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DESPERADO - Contemporary British Literature | There are two major directions in 20th century literature: the stream of consciousness and the Post-stream of consciousness, the latter being known as Postmodernism (including Post-Postmodernism as well)...


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British Desperadoes at the Turn of the Millennium

A Desperado of Simplicity – David Lodge (born 1935)


David Lodge began writing his first published novel, The Picturegoers (1960) when he was twenty-one. He was born in London, taught in the English Department of the University of Birmingham between 1960-1987, after which he retired and became a full time writer. His first novel is amazingly life-like for a beginner. It mixes the realistic tradition with the stream of consciousness. It is divided into episodes which build up stories of couples. There is the elderly couple that already have a large family (the Irish Mallorys), the poor orphan young girl who ends up marrying the poor young man in the Army, the young girl who gets pregnant by the elderly married man, the ex-novice who loses her lover to priesthood, the violent teenager who finds a mate and calms down. At first the stories are kept separate, but towards the end they begin to entwine and the coincidences are hard to believe and reduce the realism of the book, making it more of a game than a piece of real life. The fingers of the conniving author show.

What all the characters have in common is going to the cinema during the weekend, as if they were projecting themselves on the screen. David Lodge begins by X-raying their thoughts in a mildly Joycean way, only towards the end he changes his manner, and decides in favour of a more Hardy-like plot, with premonitions, blatant coincidences, unresolved frustrations. The priest and the literature student could not be farther apart than they are at the beginning of this merry-go-round, but they come to share the same fanatic Catholicism in the end. The author does not make it seem a view on life. It is just a choice like any other.

The novel does not really have a unitary plot. There is a major story, that of Clare and Mark (the ex-novice and the young man who turns into the priest-to-be when she expects it least), and a rainbow of small incidents, bits of other stories attached to it by coincidences, in the end. The trips into the characters’ thoughts are very interesting. Each episode has its own atmosphere and a fresh reaction to the world.

One really interesting character is Harry, the angry teenager, who is violent, even attempts rape, and ends up with a girl friend of his own, which tames him, as it seems. In describing him, Lodge joins Burgess and Lessing in their concern with teenage violence (see A Clockwork Orange, The Fifth Child, The Memoirs of a Survivor). Harry, just like all the other characters, lives in a stifling world, a small universe, a cinema hall full of ice-cream, hopes for the future, drugs to numb the present. From here to Mark Underwood’s ‘change’ from a non-practising Catholic to a fervent one, the distance is huge and insufficiently explained. Mark is a mystery, like a black hole in a comfortable book.

The novel is indeed agreeable, well narrated, with individualized heroes. It creates its own world. This world is commonplace, soothing, very traditional. If it is told in episodes, like flashes of thought, it is because actually David Lodge must have put it together as a bunch of short stories that, at a certain point, happen to artificially intersect. For a beginner, it is an appealing book, that envelops you in the magic of an imaginary world. Which is a lot more than many mature books do.


Ginger, You’re Barmy (1962) is David Lodge’s second published novel, and it mixes neorealism and comedy in a very readable way. The author confesses in the introduction:

‘Like my narrator, Jonathan Browne, I was drafted into the Royal Armoured Corps shortly after obtaining my B. A. in English language and Literature at London University (in August, 1955 to be precise).’

He also confesses to having been deeply influenced by Graham Greene, whom he studied closely during his postgraduate years, after he had already been under his spell ‘in the formative years of adolescence and early adulthood.’

The story is written in the first person, and alternates past and present moments (or present and future, for that matter). The main hero is a young recruit in one chapter and one ready to be released, in the next. The title is just a line from a funny song that does not come true, since this is a book about the army:

Ginger, you’re barmy,
You’ll never join the Army,
You’ll never be a scout,
With your shirt hanging out,
Ginger you’re barmy.

Wishful thinking. Both Jon and his ex-fellow Mike do join the Army. The story is actually very simple and well told. Mike is an unruly Irish boy, he resents the humiliations of the Army, the lost, wasted two years, and especially the death of a fellow recruit, actually caused by their superior’s brutality. Consequently, he uses the first pretext to take revenge on corporal Barker, whom he attacks while on duty, pretending he had no idea it was the corporal that was approaching him at night. Mike Brady goes to prison, and his case gets even worse when his letter to Percy’s guardian returns to the Army. Percy is the orphan recruit who killed himself accidentally, because of Barker’s brutality and negligence: he was allowed to leave with one bullet in his gun. Unfortunately, Percy’s guardian cares more about the Army than about the boy, since he was a captain in the cavalry in the First World War himself. To put it in a nutshell, Mike sees no way out other than to escape, which he manages to do. After that, he is helped by the Irish Republican Army and becomes one of them. He meets Jonathan again when he raids the military unit where Jon is finishing his two years, and when, not knowing it is Mike, Jon helps capture him and his men. Besides witnessing or actually undoing Mike, Jonathan also takes his girl friend, Pauline. He marries her. He tells himself:

‘...Pauline wanted me, not Mike. And one could not blame her. Mike was no hero, he was barmy, and there was no place for him.’

It looks as if Jonathan and his marrying Pauline were at the core of this novel, but what probably Lodge actually meant to focus on was the inner revolt of decent human beings crushed by the ignominy of Army life. The embodiment of his revolt is Mike Brady (with or without the IRA), and the initial motive is Percy’s death. While on a week’s trip to Palma de Majorca with Pauline, Jonathan feverishly writes down this whole story, to his future wife’s great disappointment and displeasure. After that, they get married in a hurry, since Pauline is pregnant, and they move very close to Mike’s prison. Jon is telling us in an epilogue:

‘And at the core of my uneasiness was of course Mike, silently reproaching me from his cell in the country goal.’

Consequently, the main hero of this novel is Mike, the bad student, the man who ruins his own life. Jon’s son is baptized Michael, too. The story tries to portray a particular kind of restlessness, that can be pretty hard to understand. We are simply told that Mike ‘would never find rest or peace. Because he was barmy.’

Whatever that means. Fact is that for the three years Mike is imprisoned, Jon visits him monthly, and now Mike, on the last page, is on the point of leaving goal. Jonathan comments:

‘Now he is free, and I am shackled, – by a wife and family I do not greatly love, and by a career that I find no more than tolerable.’

He was among the best students in his year, with a bright future of research ahead of him. The army turned him into a guilty husband, teaching in the countryside, giving lectures at the prison. He means to stay where he is. He is trapped into his non-barminess, just like Joyce’s heroes, all trapped in Dublin. This is a case of mediocrity reversed. Mike looks like the wasted one at first, but the real waste is Jon, and it is all Mike’s doing, in an indirect sense.

David Lodge’s second novel takes us through a racy story and creates a vivid atmosphere of revolt against all kinds of humiliation. It is a good novel, if taken as such. If we look for modernist tricks, stream of consciousness and depth of character, we may not be that happy. Lodge has humour, tons of it, and is a good story-teller, with a keen eye for the background. The complications of contemporary fiction leave him unimpressed. He may be a Desperado without knowing it, since he certainly seems very much at peace with his unobtrusive fiction. He writes for fun, which is a very rare thing these complicated days, at this tense turn of the millennium. Good for him.


The British Museum Is Falling Down (1965) is Lodge’s third published novel. Part of the dedication is ‘to Malcolm Bradbury (whose fault it mostly is that I have tried to write a comic novel).’ The two taught for a little while at the same English Department of Birmingham, in the early sixties. As Lodge puts it, they ‘quickly became friends and collaborators.’ This particular novel, indeed, focuses on laughter, but its author had higher ambitions as well, and he confesses himself in the introduction that he tried to ‘mimic’ Conrad, Graham Greene, Hemingway, James, Joyce, Kafka, Lawrence, C.P. Snow, Virginia Woolf. The presence of Joyce is obvious to anyone, especially in the last chapter, which is a Molly-esque interior monologue of the much too fertile young wife of a soon-to-be PhD.

Lodge calls this novel ‘experimental,’ as opposed to the previous two, which were ‘essentially serious works of scrupulous realism.’ Actually, all three novels are equally realistic and funny. The title of the book was supposed to be The British Museum Has Lost Its Charm (‘a line from a song by George and Ira Gershwin’), but permission to use it was denied, so we get a much better title by mere chance.

More than parody, the book is a collection of influences. It happens within one single day, ends in a woman’s unpunctuated monologue (Joyce), takes us to Kafka’s labyrinth during a few moments when the hero’s mind blacks out, and, mainly, follows Malcolm Bradbury’s description of the academic world in Eating People Is Wrong. It is a book about the interdiction of contraception to Catholics, and its disastrous consequences for a hero fatally born to the name of Adam Appleby. He has three small children already, and, for the time being, the book spares him the fourth, since in the last pages his wife has her long-expected period, after a day of despairing apprehensions for both of them. As Adam muses:

‘Literature is mostly about having sex and not much about having children. Life is the other way round...’

Adam leaves home in the morning to go and work on his dissertation at the British Museum, and the line of comical situations Lodge plunges him into is endless. There is not much of a plot, but each episode is carefully worked out to end in laughter, which it does. A major theme is that of Americans returning to the spring, as conquerors this time. The theme reappears later on in Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Remains of the Day, too, but it is seen in a totally different manner. Here we have a Bernie from a small college in Colorado, who fantasizes about buying the British Museum, and transporting it stone by stone to Colorado, having it cleaned and re-erected. Each encounter, each incident is humorous. David Lodge is lots of fun.

The British Museum may not fall down, but Catholicism is very close to the brink. A wife taking her temperature daily in order to know when it is safe to have sex, a husband harassed by a cheap old scooter that ends in an explosion, burning a ‘precious’ manuscript, plus several small trips into the absurd and the constant fog (which is as much Dickensian as Joycean) make up one miserable day in the (long? short?) life of a student of English literature. The atmosphere is oppressive, the humour is unwillingly sad, actually. Adam is a tragically superficial hero, just like his wife Barbara, his friend Camel, and so on. Humour is an agreeable diversion and the easy way out. David Lodge cannot stop here, though. If he is a real novelist, he will soon have to prove it.


Out of the Shelter (1970) is based on David Lodge’s memories of a summer in 1951, when,

‘at the age of sixteen, I travelled unaccompanied to Heidelberg, West Germany, to spend a holiday with my aunt Eileen, my mother’s sister, who was working there as a civilian secretary for the U S. Army.’

The author suspects it to be the most autobiographical of his novels. What he rejects is the intention of confession. Which is true, David Lodge is not in the least the confessional type of author.

Lodge delivered the manuscript in December 1968, right before leaving Britain, to spend the next six months as an associate professor at Berkeley, California. It was the fourth novel he published, and by now his literary experience was gaining ground. The book has plot, atmosphere, characters, and even a faint sense of an ending. Timothy Young grows up in a miserable post-war England, which his sister Kate escapes from by starting to work as a secretary for the American army. The story is full of sex and war obsessions. It starts with England being bombed, and ends with Tim happily married, yet still apprehensive of death.

The novel is written in the third person, as the point of view of Timothy Young, a pupil gifted for drawing, who in the end decides to go to University, possibly architecture. The book ends when he already is an academic himself, in ‘Environmental Studies,’ mainly ‘urban renewal.’ The plot is a slow but constant escape from ‘the shelter.’ It begins with the real shelter against bombs, then the shelter of a family that would like him anchored in a safe job, the geographical shelter of England, and, last but not least, the shelter of childhood. They are all false shelters, finally destroyed in one way or another. Their neighbours’ shelter is destroyed by a bomb, which kills a little girl and her mother. Childhood is unmasked, a shelterless state. As the preface announces, the influences of Joyce and James are quite obvious (the novel of adolescence, the indirect narrative, relying on limited, oblique points of view).

The hero of this progress out of the shelter is an introvert. As his mother puts it, ‘you never were one to show your feelings.’ He ruminates on experience, misunderstands or misses the truth, gropes towards the future, and all this upheaval takes place in utter silence. His solitude is complete. Lodge does not let anyone come near, whether parents, his sister Kate, whom he visits at Heidelberg, or even casual friends. Alone with himself, Tim fights the unknown burden of life. The feeling of oppression is the best David Lodge invokes in this book.
The clash between Europeans and Americans is a recurrent theme with Lodge. This time we witness the Americans invading post-war Europe, with their consumer goods affluence, their debatable taste (when faced with European tradition), their noisy well-being. In contrast to Henry James, Paradise is America. From chewing gum to sweets and clothes, to a good life and uninhibited adolescents. The land of all opportunities, flooding an impoverished and blood smeared Germany.

Two types of childhood, two manners of education clash, and in the end two ways of life are contrasted: Tim, the European church-abiding child, strangled by tradition, and Kate, the woman freed by American mores. The huge wave of European emigration towards America – caused by war, religion, poverty – has completely reversed the situation as viewed by Henry James. Kate herself emigrates to the States at the end of her post-war stay in Europe. When the novel ends, Tim and his family visit her there, owing to a ‘Fellowship.’ He is now totally out of the shelter, thus finishing the effect of his holiday in Heidelberg, which, he claims, was a turning point that brought him ‘out of his shell’ and broadened his horizon. It is hard for him to leave the shelter, but he pushes himself, he makes the effort. Henry James’ Ambassadors is left far behind. The present courage is to abandon Europe and discover the States. The war branded Tim. He constantly feels that ‘somewhere, around the corner, some disaster awaited him,’ and so do we. The book is an initiation into guilty exile.


The trilogy Changing Places (1975), Small World (1984), Nice Work (1989) begins in the comic vein and ends with a remarkable novel, probably the best of all the books David Lodge has written so far.

Changing Places is ‘A Tale of Two Campuses,’ Birmingham and Berkeley, present under imaginary names in the book (Rummidge and Plotinus, the latter in the American State of Euphoria). It opens on January 1, 1969, when the American professor Moris Zapp and the British lecturer Philip Swallow are on the plane, exchanging departments for ‘the next six months.’ The trilogy is narrated in the third person. Coincidences are no longer blatant, though they do occur a lot, and suspense is well handled. The heart of the matter is that the two main heroes exchange more than jobs, they switch wives, too. Philip is the average British academic who reads a lot. Morris is the American academic driven by the urge to publish, to write the absolute book (he starts by wishing to exhaust the analysis of Jane Austen). The difference in life styles is shocking, but they both adjust. They have disenchanted wives, and children whom we do not get to know. Hilary (Philip’s wife) has three, Désirée (Morris’ already estranged wife) has two twins. Ironically, Morris buys a cheap plane ticket from a student and finds himself surrounded by American girls who are all flying to England to get an abortion, because they want to take advantage of ‘Britain’s permissive new law.’ Such comic situations abound. Lodge is still determined to force us into laughter, which does not happen in the last novel of the trilogy, Nice Work.

Both Philip and Morris get the six-month exchange by chance. Morris’ wife wants a divorce and him out of the house, so he takes what he can find at the last moment: Rummidge. Philip’s superior wants to appoint his own protégé for a senior lectureship, so he pushes Philip out of the way. They get involved with unexpected acquaintances, who coincidentally (again) connect them. The stories hardly matter. The novel where the story, and everything else, matters is Nice Work. The technique of narration is contrapuntal, a page in America, one in Britain, then back again.

In short, both heroes act heroically on the job. Philip unwillingly joins the revolutionary student activities and is highly appreciated for that. Morris, on the contrary, helps calm down the Rummidge students, is looked upon as Head of the Department, and finally advises in favour of Philip’s promotion to senior lecturer. The last chapter is written in the manner of a script, and has no real end. The four people mixed up in all kinds of ‘changes’ meet at a hotel in America, to talk things over, and Morris sums the situation up in the spirit of the whole first novel, by saying:

‘The four of us already hold the world record for long-distance wife-swapping.’

The last – cinematic – word of the book is ‘THE END,’ but here is what goes before, as a conclusion to the last scene, rendered as an act in a play, or in a movie, rather:

(Philip speaks) ‘I mean, mentally you brace yourself for the ending of a novel. As you’re reading, you’re aware of the fact that there’s only a page or two left in the book, and you get ready to close it. But with a film there’s no way of telling, especially nowadays, when films are much more loosely structured, much more ambivalent, than they used to be. There’s no way of telling which frame is going to be the last. The film is going along, people are behaving, doing things, drinking, talking, and we’re watching them, and at any point the director chooses, without warning, without anything being resolved, or explained, or wound up, it can just... end.’

The pace of the narrative is interesting, seen in this light. The realistic information is deficient. The beauty of California is not even hinted at, while the ugliness of England is extensively suggested. The characters are mere sketches, and the end of the trilogy finds them in the same state. The only two real characters Lodge creates are Robyn and Vic in Nice Work. Right now humour comes first.


Small World (1984), ‘An Academic Romance,’ continues in the same vein. Coincidences pour. A world of academic conferences, affairs, plots. Persse McGarrigle from Dublin attends a conference in Rummidge and falls in love with Angelica Pabst. We are in 1979 now. The story carries us to Italy, France, Holland and America. Angelica has a twin sister, who is a luxury whore. Persse, in wild pursuit of the former, finds the latter and is utterly confused. The end reveals that both girls were found on a flight from New York to Amsterdam, and adopted by the then manager of the KLM company. They – terrible coincidence – are actually the daughters of two academics who had a short-lived affair. The whole plot fits like an easy puzzle.

Both Morris Zapp and Philip Swallow are ten years older. Both have a strong position in their Departments. Philip is the head of his department, Morris is an authority in several fields. The book is humorous, but to a lesser extent than the previous one. Lodge seems more preoccupied with building up suspense, which he does well, relying heavily on coincidences of all kinds to bring characters together.

Small World, just like Changing Places, has its pregnant women, affairs and unhappiness, yet nothing sounds real enough for us to take it very seriously. It is relaxed reading, maybe inventive writing. A long line of disagreeable heroes and a switching focus, meant to enhance suspense. A disenchanted writer, and his disenchanted text, leave us gaping at what might have been if we had been allowed in the intimacy of David Lodge’s imagination and emotions. But he would need to relax and allow his presence to be felt, which to him looks like literary infamy. The author stays back stage, since authorial unobtrusiveness is a very much cherished Desperado quality.

The academic world Lodge describes is quite dispiriting. Books published and ignored, ideas stolen, careers made or marred by mere hazard, impetuous trips for the British Council or to various conferences, aborted love affairs, seducing students and all-too-willing-to-be-seduced middle-aged professors, marriages broken or kept up for the sake of comfort and convenience. Lodge gossips at ease and invents with amazing gusto. A prostitute with a hidden child, another prostitute confusing everyone because of her resemblance to Angelica (her twin), echoes from Eliot in abundance, women devouring men (Désirée makes mince meat of her husband Morris in her novel, Fulvia Morgana forces Morris into a physical love triangle with her husband), an aborted kidnapping (Morris’). A future much-coveted UNESCO chair for literary theory, disgusting private lives in detail all over, bestsellers (Désirée’s, Frobisher’s), translations into Japanese, a trip to Tokyo, another to Jerusalem, Modern Language Association in New York. At last, Angelica is found. Persse is seduced by her twin, Lily, losing his virginity to her. Angelica is engaged. Persse decides he is in fact in love with another unknown girl, whom, again, he can no longer trace, because she no longer works at the British Airways Information desk, where he met her.

Should a new quest begin? Persse hardly catches our interest as he winds his way amongst narrowly missed chances and blatant coincidences. Yet, the atmosphere is realistic. Unfortunately so, because Lodge copiously derides it. A book that mocks at itself.


Nice Work (1989) is quite the reverse. Thoughtful, deep, minutely psychological, it totally breaks with the previous comic approach, without losing the very necessary sense of humour. It takes place in the same Rummidge:

‘...Rummidge is an imaginary city, with imaginary universities and imaginary factories, inhabited by imaginary people, which occupies, for the purposes of fiction, the space where Birmingham is to be found on maps of the so-called real world.’

It begins on January 13, 1986, with Vic (Victor Wilcox) waking up in his luxurious home and finding out something is missing, though he is not yet aware what that is. Actually, the end of the novel proves him wrong, but he does not know that yet.

Vic has a wife, Marjorie, and three children. He was born in 1940 in Rummidge, became an engineer and is presently ‘Managing Director, J. Pringle & Sons Casting and General Engineering.’ Lodge manages to write this engaging and definitely fresh novel in the traditional third person, without being bothered by any need for Post-Post-Post tricks. Both he and the readers are too engrossed in the substance to mind the wrapping paper, which is exactly as it should be, after all. Nice Work is not an experiment in form, it is a remarkably impressive experience and a sharp point of view, which the author underlines by actually speaking here and there in his own name: ‘I.’

The second main character of the novel is Robyn Penrose, ‘Temporary Lecturer in English Literature at the University of Rummidge,’ a brilliant ex-student, a feminist, thirty-three years of age, born in Melbourne, Australia, brought to England when she was five. Her major field of interest is the 19th century industrial novel. She is well read in Lacan and Derrida, she

‘...sat in lecture theatres and nodded eager agreement as the Young Turks of the Faculty demolished the idea of the author, the idea of the self, the idea of establishing a single, univocal meaning for a literary text.’

When she graduated, academic jobs became scarce. In 1984, Professor Philip Swallow, Head of the English Department at Rummidge University, was elected Dean of the Arts Faculty for three years, and Robyn was hired to replace him, as the ‘Dean’s Relief.’

The novel begins with Vic having a steady prospect of a good job ahead of him, and Robyn menaced by the end of Philip Swallow’s three-year term, when she has no chance to stay on at Rummidge. The end is quite the other way round. Vic is fired, jobless, forced to start all over again, while Robyn sees a clearing at the horizon of her career.

The two main heroes are brought together by the ‘Industry Year Shadow Scheme,’ meaning that, on the occasion of 1986 being designated ‘Industry Year by the Government,’

‘each Faculty should nominate a member of staff to ‘shadow’ some person employed at senior management level in local manufacturing industry (...) in the course of the winter term.’

Robyn and Vic find themselves pushed into this scheme by last moment decisions, and both hate the prospect, the inconvenience of shattered habits, the effort of adjustment to the unknown.

In an ironical way, Robyn, the specialist in the 19th century industrial novel, is faced with the real colours of modern industry, and she realizes how deeply disgusted, how scared she is by it. Disgusted by the subhuman level to which individuals are reduced, scared that she might herself be plunged into doing such an abhorrent activity. To begin with, Robyn and Vic are one whole universe apart, in spite of Robyn’s dissertation on the industrial novel. Reality is harsh and full of unimaginable surprises.

While the psychological confrontation of Robyn and Vic unfurls, minor characters gracefully whirl about and out of the plot. Charles, Robyn’s undecided boy-friend, moves to London with the girl-friend of Robyn’s brother, and switches from literature to ‘merchant banker.’ Then there are Robyn’s parents, hardly visible, faculty members, Vic’s family and fellows, strangers. No far-fetched coincidence, no lucky turn, just an easy, natural flow of emotions, thoughts and adjustments, which end up by building a firm friendship between Robyn and Vic, who start out hating each other desperately.

As the winter term goes by, Vic realizes he is ‘in love with Robyn Penrose,’ with her impetuous blunders, sharp remarks, innocence as far as industry is concerned. Robyn herself realizes that Vic is more than a ‘bully,’ sees him in action, actually helps him when they go to Frankfurt for Vic to buy some expensive machine. Just before that short trip – which obviously ends in bed and quickly out of it, since Robyn is not a sentimental, like Vic, Vic confesses to her:

‘Sometimes when I’m lying awake in the small hours, instead of counting sheep, I count the things I’ve never done.’

Robyn is one of them. Vic had been longing for this even before the beginning of the novel. He tries to prolong the experience by appointing himself Robyn’s shadow when the winter semester is over.

The moment of physical closeness, which is a mere incident for Robyn, but becomes a world of unrequited romantic love (imaginary love) for Vic, is narrated in the Present Tense, unlike the rest of the novel, which uses the relaxed Past Tense. Unfortunately for Vic, the Present lasts for a few pages, and then he is plunged into the misery of the Past Tense, Robyn’s indifference. She admits: ‘that night I fancied him.’ She has good reasons to do so, but does not realize it herself. Yet her diagnosis is right:

‘The trouble is, he wants to make a great romance out of it.’

Vic phones, writes, comes to her tutorials and is dead certain he loves her. Her reaction about the night in Frankfurt is:

‘Oh, shut up about last night, she said. That was just a fuck...’

The winter term is over, Robyn is back to her loveless, Charles-less, almost jobless life, when things start happening. Morris Zapp comes to Rummidge and offers Robyn publication at Euphoric Press and a possible job at his University. She feels there is no future for her in England, but, suddenly, she receives an inheritance (300,000 Australian dollars) from an uncle-in-law, who died in Melbourne, Charles announces that he would like to have her back (which she is going to decline), and Philip offers her the prospect of a job, which she decides to accept. As for the idyll Vic-Robyn, here is Vic’s conclusion:

‘I’ve been living in a dream (...). I must have been out of my mind imagining you would see anything in a middle-aged dwarf engineer.’

Robyn is more precise. She tells him smiling:

‘I don’t need a man to complete me.’

Which is true, in terms of this book. On the contrary, she can even lend him a helping hand. Vic’s enterprise is sold, he is jobless, he would like to set up on his own but needs capital. Robyn invests in him, explaining:

‘I trust you, Vic. I’ve seen you in action.’

Two people, most unlikely to ever meet otherwise, are brought together and forced to communicate. The narrative flows more naturally and enjoyably than in any previous novel by David Lodge. The idea of a merging novel between University and Industry is brilliant and the novelist makes the most of it. We actually come to know the thoughts and feelings of the characters. For the first time, Lodge goes more deeply than the surface, stops mocking and is entranced by inner life. The other heroes are smiling still lives. These two heroes, Robyn and Vic, are life palpable, life enjoyable, life frustrating and rewarding, life turned into moving fiction. Imagination has won.


Souls and Bodies/How Far Can You Go? (1990) is mainly a third-person maze of narratives, a carnival of names and incidents, at whose alternation Lodge is very good. He builds a merry-go-round, but this time, in this particular book, our head really spins and there is not much in it to reward our efforts.

The novel starts with a group of students in 1952, and in the end the writer plunges among them, describing his evolution (after theirs) thus:

‘I teach English literature at a redbrick university and write novels in my spare time, slowly, and hustled by history.’

You have no idea he identifies with his heroes – David Lodge does not usually do that – until the last sentences of the novel:

‘All bets are void, the future is uncertain, but it will be interesting to watch. Reader, farewell!’

These sentences are probably the most engaging part of the book, which, otherwise, is a handbook on how to fight Catholics (mostly of Irish extraction, but not only) on the issue of a decent sex-life, meaning contraception. Everything revolves around sex, in an uninhibited narrative that refuses any other suspense. You lose one story while you are pushed into another, then, pages later, you are supposed to remember everything because you are brought back to the mentioned names. The characters are puppets to whom things (mainly physical, mainly sex) happen, but even their names are hard to remember. Whenever you hear one name, you have to stop and remember what the story behind it is. It does not help. The Desperado trick of alternating flashes is baffling and David Lodge is resourceful, but not orderly enough. The plot is a mess. The shallowness of the characters, whom we never get to know in depth, does not help. Somehow the novelist keeps us interested, but his tricks are not efficient enough to keep us going, thinking, when the book has ended.

David Lodge’s discreet treatment of his characters, his unwillingness to reveal their thoughts (with the remarkable exception of Nice Work) are his claims to the status of a literary Desperado. He tries to push us under a shower of stories, treats sex-life more than freely, is always hungry for humour, although, when he laughs, it is tongue in his cheek. He calls himself either a realist or a comic writer. He is both and neither. After the stream of consciousness, all writers are excessively aware of inner revelations and are no longer content with mere facts. When Lodge tries to forget about the stream of consciousness and almost gets drowned in heaps of, whirlwinds of incidents, he is a typical Desperado, in search of a fresh approach. So far, his only success is Nice Work, which blends plot (incidents in comprehensible order), humour, realism and psychology. He even squeezes a bit of sympathy in between chapters. Normally cold and detached from his characters, he actually gets involved in the predicaments of Robyn and Vic. That saves Nice Work. The absence of an affectionate narrative probably obscures the others.


Paradise News (1991) is David Lodge’s second best novel. The story is simple, linear, more along the Desperado line of ‘whatever comes next is just fine.’ Not much seems pre-planned (though this simplicity may have been envisaged), incidents flow naturally, characters open up and we actually come to know them. For the first time so far, Lodge seems to be able to relax and enjoy writing. If wilful shallowness was his major drawback in the previous novels (with the exception of Nice Work), he is free from it here.

Bernard Walsh, a theologian (college teacher) and ex-priest, is on his way to Hawaii, with his old father, to visit Ursula, his aunt (his father’s sister), who is dying, after a long estrangement from the family. Not much happens, yet the story keeps going. To put it in a nutshell, Bernard’s father is hit by a car, whose owner, forty-year-old Yolande Miller, is Bernard’s future first love. Brother and sister are reunited in hospital. In the meantime, Bernard accidentally finds out Ursula is rich and in the end gets $100,000 himself. His part-time job at (the same) Rummidge college becomes full-time, and Yolande is preparing to come and visit him at Christmas. Ursula dies of cancer, the other lives go on.

Hawaii is robbed of all charm. A host of lesser characters are copiously mocked at. Their small stories are really unimportant. What is important is Bernard’s inner life, which we get to know, though not fully, and his hope of marrying Yolande some day. A sad universe, with sad pettiness in it, and heroes merely brushed by our understanding.

Several tricks are used in this story: third-person narrative, letters, Bernard’s diary. Paradise is supposed to stand for Hawaii, or, rather, the other way round. Neither does, neither seems to exist for a fact. We are offered in exchange all kinds of hints and echoes of English literary works, as Bernard’s memory hums them while crossing our reading space. His major poles are right now sex and death. One is too faint to exist, the other one almost crushes him. Yolande steps in and helps Bernard recover his human balance.

The theme of Catholicism and vocation for the Church is present once again. Only this time the priest (Bernard) asks to be, and is, laicized, and seems to be inapt for sexual life until Yolande uses therapy to bring him back to life. She is the reason why this ex-priest with no life at all to speak of ends the novel by receiving what he calls ‘very good’ Paradise news. Love is coming into the picture, as discreetly as David Lodge can bring himself to resort to it.

Not a romantic writer, Lodge is not exclusively comical either. Fond of splitting hairs and then weaving them back into a piecemeal story that can make your head spin, in most of his novels he pumps hard at literature and does not seem to enjoy himself as much as Alasdair Gray, for instance. With Nice Work and Paradise News, he actually takes his time to breathe, to smile, to feel. Yet, on the whole, he is a Desperado writer who finds it impossible to relax. A Desperado of simplicity, too.



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LIDIA VIANU | Desperado - Contemporary British Literature


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