Saturday, 21 April 2018

Small World


I've long enjoyed the novels and also the literary criticism of David Lodge. Late in his career, with perhaps no more novels to come, Lodge, like his hero Henry James, has turned to autobiography, and Writer's Luck: a memoir 1976-1991 (above) is the second volume.

It reads a little like Lodge's great campus novels of that era, but with one major exception. Lodge declares himself a kind of war reporter in the sexual revolution that coincided with his adulthood, rather than a participant - whereas his characters were always enthusiastically and energetically involved. This makes the memoir a little pedestrian at times, even a little disappointing. But lives are often like that.

Lodge's 'global campus' novel Small World was shortlisted for the 1984 Booker Prize, along with works by J. G. Ballard, Julian Barnes, Anita Desai, Penelope Lively and Anita Brookner. Lodge was of the popular opinion that Ballard's Empire of the Sun was the runaway favourite. The bookies gave Ballard 6-4, but Lodge's novel was second at 3-1.

He describes the glittering but stressful Booker banquet at the Guildhall, with its magnificent chandeliers, old panelling and white napery, the circular tables, the roaming camera teams. The dinner ended, the speeches began, and the tension rose still further. The chairman of the judges that year was the Oxford historian Professor Richard Cobb. 'The 1984 Booker McConnell Prize for fiction goes to...' - and Cobb paused dramatically. All eyes were on Ballard's table, but the TV crews had been tipped off as to the true winner, and thus were able to catch the look of shocked amazement on 6-1 outsider Anita Brookner's face as her name was announced.

Friends commiserated with Lodge afterwards. Hotel du Lac, they felt, was a slighter book than his, but Lodge hadn't read it. But he had enjoyed Brookner's previous novel Look at Me, and indeed had reviewed it for the Sunday Times. Later in the evening, in the bar, one of the judges confided to Lodge some details of the judges' discussions. Apparently another of the judges, the writer and journalist Polly Devlin, had swung the argument in favour of Anita Brookner by reading out words of praise for Look at Me, taken from the back cover of Hotel du Lac. The words of praise were from none other than David Lodge's Sunday Times review. The irony of this wasn't lost on Lodge.

Writing about the event thirty years later in Writer's Luck, the matter is plainly still on David Lodge's mind. He seeks out his Look at Me review:
Like a tear trembling in an eyelid, it continually threatens to spill over into existentialist metafiction ... but manages to stay - just - within the bounds of the English novel of sentiment and manners ... If she should ever transgress those bounds the results would be interesting. Meanwhile I cannot praise too highly this novel's poise, perceptiveness and purity of style.
Lodge admits he didn't keep up with Anita Brookner's 'formidable rate of production' over the years; nevertheless, he doesn't think she ever did transgress 'the limits of the well-made English novel of manners' - and certainly not in Hotel du Lac, which, when he read it, he liked, though he thought it lacked the 'dangerous edge' of its predecessor.
She was however, in her own line, a very skilful artist, and in retrospect by no means an unworthy winner of the Booker.

See also a previous post (here) on David Lodge, Brookner and the Booker.

2 comments:

  1. Thanks for this -- an interesting interaction between two very different writers that I like very much. I'm going to read the Lodge memoir very soon now.

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  2. Thanks for comment. I'm enjoying the memoir but I do hope he gets round to another novel. Would prefer one of his original novels. I didn't get on with his H.G. Wells one, though I quite liked Author, Author.

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