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I've just read an interview with a German author who says that he's always liked reading from his books in front of an audience, especially from works in progress as this enables him to see his books more objectively, from the point of view of the readers. At the moment he's working on a novel for which he hasn't decided on an ending yet; he discusses what he's already written with his audience and listens to their suggestions which often surprise him as the readers notice and understand things he's written in a different way from what he's intended, the reason being that they bring their different experience to the book and thus take different ideas and findings away from the reading.
If only this author could meet David Lodge and teach him something about the reception of literature and how to treat readers!
The first page of the Penguin book informs us that Lodge was a Professor of English Literature and that when he retired to become a full-time writer he retained the title of Honorary Professor of Modern English Literature at Birmingham.
So he's had two careers, one after the other? No, unfortunately that's not the case, Lodge has never given up being a professor of literature and he treats his readers as if they were his students sitting in his lecture. He tells us how he wrote the novel and how we should read it; once a professor, always a professor, that's what the French call Deformation Professionelle. (Not that that condition is restricted to profs, I know a physician who can't shake hands without feeling for the pulse!)
It's not a profound insight that authors often take their subjects from their personal lives, their biographies are the raw material so-to-speak, and it's 'Literary Studies For Beginners' that this raw material is then shaped, lengthened, condensed, changed, mixed with pure inventions and so on and so forth. Even an autobiography is shaped in that way, it is never a direct account of what happened in chronological order, if it were, nobody would read one, it would be unbearably boring.
So, when I read in the afterword of Out of the Shelter "In 1951, at the age of sixteen, I travelled unaccompanied to Heidelberg, West Germany, to spend a holiday with my aunt Eileen, my mother's sister, who was working there as a civilian secretary for the U.S. Army" and later "For my aunt, I substituted the character of Timothy's sister Kate (I am an only child myself), physically and emotionally very different from Eileen. The adult relationships and intrigues in which Timothy becomes involved...are invented, but the context in which they unfold is based on personal experience and observation", I simply can't believe it!
Bear with me and read on: "Out of the Shelter is autobiographical in origin, but not confessional in intent. Generically, it is a combination of the 'Bildungsroman' (the useful German term for a novel about the passage from childhood to maturity and the recognition of one's vocation) and the Jamesian 'international' novel of conflicting ethical and cultural codes. James Joyce's 'A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man' and Henry James's 'The Ambassadors' are its most obvious literary models."
If these authors and their works meant nothing to me, I'd feel intimidated by this name dropping; having studied literature and having been an avid reader all my life, I feel patronized, a feeling I don't cherish much.
An author delivers a piece of literature which then takes on a life of its own. The post-modernists (for example Paul Auster) have always stressed the idea that a work of fiction isn't an unchangeable entity, it isn't even finished when it's published, each reader brings his own experience into it, thus creating their own, personal book.
You might expect a hatchet job op now, but no, I like the novel, I really do, if only Mr Lodge could keep his trap shut. If you intend to read the book, tear out the afterword, throw it into the bin and enjoy the novel proper.
I'm going to tell you now what Lodge, the author, offers and what I, the reader, bring with me and what is the result of this combination.
The novel is divided into four parts with the titles: The Shelter, Coming Out, Out of the Shelter, Epilogue.
The Shelter describes the childhood of the English boy Timothy during WW2 including the Blitz and evacuation and the immediate post-war years. The boy naturally doesn't understand the situation, he just observes what's going on around him. It's always difficult to write from the perspective of a child, the view of the world is still restricted, but the vocabulary to describe it must be more elaborate than a child's, Lodge does it well and I can feel with Timothy.
Can I really? Up to a certain extent, yes, as far as literature can achieve that, but then: I don't know war from first-hand experience, the description doesn't arouse memories in me which could help me identify with the protagonist. Besides that I'm from 'enemy country' and read it by force in a different way, I compare it with descriptions about life in wartime Germany, find myself thinking that the differences aren't really so great, but know that there's the one insurmountable difference between the culprits and the victims. As I've said, I don't know war, but I remember the post-war years vividly, I lived in Dresden for a year, my playground were the ruins surrounding our house, so I am touched.
The book was first published in 1970, then 'Coming Out' didn't have the meaning it has today. 16-year-old Timothy leaves his lower-middle-class-London-suburban (Lodge's words), Catholic, prudish home for Germany to visit his aunt in Heidelberg. He's frightened out of his wits, so far he's spent all his holidays with his parents in a place called Worthing. The description of the journey is a good read; my first trip to England comes to my mind, I was 18 and didn't know the language well, I was afraid, too, but not as much as Timothy, I had already travelled abroad before, not alone, but it had helped me to become more self-confident. Then I can't help thinking of the young people of today, the cool interrailers who travel to faraway places nobody has ever heard of, alone or with friends, to chill out - oh yeah, the times, they are a-changing! Have they changed for the better or worse?
The most interesting part of the novel is for me Out of the Shelter. Lodge was lucky that his aunt was stationed in Heidelberg and not, say, in an industrial town of the Ruhr valley, he uses Heidelberg extensively as the background for Timothy's adventures. It has always been a beautiful town and it wasn't bombed as the Americans decided already during the war to have their HQ there after the war. It's not a prerequisite for the enjoyment of the novel to have lived in Heidelberg as I have, the novel wouldn't have many readers if it were, but of course I think of my time there.
I came to Heidelberg thirteen years after Lodge/Timothy; when I read how he sees the town, the atmosphere in post-war Germany, the self-image of the American Army and their relationship to the native population, I understand that more than just thirteen years lie between his and my Heidelberg; when I came there, Germany wasn't 'post-war' any more. It was the time of student unrest, of the manifestations against the war in Vietnam; the German students marched to the American HQ (yours truly among them) shouting slogans. Then my thoughts drift to the current political situation and what students today are like.
Timothy finally gets to know the facts of life in Heidelberg. As I read Out of the Shelter immediately after finishing Beach Boy by Ardashir Vakil (see op) I was amused. What Timothy finds out at the age of 16, the Indian boy Cyrus already knows at the age of 10. Is it the climate, the race, the class, the religion, the food that make the difference? A vast field for sociologists...
Am I allowed to think all these thoughts while reading the novel? YES! It's not that I don't do it justice, I do, I think it's a fine piece of literature, and I think it's a compliment when I say it has set me thinking, remembering, imagining, dreaming, meandering through the most diverse subjects. I've added my own experience and thus created my very special, personal book which I don't share with anybody on the planet. What more can an author want?
As it is with Bildungsromanen (Have you listened to Professor Lodge?) there can't be a plot to speak of. At the end of the novel some questions remain: Timothy's sister is torn between three men, which of them will she give in to, will she give in to any of them? Will she go back to England or emigrate to the USA? What will Timothy do after school? - They're tied up satisfactorily in the Epilogue.
novel proper = 5 stars - afterword = 1 star ______________ result = 4 stars
How very interesting (your review and the comment below). I have to confess that having read 'Out of the shelter' after the lit-crit novels I was sorely disappointed. Not that I did not enjoy it but it was not what I expected. I also have to confess that I positively enjoy being lectured and even slightly (but only slightly) patronised by intelligent, witty, literate professors so I guess it is down to personal preference...
elkiedee 04.01.2004 05:41
I like David Lodge's university-set novels and would probably quite enjoy this, even the afterword, but enjoyed reading your perspective on it all the same. Luci