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Lives in Writing, by David Lodge, Harvill Secker, RRP£18.99, 272 pages
There are many ways to write a life. In his new book of essays, David Lodge works his way through most of them. Lives In Writing skips between biography, memoir and criticism, plundering letters, diaries and any other form that might illuminate its various subjects. Each essay, on the surface, is about a 20th-century writer: Graham Greene, Kingsley Amis, Muriel Spark, Terry Eagleton, Alan Bennett and HG Wells among them.
There’s also the curveball inclusion of a piece about Diana, Princess of Wales, which at first seems like the singular duff note in an otherwise absorbing collection. It sits oddly in the run, feels dated – it was written shortly after her death – and Lodge’s assured critical touch goes astray as he considers the symbolism of the Parisian car crash. “The paparazzi [toted] their gross telescopic lenses like swollen phalluses” is just one uncomfortable example.
Elsewhere, Lodge skilfully shows off his cohabiting identities of novelist and academic. He also saves you the effort of ploughing through Norman Sherry’s three-volume biography of Graham Greene and Zachary Leader’s 1,000-plus pages on Kingsley Amis, bringing both men colourfully to life in a few thousand words. In the first example, his interest is as much in Sherry’s lunatic dedication as it is in Greene, and this layering effect takes place in most of the essays – the spotlight turning rapidly from subject to biographer, reader to writer.
The last piece in the collection, ostensibly a memoir covering the process of writing his novel about HG Wells, A Man of Parts (2011), is typical: an autobiographical essay about biographical fiction. (Lives In Writing, a title that carries several meanings, seems to demand such genre-mangling mouthfuls.) But it also draws on a biography of the children’s writer and poet Edith Nesbit, considers other novelists such as Hilary Mantel and Colm Tóibín, and engages in the critical debate about the shadowy lines between fact and fiction, looping in arguments by Antony Beevor and David Shields.
In his foreword, Lodge states that the Wells essay seeks to defend the “hybrid genre” of the biographical novel. If it needs defending, the cause couldn’t have a better champion: every essay in the book is an exercise in hybridity, dancing between different literary modes. That might sound exhaustingly clever but Lodge has a disarming, straightforward style and an overspilling heart. The finest essays in the book (for this sentimental reader) are those dedicated to Lodge’s friends Frank Kermode and Malcolm Bradbury, and to his almost-friend Simon Gray, all now dead.
Lodge is winningly unembarrassed about his fanboy devotion to Gray. Though they exchanged postcards and met once for dinner with their wives, the occasion was not a success (the restaurant was too loud and Gray was subdued, having just been diagnosed with lung cancer). The two never became close, but it didn’t matter. Lodge – who read every new work of Gray’s “with the kind of trance-like pleasure that I associate with childhood reading” – demonstrates beautifully how a reader can fall for a writer and mourn his loss as you would a beloved.
Kermode and Bradbury, meanwhile, were true friends. Kermode, the leading critic of his age, was evidently a hero and mentor to Lodge, while Bradbury became a life-long companion after the pair met as young academics at Birmingham University. They were inseparable and interchangeable (readers would muddle them up, much to Lodge’s good-humoured irritation): both English professors and novelists who specialised in the satirical campus novel. The deaths of these men inspire Lodge’s most tender writing: Bradbury left “a space in my life that could never be filled”.
They also allow Lodge to write revealingly about himself and gradually you realise, as the essays accumulate, that you are reading a memoir. Lodge, too original a writer to set down a conventional autobiography, reveals himself in fragments, an anecdote here, a recollection there. The collection, then, is a kind of trick: portraits of others disguising a book about himself (even Diana, when seen through this lens, makes sense). This is a hybrid work, well-suited to its hybrid author – rooted in fact but entranced by fiction.