greene in 1989. In his recent study Lives in Writing (2014), Lodge discusses Greene’s earlier statement and reflects that Greene ultimately “drew a distinction between ‘belief’ which he had lost, and ‘faith’ which he retained, though the latter always seemed to me more like a wistful kind of hope that the whole Christian myth might improbably turn out to be true”. Was Lodge’s statement to The Tablet in 2004 an indication that he too had arrived at this point? Perhaps a second volume of memoirs will tell us.

A further curious feature of Quite a Good Time to be Born is that, although Lodge’s novels have shown him to be a master of inventive literary plotting, this first volume of memoir proceeds in a determinedly unflashy way. The narrative simply follows a chronological order, and is filled with many details that could surely have been pared away. Did the reader really need to know, for example, that during an undergraduate vacation, his future wife had visited relatives in the West of Ireland, where she had eaten too much gammon and too many potatoes, but that when she returned to England “Her figure soon resumed its normal shape”? Indeed an acknowledgement in the book thanks Lodge’s wife for fact-checking. In his 2003 book Consciousness and the Novel, Lodge had shown himself to be aware of the limitations of this very kind of writing, observing that:

History conceived as the sum total of individual human lives is of course unknowable: there is simply too much data. Historiography can give us selective accounts of events in selected human lives, but the more scientific its method – the more scrupulous it is in basing all its assertions on evidence – the less able it is to represent the density of those events as consciously experienced. That is, however, something that narrative literature, and especially the novel, can do. It creates fictional models of what it is like to be a human being, moving through time and space. It captures the density of experienced events by its rhetoric, and it shows the connectedness of events through the devices of plot.

Some of the most powerful and affecting moments of Quite a Good Time to be Born indeed occur when Lodge allows himself the occasional moment of novelistic leeway, particularly in rare flash-forward moments that tell of future events. There is, for example, a vivid description of one of his undergraduate tutors, Winifred Nowottny, whom Lodge knew as an impressive and lively New Critical scholar, but who nonetheless failed to complete her Arden edition of Shakespeare’s poetry, became a paranoid recluse, and was, years later, found dead in a flat that was “filthy and full of scattered pages of notes about Shakespeare’s sonnets”.

It may be, however, that the inclusion of a range of seemingly extraneous detail in the memoir  is itself a form of tribute to James Joyce, because it is ultimately he who emerges as Lodge’s hero. Lodge first read A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man as a teenager, feeling an immediate affinity with its depictions of Catholicism, as well as “the first stirrings of a desire to attempt creative writing myself”. After that, he purchased an expensive copy of Ulysses, again finding “my Catholic background immensely helpful” and believing that “From that time on he [Joyce] was my literary hero” and “the writer I revered above all others”. He even observes that “From my first reading of Ulysses I also learned a lot of interesting and surprising things about sex.” There are, of course, many writers who hold Joyce in similarly high regard but there are surely far fewer who would follow Lodge in spending the first post-marital holiday in “visiting sites immortalised in A Portrait of the Artist and Ulysses”. Indeed, during that honeymoon, Lodge and his new wife even took what he describes as “an extraordinary ride over the hill of Howth (where the young Molly Bloom said ‘yes I will Yes’ to Leopold)”.

When Joyce’s influence is noted in this way, it begins to emerge as one of the most sustained features of Lodge’s oeuvre. As Lodge highlights, his first novel, The Picturegoers (1960), includes a large number of varying viewpoints and subplots because of the influence of the “Wandering Rocks” chapter of Ulysses. More obviously, The British Museum is Falling Down (1965) includes an “Oxen of the Sun”-style parody of various literary styles and concludes with a female monologue that self-consciously points back to “Penelope”. Out of the Shelter (1970) opens with a section that owes so much to the start of A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man that, when Lodge’s novel was reissued in 1986, the author replaced his speech marks with a Joycean dash to indicate direct speech. Elsewhere, in Small World (1984) and Nice Work (1988), as Lodge points out, “like other authors before me I took a tip from Joyce and used precursor texts as structural scaffolding for stories of modern life”. Even in Quite a Good Time to be Born, Lodge cannot resist describing himself as feeling “agenbite of inwit” (remorse of conscience) at the memory of not sending a copy of his first novel to an inspirational former schoolteacher. And, disconcertingly, he admits that, remembering his schooldays, “I can no longer distinguish confidently between the details that were taken from life [and], those that were inspired by classic fictional treatments of the subject, like Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man”.

This use of Joyce as a touchstone is part of what J Russell Perkin, in an insightful recent book on Lodge, has described as the novelist’s “continuing and complex relationship with Irishness”. In fact, at the start of his memoir, Lodge describes how he longed to find evidence of some Jewish ancestry when conducting research into his genealogy. He had heard a family rumour about a Jewish connection, and had “always enjoyed Jewish humour and the work of Jews, especially Jewish-American writers […] I liked the idea that this strand in my work might have a genetic origin”. However, it turns out that “The quest for a Jewish ancestor ended disappointingly” and he has had to settle for an Irish element in his family history instead.

Lodge’s mother, Rosalie Mary Murphy, was a Catholic of Irish extraction: her grandparents came from Cork. In his youth, Lodge grew close to an aunt who used “the occasional Irish idiom” and who “played up her half-Irish descent”. And he was first introduced to the writings of Joyce by an inspirational schoolteacher from Ireland, Malachy Carroll. Lodge then married a second-generation Irish wife, and it is not difficult to see the way in which her divided national loyalties may have influenced Lodge’s fiction. In Lodge’s second novel, Ginger, You’re Barmy (1962), for example, we find the second-generation Irish character of Mike Brady, who is asked:

“Are you Irish, Mike?
I had been wondering about this. His name and physical appearance seemed to suggest that he was Irish, but his speech was distinguishable from standard Southern English only by a certain melodic softness of the vowels.
“No, unfortunately. Otherwise I wouldn’t be here. My parents are Irish, but I was born in England’.

Indeed in that novel, Mike Brady’s father is associated with the Easter Rising, just as, in Quite a Good Time to be Born, Lodge describes his father-in-law as having a connection to IRA gunrunning.

Still, it is the influence of an Irish variety of Catholicism that has had the most profound effect upon Lodge’s life and writing. He explains:

The ethos of English Catholicism at the parochial level in the late 1940s and early 1950s was not very different from Irish Catholicism at the beginning of the century. Doctrine and devotional habits had not changed much in the interval, and the majority of priests, nuns, teaching brothers and Catholic laity in England were Irish or descendants of Irish immigrants.

This observation appears to rework one of the observations from How Far Can You Go? (1980), where one of the characters reflects on the way that English Catholics are repressed and blames this trait on “the Irish Jansenist tradition”: “In the penal days, Irish priests used to be trained in France, by the Jansenists, so that over-scrupulous, puritanical kind of Catholicism got into their bloodstream – and ours too, because, let’s face it, English Catholicism is largely Irish Catholicism.”

We should not be surprised then to find that Lodge’s novels repeatedly include Irish Catholic priests living in England, who are not necessarily depicted in a flattering way. In The British Museum is Falling Down (1965), for example, we find the traditionalist and nationalist Father Finbar Flannegan engaged in a kind of reverse colonialism:

Father Finbar’s ideas about the Catholic Faith were very much formed by his upbringing in Tipperary, and he seemed to regard the London parish in which he worked as a piece of the Old Country which had broken off in a storm and floated across the sea until it lodged itself in the Thames Basin. The parish was indeed at least half-populated by Irish, but this was not, in Adam and Barbara’s eyes, an adequate excuse for nostalgic allusions to ‘Back Home’ in sermons, or the sanctioning of collections in the church porch for the dependents of I.R.A. prisoners. As to the liturgical reform and the education of the laity, Father Finbar’s rosary beads rattled indignantly in his pocket at the very mention of such schemes, and he would, Adam suspected, chain up all the missals in the parish at the drop of a biretta.

A similar Irish cleric appears in Small World (1984), urging Irish migrants who have arrived in a fictional version of Birmingham to return home because “This is a terrible sinful city.”

Lodge’s comic Irish clergymen may be figures of fun, but they are scarcely demons of the Paul Murray variety. Indeed, one thing that now looks conspicuously absent in Lodge’s depictions of the Irish priesthood is the kind of sexual abuse with which Lodge’s educators, the De La Salle order, have since been connected in Ireland, but Lodge justifies this exclusion in his memoir by writing that “Never at any time when I was at St Joseph’s did I observe, or hear of, or feel personally threatened by, any untoward behaviour of a sexual nature from any of the brothers. Indeed I was completely unaware of any case of sexual abuse of minors by priests, brothers or nuns in the Catholic Church anywhere until reports began to appear in the press in the 1990s.”

In fact, during the decade when many of those revelations came to public attention, Lodge provided some more sympathetic depictions of Irish Catholic priests in England. In Therapy (1995), we find the less risible figure of the Dubliner Father Jerome, a humane priest who “didn’t look at all like our school chaplain or any other clergyman I had encountered. He didn’t even resemble himself on the altar.” Elsewhere, in Paradise News (1991), Lodge presents a second-generation Irish cleric, Bernard Walsh, who works in an English parish with “mostly second- or third-generation Irish” until realising that he is “an atheist priest, or at least an agnostic one” and engaging in a failed love affair with a female parishioner. Perhaps there is a link here (although Lodge doesn’t say so) between Bernard Walsh and Lodge’s real-life acquaintance, Marcus Lefebure, whom the young Lodge feared as a romantic rival but who was later ordained as a priest, and in 1985 “had a serious psychological breakdown and left the order and the priesthood, but not the Church, to become a lay counsellor”.

Thus, although the title of Quite a Good Time to be Born apparently refers to the socio-cultural situation of the grammar school boy in postwar Britain, there is an important Irish dimension too that Lodge teases out in the volume. He may be a writer who repeatedly looks to Catholicism, but he is quite clear that this Catholicism is of a variety that has been evolved within an Irish context. If he is a cradle Catholic, he is nonetheless aware that the cradle has been constructed overseas and may not fit him particularly well, consequently giving him that valuable sense of creative distance that his novels exploit. Stylistically, too, for all of his attraction to figures such as Kingsley Amis and Graham Greene, it is to Joyce that Lodge owes his primary allegiance; whilst his Irish in-laws clearly provide the inspiration for a number of ideas that appear in novels set in England. In his memoir, then, David Lodge emerges as quite an English writer, although something of an Irish writer as well.


James Moran is head of drama at the University of Nottingham. He is the author of The Theatre of Sean O’Casey (2013) and Irish Birmingham: A History (2010).



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