Well, I’m pretty late arriving at this particular party. Guys, why didn’t you tell me? Now that I think of it, people have been suggesting for ages that I read David Lodge, but it wasn’t until The British Museum is Falling Down appeared on the magical laundry-room shelves that I actually possessed one of his books. And what prompted me to pick this one up? Reader, the size: The British Museum …etc. is a slim 176 pages and fit nicely into my handbag.
Small package, great mirth. Adam Appleby is a 25-year-old English graduate student in the early 1960s, working on a PhD. in English literature and living — with his wife Barbara and children Clare, Dominic, and Edward — on a meager fellowship while he tries to finish his dissertation. The action of the novel occurs over the course of one eventful day, during the course of which Adam finally says to a friend, “‘I don’t see the point of my life at all… the only thing about it that seems really mine is sex — literature has annexed the rest. But sex is my big problem. I don’t have enough of it, and when I do I get sick with worry. For two pins I’d buy twin beds and give myself up entirely to literature.'”
See, Adam is Catholic. Oh, Adam — get it? Fallen man? Names matter here. Normally I bristle at the kind of playful comic writing that departs from naturalism. But that isn’t Lodge’s only artifice. Appleby studies literature, and the book contains ten sections of literary parody, mocking, according to Lodge’s introduction, “Joseph Conrad, Graham Greene, Ernest Hemingway, Henry James, Franz Kafka, D.H. Lawrence, Fr. Rolfe (Baron Corvo, author of Hadrian VII), C. P. Snow, and Virginia Woolf.” No, I didn’t get them all, but the ones I did get had me laughing out loud. There is even an academic sherry party, “a kind of distillation of the post-Amis campus novel.” But I enjoyed this book much more than Lucky Jim, largely because Lodge permits himself a wide range of humor. For example, owing to a laundry emergency, Adam is reduced to wearing his wife’s lacy underwear all day, and yes, that little bit of transvestism has consequences.
Lodge handles poor Adam’s sex life without literary pastiche: this is a genuine pre-Vatican II Catholic conundrum. Adam and Barbara are barely managing with their three children and it seems possible that, despite their scrupulous efforts to wring efficiency out of the Rhythm Method, Barbara may be pregnant again. It’s hilarious — Barbara bristling with thermometers, creating elaborate graphs — but on the verge of despairing. Adam longs for birth control. No, Adam longs for sex without danger of conception. Lodge won’t give it to him without a struggle.
Got time for one more quotation? Landlady Mrs. Green is horrified that Adam keeps getting Barbara pregnant. “Shortly after Edward had been born she had taken Barbara aside, and hinted that there were Things You Could Use, and that she had heard it rumoured that there were Clinics where they gave you the Things, not that she had any experience of them herself, she had never been troubled that way with poor Mr. G., he was more for the fretwork.”