- David Lodge and the Tradition of the Modern Novel by J. Russell Perkin
David Lodge is best known for his “campus trilogy” of novels (Changing Places: A Tale of Two Campuses, 1975; Small World: An Academic Romance, 1984; and Nice Work, 1988). His place in contemporary letters seems assured, and he remains popular and widely read. Yet Lodge is not placed in the most elevated circle of serious or innovative British novelists of his [End Page 445] generation, which includes, for example, A.S. Byatt (born one year later) or the far less widely read Scottish author Alasdair Gray (born one year earlier). Lodge has published sixteen novels over five decades, and a dozen works of criticism, along with works of theatre and autobiography. J. Russell Perkin offers lucid, careful arguments for a more serious consideration of this oeuvre, which he positions within a tradition of liberal, realist, and Catholic writers running from James Joyce, Graham Greene, and Evelyn Waugh through Muriel Spark (dubbed by Lodge “the most gifted and innovative British novelist of her generation”) to Lodge himself.
The first chapter defines Lodge’s point of departure in the 1960s as that of a “conservative liberal,” thus, in his politics, a descendant of Trollope. In his realist aesthetic, as he himself declared in 1969, “[t]he aesthetics of compromise go naturally with the ideology of compromise, and it is no secret that both are under pressure at the present time.” As both a scholar of literary theory and chronicler (in his campus novels) of its impact, Lodge’s choice to uphold “liberal humanism” in his own work is a fully self-conscious one. Despite having learned a great deal from theorists such as Mikhail Bakhtin, and despite his recognition that his own writing is inevitably highly intertextual, the experience of writing fiction, he says, prevents him from being persuaded by ideas associated with the Barthesian death of the author.
The second chapter explores Greene’s influence on Lodge, which is demonstrably pervasive. However, some of the arguments here work by paralleling Lodge’s practice with that of Greene. These take the following form: “Like Greene, Lodge has provided, over the years, a fragmentary account of his own life …” To employ such parallels as the basis for the claim that Lodge is likely to enjoy influence and prestige parallel to that of Greene seems hardly persuasive. The ensuing three chapters pursue the influence of Joyce, of 1950s England, and of Henry James within Lodge’s works. Perkin’s analysis here is thorough and illuminating, tracing specific details in the fiction that speak of Lodge’s “one-quarter Irishness” and of the specific Jansenist traditions that shaped English and Irish Catholicism. In discussing the inescapable influence of Kingsley Amis in the 1950s, Perkins shares Lodge’s own appreciation of Amis as an author far more complex, contemporary, and even Beckettian than is commonly understood. The sense of underappreciated depths of subtlety extends by implication to Lodge’s own comic novels.
The most convincing picture of Lodge remains that of “A Novelist Still at the Crossroads,” as Perkin’s closing chapter is titled. As a Catholic writer who shares much (as Perkins shows) with the strident anti-Catholic H.G. Wells, as an admirer of James Joyce whose own fictional technique follows more closely in the traces of Amis, and as a long-time academic [End Page 446] whose own critical idiom shuns “high theory” as far as possible (while undertaking to explicate it for general audiences), Lodge has not pursued radical views or fictional techniques. This has not prevented him from crafting, as Perkin argues, a body of work that can be described as “humane,” “generous,” and “rewarding.”