Sunday, 14 June 2009

The British Museum Is Falling Down (David Lodge)

--The blurb--
"Literature is mostly about having sex and not having children. Life is the other way around...
And that, precisely, is the dilemma that preoccupies Adam Appleby as he begins another day of research in the Reading Room of the British Museum. Adam is a graduate student in literature and a practicing Catholic in the days before the Pill. He is also married, has three children, and is not looking forward to the possiblity of a fourth. On this foggy day in London, however, work and life conspire against him. As Adam makes his bumbling way through a series of misadventures that do little to alleviate his anxiety, the reader is treated to a hilarious and heartfelt tour of academia that only David Lodge could have created."

--The review--
Lodge is a fairly solid mainstay in the world of literary and linguistic criticism, there to help university students and the merely interested public alike with just about anything from the art of fiction to the practice of writing. However, he is also an academic, having taught literature as a professor at the University of Birmingham from 1960 to 1987, and his tongue in cheek satirising of this particular career choice is a recurring theme. This is particularly prominent in The British Museum is Falling Down, where the realities of living as a modern Catholic (I say 'modern' - the novel was written in 1965, but is not as displaced from the 21st century as you might think) are also spotlighted.

The central players in this saga are charming and make for wonderful light comedy: we have Barbara and Adam's extreme paranoia, Adam's general awkwardness and inclination towards procrastination, the precocity of their daughter Clare (there are two other children, but they do not really feature), and the hippyishness of Adam's study-mate Camel. The novel takes place over the course of one day, and the progression of events and emotion is, at least, far more realistic than the too-rapid evolution of these things in Alastair Campbell's novel, All In The Mind (whose events are supposed to take place over one week, and in which the protagonist goes from completely sane to completely mad during this time). The setting is equally pleasing, with London's familiar streets and landmarks given full and rich attention and description. As with Michel Peyramaure's fictionalised life of Degas, I thought that this would irritate me greatly, and instead it was pure pleasure.

Adam's feelings develop nicely throughout the book and the conclusion seems sound, though I felt that his reactions to the incineration of his scooter and to the loss of a potential job were slightly lazy and glossed over. There are also further weaknesses: Lodge randomly and deliberately switches from third person to first person halfway through chapter four, for no apparent reason (this is a device that is not picked up again anywhere else in the novel); the extended metaphor of the British Museum as being like a womb dragged on for too long; and, finally, Barbara's interior monologue at the end of the novel had the same fault, with it being far too easy to switch off and lose interest.

The satirising of academia was extremely amusing (though perhaps only to people like me, who have to some degree experienced the world of postgraduate life, conferences and so on) and to an extent reminded me of all the reasons why shutting yourself in an ivory tower for forty years is a bad idea. In contrast, Lodge provides us with an amusing insight into the pitfalls of Catholicism, while simultaneously rendering it thought-provoking and relatively inoffensive. These themes enliven the book and make it both entertaining and provocative in accessible ways, despite Lodge's clearly stratospheric vocabulary ('cloacal', anyone?). The encounters with minor characters, such as Virginia, add further humour and contrast to the beautiful yet concise descriptions of the museum.

Slightly problematic, perhaps, is the notion offered to us by Lodge in his afterword (in newer editions only) that several authors are parodied in this novel, which is of mild concern when after an English literature degree this completely passes one by. To my relief, however, Lodge goes on to say that the vast majority of reviewers also did not pick up on his attempts at parody and pastiche, so I felt a little less stupid after that. The novel is, regardless, perfectly enjoyable without comprehension of these references. The reader is given the opportunity to enter a slightly bewildering world that is simultaneously touching and funny, racing around from religion to sex to literature to love to wearing women's underwear to London's great monuments and back again, while Adam's entire penny-pinching world threatens to collapse around his ears. A really engaging initiation into the world of Lodge's works.

Other works by David Lodge
Deaf Sentence (2008)
Author, Author (2004)
Thinks (2001)
Therapy (1995)
Paradise News (1991)
Nice Work (1988)
Small World (1984)
How Far Can You Go? (1980)
Changing Places (1975)
Out of the Shelter (1970)
Ginger You're Barmy (1962)
The Picturegoers (1960)


anh rock said...

Cloacal: spanish for Sewer. Love D.L.

Bianca Pellet said...

Wasn't aware of that one - thanks! My sister (a doctor) was the first to flag up the medical meaning to me.