Writer’s Luck, A Memoir by David Lodge: uniquely honest record of an English novelist’s life
There is more truth about the literary life here than you will find in a thousand doctoral theses, or a million promotional interviews. Or most memoirs. It is a true gem
David Lodge: in these memoirs, he spills all the beans. He wears no mask. Photograph: Ulf Andersen/Getty
Writer’s Luck. A Memoir 1976-1991
“I no longer believed literally in the affirmations of the Creed which I recited at Mass every Sunday . . . But that is a story for another day.”
That is one of the closing lines in the first volume of David Lodge’s memoirs, Quite a Good Time to be Born, which was published in 2015. In the introduction to this second volume, he records a development: he has stopped “going to Mass regularly, and publicly declared, when asked, that I was no longer a practising Catholic. But how that worked out and came about does not come within the timeframe of this book.” We will have to wait for the third volume to find out.
Although he is one of the greatest storytellers in existence and a master of suspense, I don’t think Lodge dangles this as a cliff-hanger to entice us back for volume three – apart from anything else, as he says,that book may never materialise. It is rather because David Lodge is very precise and matter-of-fact. He expresses surprise that his children have become scientists, rather than artists, but it doesn’t surprise me. Lodge is one of those people who combines an analytical, scientific way of looking at life, and even more so at literature and language, with a vivid, poetic imagination – a very good combination for a writer. So if a book covers the years 1976 to 1991, you don’t hop on to 2017, much as your readers might like you to.
Nobody has written more usefully and clearly about the distinction between story and plot, or fabula and sujet, than David Lodge, wearing his literary theory hat. Story is the raw material, plot is how you select and arrange it. The raw material here is everything that happened during 15 years. He presents it chronologically but there are distinct themes: personal, literary and academic. Luck versus bad luck is the running thread. His final summing up is that he had more good luck than the other kind, although as in most lives his has had its sad and dreary days.
There is rather less of the personal than of the literary, although the two fuse frequently. He focuses on his children’s education – there is a detailed chapter on the challenge for parents of selecting the right school for their offspring, within the complicated confines of the British system. Otherwise, a good bit of description tends to refer to holidays – numerous, with friends and family; and on his relationship with various relatives – he is clearly kind and thoughtful to father, old aunts, his special-needs son, Christopher. His beloved wife, Mary, always hovers between the lines, and she pops in and out of the narrative frequently as a supportive, wry commentator on the fortunes of her husband. For instance, during a book-signing in France, Mary who has good French is helping him and “a young woman said to her, ‘You are so lucky to be married to David Lodge!’ and she replied, ‘I think he is lucky to be married to me.’ Which is true.”
Most attention focuses on writing and publication. Students of creative writing and writers will learn a great deal from Lodge’s frank and exact account of how he writes. The question so often put to writers, “where do you get your ideas from?’ is answered in detail, in relation to several works. Even more interesting is his full account of the process of publicity, of reviewing, of acceptance or rejection of the book by the critics. A tremendously successful writer in terms of sales, this very fact has made David Lodge a bit of a target for certain reviewers. He analyses the phenomenon of the bad review clinically:
‘There comes a point when the media get tired of praising a successful writer and seize an opportunity to bring him or her down a peg or two . . . It is often younger critics who lead the attack since they have nothing to lose and something, ie attention, to gain by it.”
One aspect of literary life which receives intensive commentary is the prize culture. It is quite clear from his account that for the premier league novelists in the UK, the Booker Prize dominates their thoughts and lives to a frightening extent. Most fascinating is Lodge’s detailed report of the year, 1989, he chaired the Booker judging panel. When he was invited to do this, he rang his wife Mary to let her know. In what sounds like a typical Mary reaction –” ‘You’ll regret it’, she said. I did.’” The arguments, the subjectivity, the questionable reasons adduced for rejecting a worthy contender are all given to us in their gory detail. Everyone who has ever sat on a judging panel knows that luck plays a big part in who carries off the prize. Mind you, as a frequent adjudicator on less huge literary prize panels, I am surprised that there seems to be absolutely no expectation of confidentiality regarding the Booker. It seems to be normal for judges to tell contenders who supported them and who didn’t, and so on – already, at the ceremony. Is this cricket? We wouldn’t do it, over here.
And if we did, we probably wouldn’t spill the beans in a book. But the extraordinary thing about David Lodge is that, in these memoirs, he spills all the beans. He wears no mask. Neither his failures nor his successes, his likes or dislikes, strengths or weaknesses, are hidden. He casts a clear eye on his own life as dispassionately as a scientist dissecting a body in a laboratory.
It’s a uniquely honest record of a successful English novelist’s life. There is more truth about the literary life in this book than you will find in a thousand doctoral theses, or a million promotional interviews with famous writers. Or most memoirs. It is a true gem.
Eilís Ní Dhuibhne’s latest book is Selected Stories (Dalkey Archive Press)