Lead book review

Reviewing reviews of reviews — where will it all end? 

In Lives in Writing, David Lodge writes about Pico Iyer writing about Graham Greene, and about Martin Stannard writing about Muriel Spark, and so on...

25 January 2014

9:00 AM

25 January 2014

9:00 AM

Lives in Writing David Lodge

Harvill Secker, pp.262, £18.99, ISBN: 9781909653580

About halfway through reading this collection of essays I had one of those hall-of-mirrors moments. These are mostly book reviews, you see: high-toned, long-form New York Review of Books-type review-essays, given — but book reviews nevertheless. There I was, dutifully noting what David Lodge wrote about what Martin Stannard had to say about Muriel Spark, for instance. At once I found myself entertaining the baseless, pleasing notion that, some years from now a collection of my own book reviews would appear in an edition called something awful like Writing Things Down or Twelve-Point Garamond. And that in due course some whey-faced stripe would, in The Spectator’s books pages, apply himself to noting what Sam Leith wrote about what David Lodge wrote about what Martin Stannard had to say about Muriel Spark. And that in due course, whey-face would publish his own collected — Wheys of Seeing, or similar — and The Spec would assign it to Streaky O’Piss for review, and so on and so on.

All this is not to say that we shouldn’t reprint book reviews, nor I suppose that reviewing them is a waste of time. But there can be a sense, particularly when reviewing a review of a literary biography, that the original object of study might have made its excuses and quietly slipped out of the room. Nevertheless…

The title of Lodge’s collection gives it a loosely unifying theme: here’s a critic and novelist writing about the interface between life and writing in different ways. Here are reviews of literary biographies; memoirs and biographical essays of writers; and memoirs of Lodge’s own life in writing. For critics in general — and especially for critics of Lodge’s generation, brought up under the austerities of the New Criticism — this has a pleasant flavour of intellectual truancy about it. That’s evidenced in one of the liveliest pieces — a review of Terry Eagleton’s After Theory which contains a gleefully funny description of various critics who repented of theory, furtively rediscovered Great Books and, in some cases, ‘left the academy altogether to become psychotherapists’.

There are essays here on (or reviews of books about) Graham Greene, Kingsley Amis, Muriel Spark, Pico Iyer (writing about Graham Greene), Alan Bennett and Simon Gray. Also, oddly and interestingly, the film director John Boorman. There’s a nice reappraisal, too, of Trollope’s science fictional novella The Fixed Period, about a society that tries to enact a law to euthanise its old people compulsorily.

Lodge enters some of these essays sideways, recalling his own meetings with the writers under discussion. The less these meetings yielded, in general, the more charming the effect of the bathos. ‘Many visitors to [Graham Greene’s] Antibes apartment, myself included, were surprised by its modest scale,’ he informs us. He met Muriel Spark twice — once at a British Council dinner (‘She was plainly dressed in a navy blue trouser suit … and was deferential to my academic status, though apparently unaware that I also wrote novels’) and then at a party the following night (‘wearing a flowing robe and a bouffant hair-do … and I had little opportunity to speak to her’). He first met Simon Gray in 1977: ‘Perhaps because of the whisky, though he drank most of it, I don’t have a very detailed memory of the visit.’ He first met Frank Kermode in 1961: ‘I regret to say that the only specific topic of his conversation that I recall concerned the performance of his new Mini on the drive down from Manchester.’

A sustained personal note enters essays about Kermode and Malcolm Bradbury. The former is a lovely, generous piece — and you wouldn’t know it’s what those in the second-hand-car trade call a cut ’n’ shut, welding together Lodge’s contribution to the Festschrift for Kermode’s 80th birthday with another piece published in the NYRB. The latter tells the story of the long, sometimes faintly rivalrous friendship between these two writer dons so often confused with one another. It may be the definitive record. It may be by Malcolm Bradbury.

Lives in Writing rounds off with a piece on Lodge’s experience of writing his novel about the life of H.G. Wells. Lodge didn’t become a psychotherapist but he did start writing biographical novels about writers: first Henry James and then Wells. He grumbles (as he did at length in The Year of Henry James) that Colm Tóibín’s Henry James novel scotched the reception of his own, published in the same year, and thanks heaven that he didn’t publish his Wells book in the same year as A.S. Byatt’s The Children’s Book.

Lodge is a clear, sceptical writer, wise about things and a careful reader and in general kind even to people who plainly irritate him. So when you find him appearing to be feline, it’s so uncharacteristic you wonder whether he’s damning his subjects by accident. He writes of Kingsley Amis that he was a ‘key figure in postwar British culture, whose importance and influence cannot be measured simply by the intrinsic merit of his books’; he extols, too, ‘Alan Bennett’s level of success in the territory where literature meets showbusiness’. Both sentences admit of straightforward readings but you could imagine both their subjects narrowing the eyes slightly, wondering if they’d been dissed.

When Lodge does stick the knife in, it’s usually a stab in the front. His appraisal of Norman Sherry’s enormous three-volume, 28-years-in the-making life of Graham Greene is very judicious — convincingly explaining why the first volume was the best, where the second went wrong and how the third went even more wrong. And he plucks out the odd hilariously bad sentence: ‘When Greene writes a letter to the press, it’s a lightning rod for shoals of letters to be poured out in answer, swords drawn.’

Terry Eagleton’s bad sentences are gently guyed, too. One that Lodge says ‘should never have got past the first draft on his computer screen, let alone into print’, is: ‘Much of the world as we know it, despite its solid, well-upholstered appearance, is of recent vintage.’ Lodge notes drily that: ‘In the next sentence this upholstered vintage is thrown up by tidal waves.’

Lodge himself isn’t immune to writing phrases and sentences of reviewerese, though. ‘[John Boorman’s] Adventures of a Suburban Boy is an effortlessly enjoyable read, containing many droll anecdotes which make one laugh out loud, but it is far deeper than the usual showbiz memoir,’ he writes at one point. Elsewhere we meet ‘national treasure’, ‘divided by a common language’, ‘brilliantly witty’, ‘searingly honest’, ‘heady ferment’, ‘stimulating tour de force’, ‘infectious enthusiasm’ and emotion arriving in — yes — a ‘tidal wave’. (That last comes from an essay on the death of Diana, Princess of Wales, which is the book’s only stone dud: Lodge couldn’t find it a home immediately after her death and it hasn’t, I’m afraid, got any fresher.)

But that’s the book reviewing caper for you. Live by the cliché, die by the cliché. ‘So, naturalists observe, a flea/ Has smaller fleas that on him prey;/ And these have smaller still to bite ’em/ And so proceed ad infinitum.

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  • Tanya Gold


  • Don Kenner

    Oddly enough, I still want to read this book, even after reading this wonderful piece and nodding my head through most of it. Maybe this is why such books survive; there are always people like me to read them. Blame us.

  • ‘Interfaced’. A word, like ‘seminal’ and ‘twerk’ (whatever it means) that I’ll never use.

  • Good article, I’ll look forward to seeing it in a future anthology of Sam Leith’s work.