Writer’s Luck by David Lodge review – from academia to the mainstream

In his second volume of memoir, the novelist ranges from earnest to Pooterish

The 500 or so densely packed pages of Quite a Good Time to Be Born (2015), the first volume of David Lodge’s memoirs, ended with our hero in his 41st year, successfully embarked on the dual-track career of academic-cum-comic novelist in a decade when both those professions promised far more in the way of financial security than they do now. As literary autobiographies go, it was a rather peculiar exercise and the peculiarity lay not in any procedural weirdness or beetle-browed obsession with settling scores, but in a reluctance to entertain the notion of its subject’s personal myth.

For literary memoirs, a brisk survey of the genre insists, are hardly ever about what really happens to the people whose names appear on their jackets. They are far more likely to be about what those people think happens to them or how they wish to be regarded by the readers who buy their work. Anthony Powell, for example, and despite compelling evidence to the contrary, always imagined himself to be “a poor boy made good”. Lodge, on the other hand, offered the highly unusual spectacle of a creative writer simply setting down, with sometimes disarming lack of guile, how he had come to be the person he was.

Not that his account of an early manhood spent climbing the rungs of the postwar academic ladder lacked historical resonance. From the outset, the author of Changing Places (1975), How Far Can You Go? (1980) and Nice Work (1988) revealed himself to be a classic example of the archetype defined by Richard Hoggart’s sociological classic The Uses of Literacy (1957): the scholarship boy from the modest home – the Lodges came from grimy south-east London – for whom a knowledge of English literature is not only the door into an imaginative world but a crucial stopping-off point on the path to upward social mobility.

Naturally, there are differences between twentysomething Dr Lodge, struggling for academic advancement and fretting over his early novels, and fortysomething Professor Lodge, proud author of The Modes of Modern Writing (1977). Most obviously, our man stops being the kind of person whom, half a century before, HG Wells would have enjoyed writing about and turns into the sharpest of professional operators. The novels go mainstream, win prizes and get filmed by the BBC, while the academic life, as well as furnishing raw material, turns into a globe-trotting cavalcade of British Council jollies, James Joyce symposiums in Zurich and earnest colloquia on narrative theory and the poetics of fiction.

To do Lodge justice, he occasionally seems uneasy about one or two of the gravy train aspects of the bygone academic life (the record is a 16-flight, 23-day itinerary from 1986) and wonders whether some of the reviewers who sniffed at the peripatetic lifestyle laid bare in Small World (1984) might not have had a point. Meanwhile, a dilemma-strewn professional life – he eventually takes early retirement from the University of Birmingham – has its personal counterpoint and for every Whitbread prize there is the problem of an ageing parent, a Down’s syndrome son or an increasingly less plausible Catholic faith.

Style-wise, it has to be said that Writer’s Luck does occasionally reprise the earlier volume’s habit of earnestly conveying information about the literary life that even outsiders might regard as faintly obvious. “Nowadays with computer software a writer can effortlessly produce the simulacrum of a printed book from the very first draft and much of the defamiliarising effect of the traditional process has been lost,” he ventures at one stage. “Another way for an author to measure the effectiveness of work in progress is show it to others,” he notes, a paragraph later, at which point I scribbled the words “No, really?” in the margin.

To balance this is a wonderfully Pooterish description of his sidling into a showing of Deep Throat in mid-1970s Toulouse, where the juxtaposition of hardcore porn and shots of fireworks exploding furnish another example “of the binary opposition between metonymy and metaphor”, on which Lodge the academic is so keen, and a high degree of astuteness about the literary world on to whose cash-strewn beach he is so providentially thrown up. As he notes, the period 1980-2000 was a boom time for the literary novelist, a kind of superlatively funded creative paradise where bumper advances, newly fashionable book prizes and media absorption made household names out of writers who in the past would have been confined to the highbrow margin.

As for that prize culture, Lodge includes an account of the 1989 Booker deliberations, which famously led to Martin Amis’s London Fields being excluded from the shortlist by what can only be described as an anti-Amis pincer movement fronted by the novelist Maggie Gee and the academic Helen McNeil. I happened to be involved in a TV discussion that night in which Lodge took part and can testify to the air of abject gloom he brought to the proceedings. But the real eye-opener from that judging panel is not the fact that Gee and McNeil should have ganged up on London Fields but Lodge’s revelation that McNeil sternly informed him that among her criteria for a good novel was that “it must be ideologically correct”. I’m glad none of my children ever wandered into her seminar class.

• Writer’s Luck: A Memoir 1976-1991 by David Lodge is published by Harvill Secker (£25). To order a copy for £21.25 go to guardianbookshop.com or call 0330 333 6846. Free UK p&p over £10, online orders only. Phone orders min p&p of £1.99

Contributor

DJ Taylor

The GuardianTramp

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