Three novels by David Lodge

A couple of years ago, I picked up a volume at a used book sale titled A David Lodge Trilogy. It includes three novels, Changing Places (1975,) Small World (1984,) and Nice Work (1988.) When those novels were relatively new and I was a college student thinking of going to graduate school in Classics, a professor of mine had recommended Small World to me, so I’d been aware of Lodge’s fiction for a long time.

The very cover of the edition I read (Penguin, 1993)

Changing Places evokes life on the campuses of the University of California at Davis and the University of Birmingham in 1969 with a great deal of atmosphere. Unfortunately, the story has many weak points and Lodge uses the same device to paper over all of them, which is to set the characters having sex with each other. For example, when one of the two middle-aged professors at the center of the book stumbles into a roomful of hippies and Lodge can’t figure out a way to get him out without ruining the jokes, an orgy starts up, from which the professor excuses himself. And when the novel is approaching its ending and Lodge doesn’t have a conclusion, the two professors swap wives and the four of them wind up talking about it. That conversation does involve an interesting moment, when the professors have run out of things to say about the situation and wind up talking about literary theory. The wives are exasperated with this, and the one who is becoming a feminist asks the other if she doesn’t recognize the sound of men talking. A page after that, the book just stops. As it may as well- once you realize Lodge isn’t going to go more than twenty pages without another unmotivated, inconsequential sexual encounter, there isn’t any logical reason for it to be any particular length. It would be bad enough if these encounters appeared as real erotica, but Lodge is so much a professional Englishman that no sex scene he writes is complete until the parties break an awkward silence with embarrassed apologies.

Small World has the same problem on an even larger scale. About half the book consists of sex scenes that merely cover up an awkward spot in story logic or a character’s lack of personality. He even pads it out with excurses here and there assuring us that everyone is having a tremendous amount of sex.

The main story is a young literary scholar’s quest to find a mysterious woman he met at a conference. She is a specialist in romance from Apuleius to Spenser. At one point, the young man is at an airport and a gate agent tells him he missed the woman not long before. She repeats to the young man something the young woman told her:

Real romance is a pre-novelistic kind of narrative. It’s full of adventure and coincidence and surprises and marvels, and has lots of characters who are lost or enchanted or wandering about looking for each other or for the Grail or something like that. Of course, they’re often in love, too.

A David Lodge Trilogy: Small World (Penguin, 1993) pages 493f

That’s what, in the literary criticism business, they call a programmatic statement. The parts of Small World that go somewhere make up a romance in that sense.

I should mention that there are some funny bits. For example, at one point a character is kidnapped by a gang who know that his wife has written a novel that sold millions of copies and made her very rich. What they don’t realize is that she is in fact his ex-wife, and the novel is about how much she hates him. When they demand that she pay them $500,000 to release him, she responds by asking how much she would have to pay for them to keep him. When her agent explains that it will be bad for her image if she sticks to that line, she offers them $10,000. The negotiations that follow are worth several laughs.

I was tempted to stop after Small World, but was glad I read Nice Work. It is by far the best of the three. I was a bit concerned at the outset. Lodge pauses several times to give detailed reports on the characters’ bathroom functions. That was hardly a step up from the sex scenes, but it tapers off after the first 40 pages. From then on, there is no filler and there are no dead spots to paper over.

The two main characters are a young woman who teaches English literature and Women’s Studies at the same lightly fictionalized version of the University of Birmingham that had figured in the two previous novels, and a middle-aged man who manages a factory across town from campus. The woman has a very apt name for a literary critic- Doctor Penrose. That’s what critics do, doctor what was left behind when the pen rose for the last time. Her first name is Robyn, suggesting that her work involves robbin’ the texts of some meaning they ought to have.

Doctor Penrose makes a programmatic statement herself. She tells students in a tutorial:

Unable to contemplate a political solution to social problems they described in their fiction, the industrial novelists could only offer narrative solutions to the personal dilemmas of their characters… In short, all the Victorian novelist could offer as a solution to the problems of industrial capitalism were: a legacy, a marriage, emigration, or death.

A David Lodge Trilogy: Nice Work (Penguin 1993) page 643

From this moment, we know that before we reach the end of the novel the four solutions available to Penrose’s own problems will be a legacy, a marriage, emigration, or death. It’s also worth noting that at no point does it seem to dawn on her that she has disproven her own thesis. If those were the only answers Dickens, Gaskill, Kingsley, Gissing, and company could give to questions about the problems of industrial capitalism, either they were a load of idiots, or those were not the questions they were asking at all.

The very day I read that passage, I looked at Twitter and saw that several people had posted this quote from the recently deceased Martin Amis:

Martin Amis quoted in David Wallace-Wells, “New New Yorker Martin Amis Talks Terrorism, Pornography, Idyllic Brooklyn, and American Decline.” Vulture, 22 July 2012. Screenshot by John Wemmick.

Nice Work was shortlisted for all the major prizes in 1988, and Amis made that remark in 2012. So there is a very good chance Amis read the book when it was new, and by the time twenty four years had passed had forgotten that it was not an original insight.

It is also just possible that Amis had read the theorist Lodge has studied most deeply in his work as a literary scholar, Mikhail Bakhtin. It’s the sort of observation a reading of Bakhtin’s work on genre and the carnivalesque might inspire.

At any rate, Nice Work is the sort of romance that appeals to people who fancy themselves hard-headed realists. Lodge gives enough detail about how people who work in universities interact with each other, how people who work in factories interact with each other, and how people from each interact with people from the other that it’s easy to imagine someone taking him to task for failing to propose a concrete solution to the problems of the higher education and manufacturing sectors of the British economy of the 1980s. So easy, in fact, that I suspect Lodge was playing a practical joke on the real-life Robyn Penroses of the period. Even if you aren’t inclined to fall into his trap, it is still enjoyable to read his plausible description of those two sides of Birmingham in those days and feel that you have visited a real place and become acquainted with a whole society.

Tweets of the Week: 20 May 2023

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