wed 17/07/2024

David Lodge: Writer’s Luck - A Memoir 1976-1991 review - literary days, in detail | reviews, news & interviews

David Lodge: Writer’s Luck - A Memoir 1976-1991 review - literary days, in detail

David Lodge: Writer’s Luck - A Memoir 1976-1991 review - literary days, in detail

The prolific polymath's quotidian reflections on life and culture

Books do furnish a room: David LodgePaul Moffat

Metaphor, metonymy, simile and synecdoche, anyone? FR Leavis, Roman Jakobson, Jacques Derrida, Frank Kermode? If any of this, and more, turns you on, this lengthy memoir will be irresistible.

It is almost a day-by-day account of 15 years of the family and professional life of one of the anglophone world’s leading academics, critics and authors, who now has some 30 volumes of novels, literary criticism, and plays for stage and television behind him.

It is the narrative of a somebody, but at times almost risibly reminiscent of George Pooter in The Diary of a Nobody. We are treated to a rundown of what furniture he bought, and from where, for his newly acquired pied-à-terre in Charing Cross, from a lacquered black ash table to tubular chrome chairs; every room of the house the family bought in Edgbaston, Birmingham is gone through, not to mention its alterations and renovations. It is a marmite memoir, an acquired taste which will have increasing value as a sociological description of a kind of polymathic life in the humanities that is now, with the internet, the demise of print, competitive media, and unremitting financial and political pressures on higher education, hardly possible. It is arguable that the scintillating careers, caressed in some respects by the media, of figures such as Lodge (or Melvyn Bragg, to take another instance) are just no longer viable for younger generations.

David LodgeLodge has written a personal paean to a nearly bygone age. He was born (1935) in just the right time for the coming political culture which supported education through university, the NHS, and other aspects of the burgeoning welfare state. He came from a lower-middle-class family in south London, and his first memoir (from 2015) was called justly Quite a Good Time To Be Born and took the reader from 1935 to 1975.

For this second instalment, the phrase “writer’s luck” is heartfelt, for Lodge feels that his life has had more good luck – networks of colleagues and students, accidents and coincidences – than bad. The luck may have been the opportunities, but he had to have the wit and capability to capitalise on them. And he strongly feels that his own trajectory – from full-time academic and part-time writer, to early retirement from academe and making it very comfortably as a full-time writer – is no longer possible. Very few writers can now make a living exclusively from their craft, and he attributes the growing number of creative writing courses, rather ironically, to this changed economic climate: part-time teaching by established writers gives them an economic base.

The novels and other fictions are loosely based on his own experiences, including the great successes like Changing Places, where an American academic with the evocative name of Morris Zapp zooms to the fictional University of Rummidge somewhere in the Midlands (he worried that Birmingham colleagues might take offence) while a Brit, Philip Swallow, flies to California. Small World is an hilarious fictional account of academic conferences worldwide, the intricacies of human relationships on personal and professional levels. It has a subliminal framework, a subtle take on Arthurian legend, scholars seeking a kind of Holy Grail either in academic insight or personal relationships and ceaselessly travelling on such quests as though on semi-secret pilgrimages. The genesis of every novel is carefully, explicitly explained, deconstructed, as it were. One of the fascinations of the memoir is the variety of critical techniques that are shown: the explication is a kind of highfalutin’ Ladybird show-and-tell for grownups, ranging from the painfully obvious to the revelatory.

There is a touching theme throughout of his personal life beyond external achievement

Writer’s Luck details many of these international meetings as Lodge lived them – from seemingly endless British Council visits to other aspects of the wandering scholar, fellowships and visiting shifts of various durations as lecturer or professor. Not all is fun and games: there is one nightmare round-the-world trip here, some 15 flights in 23 days. Another real conference, but with farcical elements and absurdities, was that at the University of Strathclyde in Glasgow in the summer on 1986 on “The Linguistics of Writing” in which Lodge not only participated but also scripted for a Channel 4 documentary. You couldn’t make this one up, and he didn’t… These comings and goings are interspersed with marvellous set pieces: chairing the Booker Prize for example in 1989, when one of the judges, Maggie Gee, insisted on ideological correctness (the early term for political correctness), thereby dissing Martin Amis’s London Fields.

There is a touching theme throughout of his personal life beyond external achievement: his remarkably strong marriage to Mary, whom he met at University College London when both were undergraduates; Catholicism, a flickering candle but always there; their third child Christopher, with Down’s syndrome. As a whole, though, society does not figure much except in so far as Thatcher’s economic policies began what Lodge sees as an assault on universities, and his eventual disillusionment with continuing to teach at a time of changes that meant individual interaction with students became more and more difficult.

There are painfully detailed expositions of practically everybody he has ever encountered, especially those involved with his plays and television programmes, and moments when the reader is silently screaming to get out of the rehearsal rooms in which we are incarcerated with the author. Yet the very processes he details are also fascinating, described by a highly articulate and involved outsider as an intensely collaborative process, alien to the ways in which a critic or novelist writes. Love it or loathe it, this fleshed-out diary is curiously addictive.


This is a splendid review of a fascinating account of a great writer and novelist. I awaited the book's appearance eagerly after completing Lodge's first memoir volume. This second installment is still not available through the usual sources in the United States, so I (an American admirer) ordered it through Foyle's in London. I appreciate Lodge's candid and keen observations on all manner of things, great and small, and also his utter modesty and decency. I and my fellow readers of literary novels judge Lodge's novels to be brilliant and highly entertaining. We also have discussed and appreciate the love he exhibits for the characters he creates and the intricacies of his narratives. This latest memoir is very informative about the dramatization of fictional works. I managed to acquire a DVD copy of the television series based on Nice Work and so enjoyed reading about the process of adapting that novel to the small screen. I have read some unfavorable reviews of this memoir and can only think that some degree of jealousy is hidden at the base of many of those sometimes ad hominem comments. The memoir does contain quite a few references to the unpleasant and dishonest habits and quirks of some reviewers; Even the worst of them (Auberon Waugh) was not treated with any malice by Lodge, who is too much the gentleman to write other than the circumspect truth as he knows it. Now I await the third memoir installment, trusting there will be one. His later novels are very fine and I'd like to hear of their progress through the publishing mill. I also wish to learn about the evolution of his views on the Catholic faith, If he wishes to tell us more about his furniture or children or travels or anxieties, I will be glad to hear about them. There are those of us who still yearn to know all aspects of the "homes and haunts" of our favorite writers. With David Lodge we are given an honest and candid account that is multifaceted and fascinating.

Add comment

Subscribe to

Thank you for continuing to read our work on For unlimited access to every article in its entirety, including our archive of more than 15,000 pieces, we're asking for £5 per month or £40 per year. We feel it's a very good deal, and hope you do too.

To take a subscription now simply click here.

And if you're looking for that extra gift for a friend or family member, why not treat them to a gift subscription?


Get a weekly digest of our critical highlights in your inbox each Thursday!

Simply enter your email address in the box below

View previous newsletters