A life in writing | David Lodge

Prolific British author and literary critic David Lodge visited Malta to give a reading as part of Evenings on Campus last Wednesday. He speaks to Teodor Reljic about his multi-faceted career, and how he confronts the pesky subject of mortality

It’s a balmy August evening, and the cicadas are screaming. A partially deaf – though prolific and decorated – author is perched on a dimly-lit podium (about as dimly lit as his considerably large audience), and he is reading about his deafness, amongst other things.

The irony of the situation is that as 76-year-old critic and author David Lodge regales listeners to passages from his novels Deaf Sentence (2008) and A Man of Parts (a fictionalised account of HG Wells published earlier this year), he’s probably oblivious to the drilling, screaming noise emanating from the trees at the University of Malta’s quad, which frame the scene of the penultimate event in the Evenings on Campus calendar, last Wednesday.

Because, as a passage in Deaf Sentence explains to us, the hearing aid makes one-on-one conversation tolerable, while drowning out all background noise. It’s an irony that would be fitting of Lodge’s many comic novels which deal, broadly, with the tragicomic hurdles intelligent people face when confronted with the everyday absurdities of life.

They’re also quite funny and very flowing reads, which ping-pong with ideas, comic mishaps and erotic entanglements in a way that only a seasoned connoisseur of the language and its literary milieu could manage.

Lodge initially began his career in ‘letters’ as a Professor of English (at the University of Birmingham) and a literary critic. Having been at the forefront of the ‘theory wars’ that took hold of campuses across the continent throughout the 60s and 70s (with no small help from their American counterparts too), Lodge was in a position to provide more than suitable commentary on the shifting intellectual terrain, and ‘Modern Criticism and Theory’, a collection of essays he edited with Nigel Wood, remains a primer for English Literature undergraduates worldwide – first published in 1992, it is consistently updated and re-issued.

However, it is Lodge’s dramatisation of this very milieu that has arguably won him the most readers, particularly his breakthrough ‘trilogy’ of ‘campus novels’ – Changing Places, Small Worlds and Nice Work – a not-too-flattering portrayal of academics bumbling their way across sexual embarrassments and negotiating their way through the rat race of academic campus politics (Lodge also adapted Small Worlds and Nice Work for television in the 80s).

This concoction was an all-too-easy draw for me, seeing how I’m an alumni of Malta’s own English Department. But surely, Lodge’s
audience is not all made up of former graduates and their tutors. Did he deliberately set out to write in an accessible way?

“I certainly always try to write in an accessible manner… that’s a trait of writers from my generation, unlike the great writers of the modern period, like Joyce, Woolf and so on. I wrote about university life because that’s where I was, I didn’t really see the campus novel as a concrete ‘genre’, but I just picked up on what I thought would be of public interest, in the context of academic life. I certainly write for an educated audience… but whenever I bring up literary references, I try to build explanations for them into the structure of the novel itself,” Lodge tells me as we talk in the ‘Council Room’ of Malta’s own campus, the afternoon preceding his reading.

The surroundings are imposing: the wood-panelled, yacht-like enclosure is framed by large senatorial tables, and preceded by austere portraits of former University Rectors.

But the mood of our conversation is far from strained. Much like the tone of his fiction, Lodge is unassuming in his manner, though the things he might be dealing with are far from easy to grasp, or handle.

A recent development in his career is a case in point. In 2004, Lodge published Author, Author, a fictionalised take on a portion of the life of Henry James, which focused specifically on the 19th century American writer’s attempt – and subsequent failure – to break into the theatre. Author, Author, however, suffered the unique misfortune of clashing with another novel dealing with the exact same subject matter – as Colm Toibin’s The Master was published in the same year.

Despite this “pretty traumatic” misfortune, however – and though he wrote Deaf Sentence in between in an attempt to postpone it from happening again – Lodge’s most recent work is another hybrid biography of a canonical author. A Man of Parts alternates between intimate domestic moments, correspondence and even a Q&A session (in which the protagonist scrutinises himself), as it tells the story of HG Wells… with a particular emphasis on the tumultuous sex life of the science fiction pioneer and dabbling socialist.

Lodge is starkly aware of what has been driving him towards the lives of authors for fiction-fodder. “I supposed that as I get older – and I’m much older than I look – and I realise that I’m approaching the end of my life I’m becoming interested in how other writers confronted that. So both Author, Author and A Man of Parts have a similar structure, and the same elegiac tone. I’m afraid that right now, aging and mortality are simply autobiographical elements!”

The autobiography of a more indirect kind this time however, and Lodge explains how, apart from giving him the leisure of merging his academic and fictional output in a more coherent way than his campus comedies, this “growing sub-genre” allows him to concentrate his energies outside of himself.

“I think it’s particularly mature novelists who engage in this kind of writing because once you’ve used up your own experience, you begin to research it in the modern world, then you research it in history…”

He describes the novelist’s vocation as being “demanding” because it requires a level of long-term commitment rarely found in other professions. “That’s why novelists tend to be rather miserable people,” he says with a laugh. “But then, the satisfaction of having done it, if it works out, is really great.”

Laughter, in fact, is consistent during Lodge’s reading that evening. A particular passage from Deaf Sentence wins the audience over completely. Lodge – through his protagonist, Desmond Bates – is philosophising on the cultural idea of deafness.

The audience titters as he describes how ears are profoundly undramatic things, when compared to eyes: could you imagine Oedipus taking a poker through his ears instead of gouging his eyes out in the climactic moment of Oedipus Rex? Finally, Lodge ponders what the equivalent of guide dogs would be for deaf people. “A parrot on your shoulder?”

And a warm sputter of laughter erupts, and is heard all over the quad… despite the persistent cicadas.

The event was made possible in collaboration with The British Council.