Until the age of 52, David Lodge maintained his academic career alongside his burgeoning success as a comic novelist. He was an enthusiastic participant in the international conference circuit, not least because it provided him with material for books such as Changing Places: A Tale of Two Campuses (1975) and Small World: An Academic Romance (1984). But, despite the globetrotting, he remained prolific in both spheres.
I interviewed Lodge when the first volume of his memoirs, Quite a Good Time to Be Born, was published in 2015. Now Writer’s Luck: A Memoir 1976-1991 (Harvill Secker) offers some equally striking and amusing stories. When his satirical novel about Catholicism, How Far Can You Go? (1980), was adopted as “a set text in a course on contemporary British fiction” at a Catholic college of education, one outraged parent complained about his daughter being “required to read such a heterodox and sexually explicit book” and even took his case to the country’s leading Catholic, Cardinal Hume.
There is a remarkable episode – surely unimaginable now – about a 1986 conference on The Linguistics of Writing becoming the subject of a Channel 4 television documentary. Lodge provided a voice-over narrative, which the organiser, Colin MacCabe, objected to, so “they staged a scene in which Colin…burst into the studio, interrupted my commentary and argued…that we needed to interpolate other points of view. The scene was incorporated in the finished film and proved only that neither of us was a very good actor.”
Equally entertaining is the account of a meeting with a writers’ group in Fiji, where the first person to arrive was “a gigantic Tongan…who said that he was writing [an apparently autobiographical] comic novel about a man who has a pain in the arse”. He was followed by someone who announced: “I come early because I am interested in words, and in the beginning was the word.”
Yet Lodge makes clear that it became increasingly difficult to maintain his double role as prominent international academic and satirical novelist biting the hand that fed him. One publisher rejected Small World because his father was “a professor of English who always attended the MLA [Modern Language Association] convention” – and “my carnivalesque satirical novel had somehow dishonoured the memory of his father”.
Another conference described in Small World takes place in Jerusalem. After the delivery of a single paper, the rest of the day is devoted to “unstructured discussion”, ie, “swimming and sunbathing at the Hilton pool, sightseeing in the Old City, shopping in the bazaar…” Despite a comic need for exaggeration, Lodge admits to “a twinge of remorse” when rereading his version of what had in reality been “a hard-working, serious and rewarding intellectual event”.
By the time Small World was published in 1984, some of Lodge’s colleagues at the University of Birmingham and beyond felt that it was “irresponsible to publish a satirical novel about academics swanning around the world to exotic locations at public expense…when British universities were reeling from drastic cuts in their funding under Margaret Thatcher’s government”. Like his fiction, his new memoir offers a vivid picture of a lost world.