Quite a Good Time to Be Born: A Memoir, 1935-1975, by David Lodge

Review published on March 17, 2015. Reviewed by Rebecca Foster

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David Lodge has been one of my favourite authors for nearly a decade. I first picked up one of his novels in the spring of 2005, when I was preparing for my first academic conference. During my final year of university, I worked part-time in a used bookstore and happened upon a copy of Small World. I was intrigued by the comic possibilities of a literature conference. Of course, my own summer conference turned out to be much more staid and less ribald – there were no sexual shenanigans that I knew of, to be sure – but after my first Lodge novel I was hooked. I raced through the rest of his campus trilogy that summer, and then snapped up all the secondhand paperbacks I could find.

More recently, I was lucky to see Lodge speak twice at the London Review Bookshop, once when he was promoting Deaf Sentence, his latest comic novel, and again after the publication of A Man of Parts, his novel about H.G. Wells. Especially at that second event, I had trouble believing that Lodge was in his mid-70s; he was spry, quick-witted, and barely had a grey hair. That small frame and impish face disguise the addition of years. Indeed, his hardness of hearing was the only sign of his advancing age. Believe it or not, Quite a Good Time to Be Born was issued to commemorate Lodge’s 80th birthday on January 28th. It is presumably the first half of a two-volume autobiography, given that it covers his first four decades.

“Interesting experience is money in the bank to a novelist, and you can’t open an account too early in life,” Lodge remarks. He grew up in the south London suburbs and attended Catholic school. Football, cinema, and classic novels like Three Men in a Boat provided simple entertainment for an only child. During the Second World War his father, a saxophonist in dance bands, joined an Air Force band, thereby avoiding action. While his father was away, Lodge and his mother were refugees in Surrey and Cornwall, an experience he drew on for Out of the Shelter, his most autobiographical novel.

Lodge lived at home and commuted to campus during his years studying literature at UCL. On his very first day, he met Mary Jacob, the fellow English student who would become his wife. He earned a First class degree, which led to an automatic postgraduate course offer he deferred for two years to do National Service, an experience that provided the basis for Ginger, You’re Barmy. Meanwhile, his interactions with Mary’s large Irish-Catholic family served as inspiration for his first novel, The Picturegoers. Throughout the memoir, Lodge defends his decision to stick with Catholicism. Likewise, he seems unashamed about his utter sexual ignorance during his and Mary’s long courtship.

This is a must-read for any die-hard fan, but even readers less familiar with Lodge’s work may be interested in the book’s insights into the social changes of post-war Britain. Lodge pinpoints the ways in which the Second Vatican Council led to a more open, liberal Church. In conjunction with the rise of Second Wave feminism, a newly practical attitude towards sexuality meant that couples like Lodge and his wife Mary began using contraception for the first time, contravening the Church’s ban. After three unplanned pregnancies, one of them a child with Down’s syndrome, the Lodges knew that it was time to take control of their family planning rather than leaving it up to chance – or God.

Early on Lodge made a decision to keep his novelist and professor roles separate. He was relieved to temporarily escape university politics and travel to America with his family on a fellowship in 1965, and again as a visiting University of California, Berkeley professor for the first half of 1969. It was a time of upheaval, what with war protests and the women’s lib movement. The contrast between California and Birmingham inspired his job- and continent-swapping novel, Changing Places; this memoir ends with it winning the Yorkshire Post and Hawthornden Prizes. Lodge’s novelistic career was finally taking off.

Throughout, Lodge quotes passages from his own novels that illustrate his past. “It is very difficult to recall accurately how one felt and behaved sixty years after the event, so any written trace of such experience is illuminating, and sometimes surprising,” he notes. Thus, excerpts from his fiction, plus a centrefold section of 28 black-and-white photos, supplement his memories – also illustrating the diverse ways in which life inspires art.

I appreciate Lodge most for his humour, so I was delighted to find traces of comedy here. Mostly it takes the form of self-deprecation, as he recalls the haplessness of his young adult life. The Lodges’ first house and car were both wrecks. The signs were there on their initial property viewing: “When I inspected the bathroom I observed a turd floating in the toilet bowl, which I should have taken as a warning that the house was crap.” Nor was his publishing record without its fiascos. The review copies of The British Museum Is Falling Down went missing and Out of the Shelter flopped, not just for its horrible typesetting during the early days of computerisation but also because it simply was not a book for the 1970s.

Ultimately, Lodge is not too fussed about his own importance, which is a rare and refreshing quality in a memoirist. From the title onward, his focus is more on his time period than on his own little life. As D.J. Taylor observes in his Guardian review, “[Lodge’s] distinguishing mark is simply his determination, a patient resolve to deal fairly with the world, look out for his own and his family’s interests, [and] enjoy the perquisites that come his way.” Over the course of 500 enjoyable pages, he comes across as a literary Everyman who overcame his working-class origins through hard work and a bit of luck. I’m looking forward to the sequel already. (The unfortunate Henry James coincidence should be a highlight.)

Rebecca Foster

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