No, David Lodge doesn’t have the furious, focused world view of Walker Percy or the orthodox clarity, profound insight and sheer genius of Flannery O’Connor, but he does have his own gifts and he shares something with these other two Catholic writers.
Lodge, retired professor of modern English literature fromthe University of Birmingham (England), has written many novels, along with academic literary criticisms, plays and television screenplay adaptations of his own novels as well as one of Charles Dickens: Martin Chuzzlewit. His collections of essays, The Art of Fiction and The Practice of Writing are illuminating for both writers and readers.
Lodge’s entertaining, comic novels are regular inhabitants of the British bestseller lists, and he has been shortlisted for the Brooker Prize twice. In this country, he’s primarily known for his two academic novels: Changing Places and Small World — knowing and sometimes wonderfully vicious satires of university life both in this country and in Britain.
Lodge’s books are peppered with Catholics. Sometimes they’re on the edges, hauting a character’s memory and yearning soul, as is thecase in Lodge’s 1995 Therapy. Here, Tubby Passmore is a television writer undergoing an extreme midlife crisis. He finds what little focus he can muster in Kierkegaard and a search for his first love, a Catholic girl — now a Catholic woman — making the pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela in Spain.
But in two of his novels, Lodge has turned his unsparing, uncanny comic vision on the Catholic world.
We’ll start with the strangely named The British Museum is Falling Down, Lodge’s third novel, written in 1965. It’s a very short, clever and hilarious book, written in a hurry, as Lodge notes in his introduction to the current edition, so that the timeliness of the subject matter wouldn’t fade. And what might that subject matter be? The Church’s teaching on artificial contraception and “the questioning of that teaching, which had very recently begun within the Church itself” in the early 1960's.
It’s a deceptively simple plot: A day in the life of one rather hapless British graduate student named Adam Appleby. Much to his own regret, Appleby awakes every morning with thoughts of all the unpleasant and stressful aspects of his life “crouched like harpies round his bed…that he was 25 years of age, and would soon be 26, that he was a post-graduate student preparing a thesis which he was unlikely to complete in this the third and final year of his scholarship, that he latter was hugely overdrawn, that he was married with three very young children, that one of them had manifested an alarming rash the previous evening, that his name was ridiculous, that his leg hurt…that he had forgotten to reserve any books at the British Museum for this morning’s reading, that his leg hurt, that his wife’s period was three days overdue, and that his leg hurt.”
There you have it, but for one essential detail: Adam Appleby, impoverished and stressed to his limits, is a Catholic in the early 1960’s. While he has hopes that the Church might change its teaching on artificial contraception, it certainly never occurs to either him or his wife Barbara to do anything but live within its constraints, the results of which are scattered about his tiny apartment — a vision he expands into an entry into an imaginary Martian encyclopedia entry on “Roman Catholicism:”
Martian archaelogoists have learned to identify the domiciles of Roman Catholics by the presence of large numbers of complicated graphs, calendars, small booklets full of figures, and quantities of broken thermometers…Some scholars have argued that it was merely a method of limiting the number of offspring, but as it has been conclusively proved that the Roman Catholics produces more children on average than any other section of the community, this seems untenable.
And so we follow Adam Appleby through his day as he vainly attempts to work on his thesis within the labyrinthine bowels of the British Museum; disputes matters academic, personal and theological with his colleagues; uncovers a lost and potentially scandalous manuscript by on Egbert Merrymarsh, a minor Chesterton-like apologist; gets a new job; loses it; contemplates adultery for the sake of his career; comes to his senses; and throughout, makes frequent anxious telephone calls home monitoring his wife’s condition.
All in 176 pages, no less.
An added pleasure of The British Museum is Falling Down is its elements of literary parody. Lodges utilizes the styles of various other writers, ranging from Graham Greene to James Joyce to Ernest Hemingway and beyond. Part of the fun of reading the novel, aside from the witting writing and comic turns of events, comes from detecting these passages.
One is easy: the last chapter is an homage of sorts to Molly Bloom’s final interior monologue in Ulysses, but now in the voice of Barbara Appleby, who knows, as she muses in the dark beside her exhausted husband, whether she is pregnant or not. The passage is a fascinating little meditation on the issue of birth control and, by extension, on the mysteries of sex: shadows, unintended consequences and unforseen power that no technology can ever succeed in controlling.
Lodge’s 1980 novel, Souls and Bodies, takes on the contraception issues as well, but within the broader context of the massive changes the Church went through after Vatican II. It’s the story of a group of British university students, whom we first meet gathered for Mass in a college chapel in 1952. The novel follows these characters over the next 25 years as they establish careers, couple, uncouple, and deal with their faith and the changes in the Church. Although it’s set in Britain, American readers will resonate with the chain of events with ease: the movement from pre-Conciliar certainty and its problems to a once-unimaginable freedom and its own consequences seem to have followed the same course on both sides of the Atlantic.
It’s interesting that the original title of this book was How Far Can You Go?, which is perhaps a more accurate rendering of Lodge’s theme. We’re accustomed to thinking of that question in relation to sex, as the characters in their younger days certainly do: How far can you go physically before you’ve put your soul in danger? When is it sex and therefore forbidden?
But there’s another meaning here as well: Once you have dismantled something essential — once you’ve started questioning one facet of the Catholic system, in this case birth control — where do you stop? As Lodge writes, “In matters of belief…it is a nice question how far you can go in this process without throwing out something vital.”
For those of you who lived through it, Souls and Bodies will be a humorous and perhaps embarrassingly honest reminder of the massive changes the Church has gone through over the past 40 years. For those of us who are younger, the scenes that frame the book — the quiet liturgy in the dark, barely lit church at the beginning and the completely on-target, sad and funny “Catholics for an Open Church Paschal Festival” at the end — clue us in on the dynamics of a transition we may not have directly experienced, but need to know about.
Be warned. Lodge is no prude, and the sexual contents of these books can be rather vivid at times, but it’s not superfluous. If we’re honest we’ll admit that the most controversial, wrenching aspects of being Catholic over the past decades have been coping with what the Church says about sex and what it does in liturgy. In his two most “Catholic” novels, David Lodge unpacks the ambiguities many ordinary Catholics have experienced in dealing with both, and gives us a good laugh at ourselves in the process, even as we are moved to shake our heads and wonder just when we are ever going to get it right.
Originally published at www.amywelborn.com.