The Gate of Angels
Coziness can still seem a virtue in the British novel, and in keeping with the diminished status of the old country most novels written in England today have a modest and miniature air, almost as if they were saying, since we can’t do things big anymore let’s make the small ones as engaging as we can. David Lodge has had a good deal of success but has never been spoiled by it: always a modest writer, he has come to make modesty seem an art in itself. Well aware of all the devices of modern international fiction—switches between third and first person, changes from past to present tense and back, jokes about the making up of fictions—he has even used them modestly, and with a wholly personal lack of pretension.
But his best device, well exemplified in Paradise News, is the least artificial, and most his own. In keeping with the experience of his intellectual and academic generation he made a topic for fictive debate and entertainment out of postwar contrasts between English and American culture. With its goahead opulence, its wine, girls, and jazz, the Californian campus had become by the Sixties the Mecca of the English university Lucky Jim. This Jim was a new man, with all a new man’s naive conviction that the real and sophisticated, the socially opulent life, is waiting somewhere to be seized, and to seduce him. New men are deeply innocent. Lodge’s new man and lucky Jim was called Philip Swallow; and he was contrasted with a shrewd, streetwise, and altogether more grown-up American equivalent, the young professor Morris Zapp. So successful was the partnership and contrast that having made their debut in Lodge’s best novel, Changing Places (1975), the pair reappeared in Small World (1984), a less effective and more conventional campus novel. But where have we come across this artful confrontation of new and old world customs and exemplars before?
In Henry James of course. But now the two worlds really have changed places: and it is American man who is knowledgeable and sophisticated, with the confidence of assured wealth and early experience. His English opposite number is uncertain, anxious, timid, and insecure, and comes from a humble though sheltered background. Henry James might have been mildly surprised that gown had taken over from town as the focus of felt life and the fictional venue, but he would instantly recognize the kind of social truths that only good fiction can formulate and explore.
Our new British innocent abroad is an “honest man” called Bernard Walsh, a priest who has lost his faith and become a mere theologian, teaching at some dim college in the English midlands. In keeping with the development of the genre he is now decidedly middle-aged, but in the artful hands of his experienced creator he has lost none of his essential naiveté. The object again is to contrast this with American experience, but in ways which establish a great, indeed …