Decency is a disadvantage in a novelist, especially in a novelist of manners. The best of the English practitioners—Thackeray, Waugh, Powell, Graham Greene—cast a cold eye on the world, expecting the worst of humankind and rarely being disappointed. Even Anthony Trollope indulged himself now and then in a bout of hand-rubbing Schadenfreude when a villain such as Mr. Slope got his comeuppance. The novel is bad news that stays bad news.
David Lodge is one of the finest makers of fiction now at work in England. I use the word maker advisedly, for he is as much artisan as artist. His books have an admirably crafted, solid, four-square feel to them. They sit well in the mind, as a piece of English silverware or Wedgwood china sits well in the hand. Although he is quintessentially of England, he is open-minded to a degree unthinkable in Waugh or Kingsley Amis. Besides his novels—Therapy is his tenth—he has written five books on literary theory, including one on Bakhtin and another with the resonant title Working with Structuralism. Like his friend and colleague Malcolm Bradbury, he is best known for “campus” novels, his own being Changing Places, Small World, and Nice Work.
Penguin has now reissued Small World (1984), in my estimation Lodge’s finest novel, and certainly his funniest. It is a continuation of the academic adventures of the English don Philip Swallow and his high-powered American colleague Morris Zapp (who is rumored to be modeled on Stanley Fish; Professor Fish should feel honored, for Zapp is a wonderful creation). The two first encountered each other in Changing Places (1975), in which they exchanged posts, Swallow going to the University of California and finding liberation, Zapp coming to Rummidge (Lodge’s fictional version of Birmingham, where he lives) and finding… well, finding England, in all its oddness and hopeless social confusion. Small World is set on the international academic conference circuit, and is a kind of pastiche romance, with a dashing young hero, the Irishman Persse McGarrigle, from the University of Limerick (invented by Lodge, but now a real institution: such is the power of fiction), in pursuit of a delectable damsel who glories in the name of Angelica Pabst. Out of this combination of quest epic and sophisticated modern comedy Lodge has produced a work which is at once riotously funny and strangely poetic:
When April with its sweet showers has pierced the drought of March to the root, and bathed every vein of earth with that liquid by whose power the flowers are engendered: when the zephyr, too, with its dulcet breath, has breathed life into the tender new shoots in every copse and on every heath, and the young sun has run half his course in the sign of the Ram, and the little birds that sleep all night with their eyes open give song (so Nature prompts them in their hearts), then, as the poet Geoffrey Chaucer observed many years ago, folk long to go on pilgrimages. Only, these days, professional people call them conferences.
Lodge was for many years an academic and on the evidence of his essays, especially in the volume Write On, he must have been a wonderfully stimulating teacher. The teaching impulse carries over into his fiction. One learns about practical things from his novels; not overtly, as we learn about money in Balzac or car dealerships in Updike, but in a deceptively easygoing, tweeds-and-pipe-tobacco sort of way. There is information about the academic life, of course, but also, for example, about the workings, or non-workings, of modern British industry in Nice Work, and about the difficulties of being a Catholic in the age of birth control in How Far Can You Go? In Therapy, we are told not only about the intricacies of writing and producing a television situation comedy but also about the life and writings of the founding father of existentialism, Søren Kierkegaard. We are even taught, gently but firmly, how to pronounce his name correctly.
The reader will find this aspect of Lodge’s writing either endearing or tiresome, or perhaps both. There are passages in Therapy in which the voice has the same soft-focus tone as that of an Open University lecturer giving an early morning beginner’s course in philosophy on BBC radio:
According to an encyclopaedia I’ve just looked up, Kierkegaard came to think that the aesthetic and the ethical are only stages on the way to full enlightenment, which is “religious.” The ethical seems to be superior to the aesthetic, but in the end proves to be founded on nothing more substantial. Then you have to throw yourself on God’s mercy. I don’t much like the sound of that. But in making that “leap,” man “finally chooses himself.” A haunting, tantalizing phrase: how can you choose yourself when you already are yourself? It sounds like nonsense, yet I have an inkling of what it might mean.
The speaker is Laurence Passmore, successful author of a long-running sitcom The People Next Door; he is fat, fifty-eight, balding, and suffering a late-midlife crisis. I do not believe for a moment that he would describe anything as “haunting, tantalizing.” That passage on Kierkegaard is followed immediately by a section which opens thus: “Sally [Passmore’s wife] signalled that she is still pissed off with me by declining to watch The People Next Door tonight claiming she was too busy.” There is a ring of authenticity to this version of the narrative voice—all flattened emphases and lower-middle-class anxiety in matters of usage and pronunciation—that is repeatedly belied as the lecturer steps forward again, clearing his throat, to deliver another peroration on philosophy, or religion, or the sights and sounds along the modern-day pilgrimage route to Santiago de Compostela (more of that presently). It is surprising to find a novelist of Lodge’s skill and experience allowing his own face to be seen peering out, however benignly, from behind the mask of fiction in this amateurish way.
Yet it is unfair, and unrepresentative, to begin by carping: unrepresentative, because the experience of reading the novel, as distinct from looking back on it, is so enjoyable. Lodge is a very fine comic writer, and for at least three quarters of its length this novel is wonderfully funny, in that rueful, lugubrious way that is characteristic of precursors such as Evelyn Waugh and Henry Green—though Lodge’s comedy is much broader than theirs:
I undressed and lay on the bed with a towel handy and tried to jerk myself off. It’s a long time since I did this, getting on for thirty-five years in fact, and I was out of practice. I couldn’t find any Vaseline in the bathroom cabinet, so I lubricated my cock with Paul Newman’s Own Salad Dressing, which was a mistake. First of all it was freezing cold from the fridge and had a shrivelling rather than a stimulating effect at first, secondly the vinegar and lemon juice in it stung like hell, and thirdly I began to smell like Gabrielli’s pollo alla cacciatora as the herbs warmed up with the friction.
What Lodge lacks in this book is a necessary edge of cruelty, of prurience, of indecent curiosity; he is too nice to his characters. Laurence Passmore is a splendid invention, but he is let off much too lightly for the novel’s good. The narrative opens (“Right, here goes”) on Monday morning, February 15, 1993—Lodge is nothing if not specific. Laurence, who is known to everyone as Tubby, is in outward appearance a fortunate man: successful in his career, with a still sexually active marriage, a platonic relationship with an understanding girlfriend, a nice house in Rummidge, a nifty flat in London, and a luxurious car, which he refers to with fond misgiving as the “Richmobile.”
Despite all these worldly, and indeed spiritual, blessings, he is caught in the grip of a nameless anguish which has its physical manifestation in a mysterious intermittent pain, “like a redhot needle thrust into the inside of the right knee and then withdrawn, leaving a quickly fading afterburn.” In his efforts to find relief for his bad knee, and for his heart-sickness, he is undergoing multiple therapy: “On Mondays,” he writes in his diary,
I see Roland for Physiotherapy, on Tuesdays I see Alexandra for Cognitive Behaviour Therapy, and on Fridays I have either aromatherapy or acupuncture. Wednesdays and Thursdays I’m usually in London, but then I see Amy [the girlfriend], which is a sort of therapy too. I suppose.
However, as the epigraph from Graham Greene (“Writing is a form of therapy”) makes clear, the keeping of the journal which makes up most of the novel is Laurence’s best hope of a cure both for his physical and his psychological ailments.
The journal opens with a description of the unsuccessful operation Laurence undergoes to cure the pain in his knee. This is a bravura performance, an example of English comic writing at its drollest:
Carefully holding the flaps of my gown together like an Edwardian lady adjusting her bustle, I mounted the stretcher and lay down. The nurse asked me if I was nervous. “Should I be?” I asked. She giggled but made no comment. The porter checked the name on my dogtag. “Passmore, yes. Right leg amputation, ennit?” “No!” I exclaimed, sitting up in alarm. “Just a minor knee operation.” “He’s only having you on,” said the nurse. “Stop it, Tom.” “Just pulling your leg,” said Tom, deadpan.
In his search for the source of his Angst Laurence delves into himself and into his past, with Kierkegaard as a sort of spiritual guide. The trouble is, his unhappiness is simply not convincing. Of course, even the most fortunate of us fall prey to inexplicable sorrow, but Laurence, for all his mournful introspection, does not sound desperate enough, or anguished enough, or emotionally impoverished enough, to justify his repeated assertions of his plight.
Early on in my treatment, Alexandra [his therapist] told me to take a sheet of paper and write down a list of all the good things about my life in one column and all the bad things in another. Under the “Good” column I wrote:
- Professionally successful
- Good health
Kids successfully launched in adult life
As many holidays as I want
Under the “Bad” column I wrote just one thing:
- Feel unhappy most of the time
A few weeks later I added another item:
- Pain in knee
Certainly, he has more practical problems than that painful knee. The leading actress in his sitcom intends to leave the show, and the studio is threatening to take the script away from Laurence because he cannot find a way plausibly to kill off her character. And then, a third of the way through the book, his ruminations are interrupted when, at the end of a passage extolling the benefits and blessings of a stable marriage (“Being happily married means that you don’t have to perform marriage”), he reveals that his wife has just come into his study to tell him she wants a separation. “She says she told me earlier this evening, over supper, but I wasn’t listening. I listened this time, but I still can’t take it in.” Generally not being able to take it in, we realize, is a large part of Laurence’s problem.
At this point Laurence’s first-person narrative breaks off to allow a series of what Laurence in his script-writing mode would call reaction shots: a police statement from the tennis coach whose bedroom Laurence has invaded, convinced he would find his wife there; a session with her psychiatrist by Laurence’s girlfriend Amy, telling him of a disastrous weekend in Tenerife where she and poor, bruised Tubby had gone to attempt a belated consummation of their affair; a phone call to a friend from Louise, a Hollywood producer whom Laurence, still in search of consolation, had flown to see in the vain hope of accepting an offer of sex she had made to him one tipsy evening some years previously; a recounting of Laurence’s troubles by Ollie, a wheeler-dealer television executive, speaking to a colleague in a pub; and a wildly funny account by Samantha, an ambitious and unscrupulous script editor, of a visit to Copenhagen with Laurence, supposedly for the purposes of having sex, but the high point of which turns out to be a visit to Kierkegaard’s grave.
These passages, which represent a real risk on the novelist’s part, falling as they do into the heart of his narrative, are very skillfully executed, and show Lodge at the peak of his comic talents. It is a shock, then, to discover, when the narrative is taken up again in Laurence’s journal, that they were all exercises in explorative mimicry, written by Laurence himself. This is, I believe, an artistic mistake, for inevitably one’s reaction to it is that Lodge must not have been convinced by his own powers of impersonation. The result is a sort of watered-down postmodernist sleight of hand; Bakhtin would not have approved.
The next narrative interruption is a thirty-five-page memoir by Laurence of his first love, a girl called Maureen Kavanagh, the daughter of Catholic lower-middle-class parents living in the same London suburb as the fifteen-year-old Laurence. Here again Lodge takes large risks, for the story of his love for Maureen, the girl who gave him his first feel of a breast, has to be carefully steered between sentimentality and bathos. He comes through largely intact, thanks to his determination neither to patronize his characters nor to manipulate the reader’s emotions. In this section, Lodge’s innate decency as an artist works to his advantage.
The same cannot be said of Part Four, the book’s final section. One of the chief requirements for an artist, whatever his medium, is to know when to stop. Novelists would do well to bear in mind Paul Valéry’s dictum that the work of art is never finished, only abandoned. Had Therapy ended at page 282 it would have been, even with its flaws, one of Lodge’s best books so far. At that point, Laurence has succeeded in tracing the grown-up Maureen; she is unhappily married to one of Laurence’s boyhood rivals for her favors, has lost her only son, killed while working as a lay missionary in Africa, and now has gone off to walk the ancient pilgrim route to Santiago de Compostela in Spain. Although he has not seen her since he was fifteen, and she is now a woman in her fifties, Laurence decides to follow her on the pilgrimage.
What a satisfyingly ambiguous ending that would have made for the book. As it is, we are asked to accompany Laurence to the saccharine end of his quest. He overtakes Maureen before she gets to Santiago, and discovers her to be one of those worldly, common-sensical Catholics that only England seems to produce. She had been a nurse, is now retired, and works for—of course—the Samaritans, the English organization providing telephone counseling for those in despair (“… I’ve only lost one client in six years”). They travel together, Maureen walking and Laurence driving ahead to arrange accommodation. With an awful inevitability, they end up in bed, where he discovers that she has had a mastectomy—somehow, one just knew That Breast was going to make itself felt again. They arrive in Santiago on Maureen’s target date, during the religious fiesta. Maureen gets her final compostela, a stamped certificate to verify that she has completed the pilgrimage, they visit the cathedral and do a bit of veneration—here Lodge wisely avoids the overtly numinous—and take a room in a luxury hotel, where it’s back to bed again. Why wasn’t I brought up in that kind of Catholicism?
A couple of years ago Lodge made a documentary film for the BBC on the renewed popularity of the pilgrimage to Santiago, and he may have felt he could not let all that good material go to waste. Perhaps this is why we get a great deal of travelogue writing:
…Christian Spain badly needed some relics and a shrine to boost its campaign to drive out the Moors. That’s how St James became the patron saint of Spain, and “Santiago!” the Spanish battle-cry. According to another legend…
And so on. Whereas in Small World Lodge used the romance form to telling and witty effect, here the theme of the pilgrimage and the ultimate finding of the self in the consummation of love—sacred and profane—is clumsily handled, and the result is banality. Then there is the neatly sewn-up ending. Laurence returns to ask his wife to come back to him, but she refuses, since she has found someone else. I suspect Lodge thought this setback would strike the reader with amazement and dismay, which would allow the novelist the artistic license to bring about a cozy resolution to Laurence’s troubles: he is going to move house to Wimbledon, to be close to Maureen and her husband. “I see quite a lot of Maureen and Bede these days. It would be nice to be near them, and I thought I might try to join the local tennis club—I always did fancy wearing that dark green blazer.” He will keep his flat, though, since “every now and then Maureen and I have a nice siesta here. I don’t ask her how she squares it with her conscience—I’ve got more sense.” In the autumn the three of them are going off on a holiday: “To Copenhagen. It was my idea. You could call it a pilgrimage.” There is no mention of a religious conversion, but we know it can only be a matter of time.
I feel curmudgeonly making these criticisms of such an entertaining and, in places, moving book, but the fact is that despite all its felicities of style, plotting, and characterization, I do not believe it succeeds. There is too much wishful thinking here. Certainly, there is no reason for a novel not to have a happy ending (though happy endings are, again, a matter of knowing when to stop), but the neat tying-up of knots that concludes Therapy casts a roseate glow backward that robs what has gone before of much of its authenticity. Lodge might have got away with it if his narrator had been writing after the event, for then we could have accepted his account as a record of turmoil recollected in tranquility; but Laurence’s journal records his thoughts as they occur from day to day, and the equable, mordantly witty tone in which he makes his professions of pain and anxiety is not convincing. Like most novelists, Lodge seems at his best when he is writing at one remove, however short, from his own beliefs and concerns. Therapy reads like the work of a writer dangerously at ease with himself.
August 10, 1995