Sunday, July 09, 2006

Home Truths: David Lodge’s Novella

I’ve become enamoured of David Lodge’s essays of late, and have been meaning to try some of his fiction. I came upon his Henry James novel, which I’ve been curious about, on the library shelf the other evening. But I was in the mood for more of a comic novel, so I passed that one by for the moment and opted instead for Home Truths. Described on the back cover as a “delicious novella” that “brilliantly examines our culture of celebrity and the conflict between the solitary activity of writing and the demands of the media circus,” it seemed just the thing. I could certainly see the comic possibilities in a scenario pitting a nearly forgotten novelist and a successful screenwriter against a vicious celebrity interviewer, and I was intrigued by the fact that the book was explicitly billed as a novella rather than as a short novel. This struck me as unusual in a market in which the novel is valued above all other forms of fiction.

I confess that despite my preoccupation with genre distinctions, I’m not altogether sure what the parameters of the novella are. Is it a very long story, or a short novel? Does it have more in common with the former form or the latter? Or is it its own genre with wholly different rules and expectations attached to it? Alas, I come away from Home Truths none the wiser for the simple reason that it’s not really a novella. It’s an adaptation of a play which Lodge undertook because he didn’t think that the work had reached a wide enough audience in play form. I get the impression from his explanatory afterword that he stuck the novella label on it because he knew it didn’t qualify as a novel, not because he’d given any thought to the novella as a distinct form.

Here’s the key excerpt from Lodge’s afterword:

I had always envisaged the new Home Truths as a novella rather than a novel, a short book that would retain the dramatic structure and texture of the original play. One reason, perhaps, why the adaptation of plays into prose fiction is comparatively rare is that the average play would have to be considerably expanded to reach the length of the average novel—but such expansion risks destroying the essential quality of the original, its dramatic concentration on a few decisive moments in the lives of the characters.

In the second sentence, Lodge seems to suggest that there is a distinction between the novel and the novella which goes beyond word count, that the novella has more in common formally with the short story than the novel (“dramatic concentration on a few decisive moments in the lives of the characters”). But the first sentence does not seem to me to describe the novella, apart from the “short book” bit (“a short book that would retain the dramatic structure and texture of the original play”). What he is describing there is simply an adaptation of a play and ultimately that’s how his book reads. It has not moved beyond its original form to become something else.

Home Truths is made up almost entirely of dialogue. The dialogue is interspersed with occasional passages of description that are well enough written in and of themselves, but they’re not properly integrated into the book. As a consequence they read like descriptions of the set of a play; they are clunky asides rather than integral components of the story. Without actors to bring the dialogue to life, the whole thing comes off as rather hollow. Home Truths has its strong points. The dialogue is sharp; the ideas are engaging; it’s funny and smart. I’ll bet it was a great play. But formally it doesn’t hold together as a novella. I think that Lodge would have done better to publish it as a play rather than stretching his material in a way that doesn’t do it justice.

Clearly Home Truths was a bad pick for my introduction to Lodge’s fiction. I know there are lots of Lodge fans out there. What should I read to get a better sense of what Lodge is capable of in fiction? I do intend to read Author, Author at some point, but I’d still like to begin with one of his earlier comic novels. Any recommendations?

7 comments:

Dorothy W. said...

I enjoyed his academic satires Small World and Changing Places -- I found them funny and smart and quite satisfying as satire.

Melissa said...

Loved Changing Places--I had to read it in college as part of a modern British fiction class and it was the funniest thing I read during my college career

bloglily said...

I also enjoyed the third of his academic novels, Nice Work. It was great fun spotting the references to 19th century novels, and to schools of literary criticism. Happy reading, Kate!

litlove said...

I agree with the other commentors - Small World and Changing Places are great, as is Nice Work. I also very much enjoyed the novel Thinks which considers the issue of consciousness both within the novel, and more scientifically as a cognitive phenomenon. It's very clever without being at all weighty.

Kate S. said...

Thanks for the recommendations! I've put them all on hold and will begin with whichever one arrives first.

Greg S. said...

I know this is a late comment, coming more than a month after the post, but I greatly enjoyed Therapy.
This is a 1995 novel about a sitcom writer who's in a midlife crisis. One of the key elements is his yearning for a girl he loved as a youth; how that gets resolved is the real therapy of the piece. I read it once years ago and some of it is still vivid in my mind.

worldbookclub@bbc.co.uk said...

*****DAVID LODGE on BBC WORLD BOOK CLUB *****

On Wednesday 16th July 2008, David Lodge will be talking about his novel 'Nice Work' on World Book Club

We need questions to be emailed from overseas or listeners to call in with their questions for David about 'Nice Work' at 1830hrs BST.

If you would like to put a question to David Lodge about 'Nice Work', please email worldbookclub@bbc.co.uk