David Lodge


How Far Can You Go?





Lodge is always worth reading. He is a very honest writer, a handy thing when so much of his stuff is quasi-autobiographical. These are real people, or as real as Lodge understands them, and he’s not without insight.


I don’t relish Lodge as others would, because I’ve taken a different direction to him (and, perhaps, because he’s more of my parents’ generation). He can’t help but favour characters more in line with his own value system, and this is particularly going to rub against me in a novel such as this one which has religion as its central concern. That being said, he’s not overwhelmingly judgemental, and often is describing more than prescribing.


He commonly uses sex as the climax of his novels (Out from the Shelter; Small World, Paradise News, Therapy - although in this latter it’s more the resolution), and this is no exception. He’s more matter of fact about it than overly voyeuristic, and I suspect he’d contend that it was just part of his honesty; sex is such big issue to us, and he’s giving it a proportionally justifiable position.


The title of the book relates to several areas though, not just the obvious sexual one. The one I found most cogent is more the Roman Catholic issue of how far can you break away from the traditional teaching of the church and still be a Roman Catholic - or, indeed, be anything at all? This issue, of course, has been felt deeply in Protestant circles as well. But, right or wrong (and thankfully he has the good grace not to tell us), for example, hell disappeared somewhere during the 60s. And if you don’t believe in that - as in practise myriad Catholics stopped doing - a lot of things start drifting.


The major issue he relates this to is the Catholic stance on birth control. It’s no co-incidence that the decade of the pill was also the decade of a massive turn away from the church. You finally could have your cake and eat it too. No sex outside marriage was not such a huge sticking point for people staying with the church before contraception: everyone unavoidably had the Catholic stance on birth control. People now think they can have sex without responsibility; before they knew they couldn’t. And the churches both Protestant and Catholic can still seem to convey that as long as you’re not sleeping around you’re a good Christian. In some ways this has been a bit of a favour for the church: nominalism is not the problem it used to be. Liberalism, however, is rampant.


I must confess, too, I think the Catholic stance on birth control is more consistent with a theology which values sex as highly as the bible does. It makes sense that this act is seen as always profound - profound enough to begin life. This does not have to cancel the pleasure, but it sure as hell adds the appropriate sense of responsibility.


I agreed with the way he concluded the novel by setting up sound bites of different Catholics at a festival (playing with the form as he likes to do, this time switching from narrative to a video transcript). He highlights the massively contradictory nature of these beliefs. He leans towards agnosticism in the light of all this, but isn’t utterly dismissive of alternatives (just of their blindness to the contradictions).


He traces the lives of a dozen or so individuals all sharing a mass one morning, with each section dealing with unities:

“How it was” - something of the innocence and differing motivations of the 50s

“How they lost their virginities” - well, this is a David Lodge book, after all..

“How things began to change”

“How they lost their fear of hell’

‘How they broke out, away, down, up, through etc.’ - by the end all are massively changed, and this is partly the result of the times (eg. Around Vatican II and the pill), not necessarily a transcendent life stage thing.


I’d thought particularly about how some people I know of that generation had their world and world view changed. Yet others weathered it: I believe what was essential about their faith was not caught up in the changing values of society. Just as it should be, Christians should always been at odds with the general culture, and always value the fruit of the spirit - which are timeless - above mores.


Another pleasure of the book is the way he toys with ‘how far can you go’ inserting the author himself into the text, and maintaining the genre of novel as opposed to essay. At some point do we stop believing in the characters because the author is now and then popping in to explain exactly why he’s choosing this name or that action?


January 2002