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  Lidia Vianu - Director of CTITC (CENTRE FOR THE TRANSLATION AND INTERPRETATION OF THE CONTEMPORARY TEXT), Bucharest University, Professor of Contemporary British Literature at the English Department of Bucharest University, Member of the Writers’ Union, Romania.

 

 
 
 
 
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LIDIA VIANU

Novelists

 

DAVID LODGE

 

 

Art must entertain, or give delight
 


Interview with DAVID LODGE (born 28 January 1935), British novelist and critic
Published in LIDIA VIANU, Desperado Essay-Interviews, Editura Universitatii din Bucuresti, 2006
© Lidia Vianu

 



LIDIA VIANU:
You have written novels that escape into what you call ‘comic’, novels feeding on the reader’s smile and building irony into their plot and characters, as a sine qua non. David Lodge could not be conceived of without his irony. But could he be understood if the reader banned lyricism altogether? When we least expect it, there are outbursts of warm insight, embedded in the comic framework, in the ironic mood. Is tenderness one of your weapons, or is it just an undesired effect of a sensibility that sometimes runs uncontrolled? Have you ever written poetry? Novels like Out of the Shelter, Nice Work, Paradise News, are the iron fist of irony within the velvet glove of sympathy. Your irony is not cold, but emotional. When you bite, it is done with soft teeth. You are a considerate comic novelist, if you accept this label. How much of your lyricism went into other kinds of writing than the novel?

DAVID LODGE:
These questions are so closely connected that I will answer them together. Certainly my novels are full of irony, both dramatic irony, and rhetorical irony, which is associated with comedy and satire. But you are right that there is also a softer, more emotionally tender (and some of my critics would say, sentimental) aspect to my work. I don’t see any contradiction in this. One of my great artistic heroes is Dickens who is both ironic and emotional to the point of sentimentality in different aspects of his work. I would not reject the description ‘considerate comic novelist’. ‘Compassionate’ might be a better word. I don’t think I am a savage, misanthropic satirist, and certainly not a tragic writer. In my later work particularly the ironic posture of the implied author towards the story is qualified by a more sympathetic (‘tender’, if you like) attitude towards the characters. Nice Work is a kind of transitional novel in that respect. The opening chapters take a very ironic, authorially mediated view of the two principal characters. But as the novel develops, the characters take over the novel, they become more rounded and sympathetic, and they change as a result of their interaction, while the authorial voice becomes less overt. Changing Places and Small World were generically conceived as ‘comic novels’ – comedy dominates the structure and texture of both, and licences a certain element of caricature in the characterisation and of farce in the action. Nice Work and its successors have comic elements, but I wouldn’t describe them as comic novels. They are just novels, literary novels. I’m not quite sure what you mean by lyricism, but lyric is first-person discourse, and I have used first person narration a lot in my last three novels (including the forthcoming Thinks…) perhaps in order to deal with the ‘tender’ emotions associated with love and death. Like most people with literary interests I wrote some poetry when I was very young, but I have only written a handful of poems in adult life, and none for many years now.


LV. What is your idea of the ideal ending for a novel? You smash the old happy end, the happy couple living happily ever after. The stream of consciousness writers did the same. The difference is you do not do that solely as an innovating trick. You actually see life that way, inconclusive and forever to be continued. How do you decide when a novel should end?

DL. This question links up with the preceding two, because how you end a story crucially affects the impression it leaves on the reader about the implied author’s attitude to life. I am fascinated by this question of endings, and have written about it in several critical essays. As modern literary novelists go, I think I am more drawn than most to the old-fashioned ‘happy ending’, and have sometimes been criticised for it, though you don’t seem to agree. I tend to leave my characters in an open-ended situation, but a hopeful one, with the major problems they have confronted in the story resolved. This resolution of the issues raised by the narrative is a constant preoccupation while writing the novel for me. I always have a provisional idea of how the story is going to end, but usually this is modified as the composition of the work proceeds. This is because there are so many ‘codes’ involved in writing a novel – the codes of narrative coherence, psychological plausibility, thematic significance, formal elegance, etc etc. and the ending must satisfy on all these levels. Also, you discover so much of what you want to say in the process of writing.


LV. One of your characters in The Picturegoers (1960), Harry, touches upon the major issue of teenage violence, which was the concern of Lessing, Burgess, Golding and others. You do not write about this again. It is a dystopic interest that might characterize a Desperado. Is the issue important to you?

DL. The Picturegoers is a very early, immature novel, and reflects the influence Graham Greene had on me at that time. Harry is somewhat derivative from the character of Pinkie, the teenage gangster in Greene’s Brighton Rock. He is not really based on experience or observation. I have never been much drawn to the depiction of violent or psychopathic behaviour, like the writers you mention, for temperamental reasons touched on above.


LV. In Ginger, You’re Barmy (1962), another kind of violence, the political one, caused by the IRA, is woven in the relaxed irony of the plot. You undermine the idea of positive hero, placing the bad student who ruins his life on a pedestal. The traditional pattern of the novel seems deliberately forced to turn upside down. Is it more important to you to smash known patterns with irony, or to sound an earnest alarm? Are you ironical before anything else, or alongside with an interest in politics, problems of religious belief?

DL.
Ginger is another novel written under the influence of Greene. It has a similar structure to that of The Quiet American. I wanted to write a novel that would sum up the institution of National Service (i.e. two years’ compulsory military service for young men) as I experienced it, not long before it was abolished in Britain because it had ceased to serve any useful purpose. My own response shifted from a shocked resistance to the military ethos (I declined to try for an officer’s commission in Basic Training) to pragmatic resignation and a determination to make life as comfortable as possible for myself. I developed these two responses into two separate characters and contrasted their fortunes. I suppose the novel reflects my own aversion to risky, romantic gestures, but also a certain grudging admiration for those who make them. Like Fowler in The Quiet American Jonathan has ‘won’ in the end but feels as if he has lost. I think it’s a novel about morality and values rather than politics or religious belief as such.


LV. Your novels take the reader by surprise, prove his taste in romance old fashioned. Do you aim at surprise? Is it a major concern with you? What is your relationship with your reader?

DL. I think any good story should surprise the reader. If its development is totally predictable, there’s not much point in reading it (unless it’s a true story). How this can work when you re-read a fictional story is an interesting question – but it does; somehow you suppress your own knowledge to increase the pleasure of the text. One of the basic satisfactions of narrative is peripetia, a development that is both surprising and convincing, which accords with our experience that life is essentially unpredictable but governed by cause and effect. Frank Kermode has written very well about this in The Sense of an Ending. One aspect of the craft of fiction is to disguise the evidence that will retrospectively make your surprises convincing when they occur. Traditional romance as a genre tends to just pile on the surprises without bothering to make them convincing. The realistic novel tries to make them seem part of the representation of the real. One’s ‘contract’ with one’s reader depends partly on the genre of the work, the implicit rules by which it is governed. I called Small World an ‘academic romance’ to licence myself to incorporate a lot of improbable twists and coincidences in the plot.


LV. The British Museum Is Falling Down (1965), not unlike Souls and Bodies (1990), focusses on a religious approach to life, which you contradict in Paradise News (1991). What does religion mean to you? How serious are you when you mock at its effects on everyday life? How moralizing?

DL. I think if you read my novels in sequence you will see a gradual waning of orthodox religious belief in the ‘implied author’. I don’t propose to comment here on the ‘real author’s’ religious position. The British Museum is Falling Down satirised Catholic doctrine, especially as regards sex, from within orthodoxy. How Far Can You Go? (called Souls and Bodies in the US) takes a more detached, more ironic view of the decline in orthodox belief and practice and questions its survival. Paradise News is written from an implied post-Christian perspective – which is not the same as non-Christian or anti-Christian. Simple belief in the transcendental is almost impossible, but the fundamental problems that religion addresses remain.


LV.
In The British Museum Is Falling Down, and even more in Out of the Shelter (1970), the theme of America returning to her English origins, to Europe even, is obvious. The approach is totally opposite to Henry James. Americans are ridiculed. You have taught at Berkeley, yourself. Your trilogy, Changing Places, shows how familiar you are with American academics’ life. Do you view this theme of the American superiority with the same relaxed irony, with a sociologist’s concern, or with a touch of bitterness? What did your American experience mean to you?

DL.
America and American culture are certainly key elements in my life and work. I don’t think Americans are ‘ridiculed’ by contrast with British or European people in my novels. All races are impartially mocked and satirised. I have always considered myself as generally sympathetic to America. To someone who was a child in World War 2, America was the powerful ally who helped us win, and its culture as mediated by films, magazines etc., epitomised the kind of materialistic good life for which Europe longed in the aftermath of war, and now enjoys. So I have used America as a way of exploring the theme of the pursuit of happiness ( a very American theme) by bringing my repressed Brits into contact with it. For what America has meant to me see my essay ‘The Bowling Alley and The Sun’ in Write On.


LV. In Out of the Shelter (1970), you are, it seems, more autobiographical, which is something you do not usually do. You also win the reader’s sympathy deliberately, which again you are unwilling to do openly in the other novels. Humour is your main character, most often than not. How much does your private life interfere with your imagination? Do you allow yourself to get lyrically involved when you write a novel?

DL. Out of the Shelter was a novel specifically sourced from my first actual encounter with American culture, and with Continental Europe, as a youth of 16. I think in retrospect it cleaves too closely to my own experience (not in the story, but in the detail of the setting) so remains a limited, but I think truthful piece of work. I think most novelists write more directly from their own experience in their earlier work, then, perhaps when they have ‘used it up’, deliberately research their novels.


LV. Do you have a favourite type of criticism? What critics do you hate (as a category)? What should the ideal critic do when faced with one of your texts? What is your favourite critical approach? The Desperado critic, in my view, is the critic who makes ample use of all critical approaches he knows, determined to understand the text but rejecting any device which would become an obstacle (see Deconstruction, which Bradbury so wonderfully deconstructed in Mensonge). Like the Desperado novelist, he returns to the pleasure of the narrative. Do you accept scholarly criticism? Should criticism be an enigma, to be decoded in its turn, in order to decode the work afterwards? Criticism is literature in itself, but should it make use of confusion as its peculiar suspense?

DL. There are different kinds of criticism which have different functions, from the journalistic to the scholarly. All have their place. Whatever type it is, I think criticism should be a pleasure to read by those who have an interest in it. I deplore the tendency of much (though not all) post-structuralist criticism to cultivate mystification deliberately. A good critical essay has a kind of plot – it has satisfying surprises in it. Reviewing has a special responsibility to be fair, because it affects the first reception of the work. Academic criticism is usually written when the book already has some kind of established currency, and so can follow its own agenda without doing much damage to the book or its readers. However I generally avoid reading academic criticism of my own work – its tendency to display mastery over the text can seem oppressive to the author. I like criticism which judges what the writer has done with his subject, rather than quarrelling with the subject, and which gives evidence to support its judgments. I dislike criticism which is motivated primarily by literary politics, or personal animus, or personal vanity.


LV. You are not very fond of the academic world, and use it to create humorous patterns which support your plots. The basic idea is that academics get themselves into situations which are hilarious, and even when you are not directly mocking at them, when the novel is more or less in earnest (see Nice Work), you cannot help creating ironical parallelisms. Bradbury has the same attitude, and, just like you, he was an academic. You taught for a while together in Birmingham. How do you feel about your status as an academic? Does it help novel-writing? Or criticism? Do you still teach? What?

DL. I was a university teacher from 1960 to 1987 (part-time in the last 3 years), then I took early retirement to write full-time. I enjoyed my work as an academic, especially the first two decades, and took it seriously, as both teacher and scholar. I published a novel and a critical book in alternation in these years. I never felt any creative or intellectual tension between these two activities: they complemented each other. But on the social-psychological level it was a kind of schizophrenic existence. I did not operate in the University as a novelist – I did not read my work on campus or discuss it with my students or teach creative writing (at Birmingham – I did elsewhere). I operated as a serious, committed academic. The novels, which often satirised or carnivalised the academic world, belonged to a separate compartment of my life. It was a rather artificial distinction, and I was quite glad when I was able to take early retirement in 1987 to become a full-time writer. I am an Emeritus professor now. I don’t teach any courses – for one thing I am getting hard of hearing – but I do very occasionally give a lecture or reading. Malcolm Bradbury and I were colleagues occupying adjacent offices for some years in the early 60s, and very close in every way. I valued our friendship, which continued after he moved to East Anglia, enormously and I was desolated by his untimely death last November.


LV. Your novels help the reader find himself and learn how to read. You are a critic and a novelist at the same time. How do you feel about clarity, the return to the story and characters? Do you feel like innovating, or merely entertaining your readers, in no sophisticated way?

DL. I think you can tell I am a teacher and critic in my novels, because I am careful to give the readers all the information and clues they need to follow and understand my meaning. Some critics think I try too hard to control the reader’s response. It is not for me to say. I certainly see writing as essentially communication, as a rhetorical activity. And in the highest sense I think art must entertain, or give delight.


LV. Changing Places (1975) ends with a suggestion that a movie might do more than a written story. I do not think you really favour the film over the book, as what you say must always be taken with a grain of salt, but I will ask all the same: What do you think will be the future of the book? Can the screen (cinema, computer, television, ‘telescreen,’ etc.) supersede the pleasure of reading?

DL. A big question. Brief answer: no, I don’t think visual and electronic media will make reading and the book obsolete. But the interaction between them will increase.


LV. Do you have a plan for your plot from the very beginning, and enrich it with details as you go along, or do you start with a mood and invent the story each day, as it comes? Is plot important?

DL. I have a provisional outline plot before I start writing, but it has a lot of blanks, like white space on old maps, which I fill up as I go along and that usually entails changing the outline I started with.


LV. What kind of writer would you say you are: comic, reflexive, deeply moral, tricky, innovative, involved, ironical? Does your writerly self bear any semblance to your everyday self? What is essential in the daily life of the author David Lodge?

DL. It is not for me to describe ‘David Lodge’ the implied author of my books – it is for readers and critics.


2001

 

 

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