An Interview with David Lodge
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Areté. I would like to start by referring to your essay ‘The Novelist at the Crossroads’, in which you say that the future of the novel depends on the return of realism, that the realist novel is the novel per se. Do you still, over thirty years later, believe that realism is synonymous with the novel?

LODGE I just think it is for the English novel – for my kind of fiction. Not for everybody, obviously. I don’t have very much interest in fantasy or magic realism. It’s a personal temperamental thing, of course, but it is also characteristic of the English novel tradition. My work has become more realistic lately in the last two or three novels. That essay was written a long time ago. Like most critical essays by writers, it has a kind of hidden agenda. I had just written Out of the Shelter, which was a very realistic novel in technique. And I was conscious that English fiction was moving into rather an experimental phase at that time. You could only go on playing the game of metafiction for so long… There are really only so many variations you can play on that. And in recent work I think I have been experimenting more with the first-person voice. In the diary section of Paradise News, for example. And nearly all Therapy is made up of first-person pronouncements. Now I’m interested in representing first-person discourses, and bringing them into interesting juxtapositions which are obviously artistically contrived. I didn’t exactly lose interest, but I cannot see any point in playing the game of breaking the frame or exposing the device. It’s been done now so often and by so many people that it is no longer very challenging. I’m moving back more towards creating an illusion of life.

Areté. Does it have anything to do with F R Leavis? You said once that social liberalism is the only justification for realism in the novel.

LODGE No, I don’t think it has. I have always felt very antagonistic towards Leavis. I don’t actually think he was liberal. I think he was very intolerant. Basically he was a Puritan. In some sense he was anti-liberal. He tended to sneer at liberal writers like E M Forster, the Bloomsbury group and so on. Leavis was the dominant critical influence when I was a young student. And I reacted against it and I moved into critical formalism in reaction to Leavis. Leavisian criticism would not accept as significant the novelists whom I most enjoyed reading then. Joyce was downgraded by Leavis. Lawrence was elevated above Joyce. In my view Joyce is a much greater writer than Lawrence. Graham Greene and Evelyn Waugh were not considered serious writers by the Leavisites and I thought they were. The Leavis group was essentially a kind of secularised Protestant ethos – and I was Catholic. So I felt very alienated. I would describe myself as liberal Catholic. My kind of Catholicism incorporates humanism and I think realist fiction is the vehicle for a liberal humanist attitude to life. The Catholic novel as the vehicle for Catholic doctrine is not on the whole the kind of fiction I like very much. A good Catholic novel, to me, exposes the contradictions and tensions within Catholicism. It does not attempt to be a vehicle for propaganda.

Areté. But you do have in common with Leavis a belief in the moral responsibility of literature.

LODGE Yes. Of course, but not in the narrow and prescriptive way that Leavis insists on. There is a terrible earnestness and seriousness about Leavis. There is not much openness to comedy in Leavis. The keynote of his criticism was ‘maturity’. And I think the fact that Leavis did not really think Ulysses was a great work says it all, as far as I am concerned. He was not prepared to accept the scandalesque, the carnivalesque, the grotesquely comic. He distrusted that. He wanted a rather high-minded ethos.

Areté. Some time ago I interviewed Czeslaw Milosz. He was very critical of Western literature, which he accused of nihilism and frivolity. This coupling of nihilism and frivolity as twin dangers surprised me. I asked him if he really believed that the frivolous is necessarily nihilistic. And Milosz modified his opinion. He said that he read a number of British novels which were frivolous, but at the same time morally serious. These were the novels of David Lodge. Would you comment on this?

LODGE I’m astonished, actually. He said they were frivolous, but not nihilistic?

Areté. Yes, he claimed that the bulk of Western literature is nihilistic. You were cited as an exception.

LODGE That is interesting. I’m immensely flattered that he should have said that about me. I had no idea that he read my work at all. I would like to think that that is true. Another way of putting it is: I use comedy to investigate various matters which I take seriously. I’m certainly not a nihilist. There can be good literature which is based on total despair about the human condition. And I suppose Beckett is an example of that. But there are very few writers who can say such things and retain a sense of authenticity. Beckett is one of the very few. He earns his right to express such a nihilistic view. But I would feel inauthentic if I pretended to find the world a place of total negation, and despair, and irony. Because I don’t. And most of us don’t. Most of the time we live quite comfortable lives. And we get simple pleasure out of life. You do sometimes feel that a lot of modern literature sets out to shock rather than expressing a real sense of shock in the writers themselves. Perhaps that is what Milosz was talking about. It is part of the whole difficulty that modern writers have in coming to terms with the terror and the horror of twentieth-century history without themselves having necessarily experienced it, I think. Saul Bellow called it wastelandism, and he’s been critical of the nihilism in a lot of modern literature. There is a certain amount of rather easy, unearned nihilism in modern literature. I don’t really have much to add to that. I would like to be thought of as a comic writer who addresses serious issues.

Areté. There is something in comic writing, in its ironic aspect, which I think allows the author to remain safely outside the polemical debate, detached and unengaged, shielded by his humour and irony. Sometimes I feel, when I read your novels, that you dislike taking sides.

LODGE That’s right.

Areté. I feel that you tend to use your sense of comedy to avoid declaring yourself. Not so much perhaps as regards moral issues, where your stance is often clear, but for example in your attitude to contemporary literary theory. In your novels you often make fun of it, sometimes you even denounce it as a form of modern madness. But when I am nearly ready to agree with you on this point, I remind myself that you have written important critical texts that stem exactly from contemporary literary theory.

LODGE I do have a very complicated attitude to these things. It is true I don’t like taking up strong positions. I prefer to sit on the fence, or present both points of view. A lot of my novels are based on the conflict, or confrontation, of two antithetical ideologies, or attitudes, or professions, or cultures, or whatever. I like to see a kind of interaction taking place, and the two things changing each other by their interaction. In the case of literary theory, I did have ambiguous feelings about the development of literary theory. On the one hand, I thought some aspects of structuralism were genuine advances, and they excited me. On the other hand, I found many aspects of the development of theory regrettable, deplorable. Theory became fetishized in the academy. It began as an exciting new and became a professional mystique, a jargon, a methodology with which you could impress other people. It began to destroy the pleasure principle in reading literature. I felt that very strongly in the 1980s. A lot of young scholars, trying to make a career, were forcing themselves to read literary theory because that is what was expected. They really did not want to. And they were losing the pleasure of reading the original texts. I think students would feel the same. So I became disillusioned about the time I left the university world. I was quite relieved no longer to have to pretend, to keep up with it.

Areté. You were unambiguously critical of theory especially in Small World and Nice Work.

LODGE I think in those books, particularly Nice Work, I was expressing my own disillusion with what had happened to literary theory. Even so, there were some useful ideas, like the distinction between metaphor and metonymy, and I based a whole critical book on. My academic character in Nice Work demonstrates this distinction on the Silk Cut ad. It makes a kind of sense. I was not saying this is just rubbish. What she says does make sense. So I tried to give some credit to this apparently mystifying jargon.

Areté. That’s the point I’m making. You’re trying to give credit to theory and then a few pages later you ridicule it mercilessly.

LODGE Some people think that I’m trying to have my cake and eat it. I’m not a man of strong convictions. I have entertained different ideas at different times. I always feel the tension between apparently contradictory explanations of any phenomenon. I am a realist in that I think art should imitate life. I also think life imitates art. Books are made out of other books as well as out of life. These are two opposite ideas, apparently, but I see truth in both of them. A universe created by God is as mysterious as a universe not created by God. They are both equally difficult concepts to understand. I think the idea of personal immortality is completely impossible, in some ways. And in some ways you cannot do without it. I am a man who moves between quite different positions on ultimate questions.

Areté. I would also say you try to find organic harmony between the seemingly irreconcilable attitudes. In Nice Work this ideal of organic unity is particularly noticeable. You take up the theme of two cultures and what you do is try to positively reconcile them.

LODGE Yes, I’m trying to see if there might be reconciliation. Or mutual understanding between them. I was trying to do that in Nice Work. It was partly a homage to the nineteenth-century novel which was trying to do the same thing – to reconcile different factions in a divided society. I suppose I was saying that both the literary theorist and the man of business are equally prone to tunnel vision. They have certain priorities which they assume are everybody’s priorities. But as a result of meeting each other, they suddenly realise it is not the case. There is a whole other way of looking at the world. That seems to me what fiction should do, really. Open up minds to the existence of other perspectives than the one we normally take for granted.

Areté. Am I right to think that David Lodge the writer would not have existed if it had not been for the 60s?

LODGE (surprise) The 60s?

Areté. The decade of counterculture, sexual revolution, permissive society, etc. I have an impression that all of your novels focus on the changes in society, morality, religion, arts, that occurred in that decade. You may approach them polemically, but you always acknowledge their significance.

LODGE I think of myself very much as the creature of the 50s. The 50s were the formative decade for me, in 1950, I was fifteen, and by 1960 I was 25. Those are your formative years. And it was then that I formed an ambition to be a writer. And came under the influence of the Angry Young Men and all those writers. I would say my sensibility was actually formed in the 50s, if anything. The 60s was a very important decade because it seemed to offer the possibility of an entirely different way of life. A life of liberation, experiment, rejection of authority, reinterpretation of all the things I had grown up in. You could say that the 60s was a watershed. It encouraged me to question the Catholic orthodoxy in which I had been brought up. Partly because Vatican II happened in the 60s, too. So there was revolution in the Church. The 60s introduced continental literary theory to me for the first time, and it opened up the whole set of postmodernist strategies in fiction which liberated me from the simple, plain realistic novel that I’s started out writing. So yes, it was a very important decade. But I felt almost too old actually to participate the 60s. It was rather something I observed and reacted to.

Areté. Would you be surprised if I told you that I see much of your writing as footnotes to Philip Larkin?

LODGE (laughter) I have a terrific admiration and feeling for Philip Larkin’s poetry, but why…

Areté. I find many common themes in Larkin’s poems and your novels. If only the vantage-point of the detached, uninvolved observer. Or the disillusioned view of the euphoric radicalism of contemporary culture, or your ambivalent attitude to the moral revolution of the 60s. The question of ‘how far can you go?’, the illusion of unlimited freedom, is in fact the theme of ‘High Windows’, isn’t it?

LODGE Larkin was a bit older than me. He was more trapped in the sensibility of the 40s. And of the 50s. He couldn’t enter that liberation of the 60s, even imaginatively. He reviewed Small World. And he reviewed it rather sourly. He did not really like it. He thought it was a great lyrical celebration of the world of international scholarship, which he hated. Somebody asked him would he like to go to China. He said only if he could come back the same day. He hated jet travel, foreign countries, all that. Whereas half of me responded strongly to that sense of open horizons. I don’t think Larkin ever liked America or Americans. And I love America. Larkin remains within that narrow, cautious, ironic, English secular sensibility. So a part of me responds enormously to Larkin. But there is a part of me which is very different from him.

Areté. One of your characters says that Larkin is the only poet that he reads. He says he will never read Andrew Motion’s biography of Larkin because that would destroy the pleasure of reading the poems.

LODGE That’s in Therapy, actually. Tubby likes Larkin. And Bernard, my priest in Paradise News, quotes Larkin. I think Larkin is a wonderful poet. Very hard to explain that to people who don’t read English. It is so English – the tone, the quality, the texture. Larkin got it absolutely right. Nobody’s done it better.

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