Academic journal article Logos: A Journal of Catholic Thought and Culture

Catholicism and Metaphor: The Catholic Fiction of David Lodge

Academic journal article Logos: A Journal of Catholic Thought and Culture

Catholicism and Metaphor: The Catholic Fiction of David Lodge

Article excerpt

"WHATEVER HAPPENED TO THE CATHOLIC NOVEL?" is a question often asked by lovers of the novels of Graham Greene, Evelyn Waugh, Francois Mauriac, and Georges Bernanos. What these readers usually have in mind is not simply a novel by a Catholic or one that includes some Catholic material, but a work of substantial literary merit in which Catholic theology and thought have a significant presence, with genuine attention to the spiritual life. Such a novel often draws on Catholicism's rich liturgical and sacramental symbolism and is enriched by the Catholic imagination, which, according to Andrew Greeley, is one that is more analogical than dialectical and sees created reality as a revelation of the presence of God. (1)

Catholic novels are still being written, but they seem somehow different from the classics of the genre. More than forty years ago David Lodge, an English novelist and critic explained why: "I don't think that one can talk of the Catholic novel in quite such sharply-defined terms any more, partly because Catholicism itself has become a much more confused--and confusing--faith, more difficult to define, mainly in the last ten or fifteen years as a result of Pope John and the Vatican Council. The Church no longer presents that sort of monolithic, unified, uniform view of life which it once did." (2)

In fact, Lodge himself, one of the most interesting Catholic novelists in England today, has enriched and expanded the possibilities of Catholic fiction by demonstrating that comedy, wit, and satire are legitimate modes for expressing serious religious themes--especially as they pertain to recent developments in Catholicism.

Bernard Bergonzi provides an account of Lodge's religious position in his 1999 essay, "A Conversation with David Lodge."

  Graham Greene, in his later years, after he had moved away from
  the tormented orthodoxy of his Catholic novels, defined himself as a
  "Catholic agnostic"; Lodge prefers to reverse the terms and call
  himself an "Agnostic Catholic." He remains in the Church as a
  practising Catholic, though he is agnostic about the ultimate reality
  behind the symbolic languages of liturgy and scripture. He has
  abandoned much of the traditional Catholic world-view which he
  grew up with and expressed in The Picturegoers, now regarding it
  as over literal and anthropomorphic; at the same time, he insists
  that religious language is not empty of meaning. It is a perennial
  symbolic and speculative mode in which we articulate the
  contradictions and anxieties which are ineradicably part of the human
  condition. By traditional standards--perhaps those he would have
  upheld himself as a young man--Lodge acknowledges that he is
  probably a heretic; but he thinks that many theologians, including
  Catholic ones, would now hold similar attitudes. (3)

What makes Lodge's fiction distinctive is that his Catholic characters are so ordinary. Whereas Waugh depicted aristocratic Catholics and Greene portrayed anguished sinners in exotic settings, Lodge's Catholic characters are resolutely middle class; and their locales--London and Rummidge (Birmingham)--are about as far away from Greeneland as you can get. This very ordinariness is what makes his novels so appealing to many readers. Yet some Catholics see more in them. Sociologist and priest Andrew Greeley says that Lodge's "protagonists are often swept up by some kind of salvation--an imperfect and problematic salvation perhaps, but one in which there are not only grounds for hope but also powerful hints of grace." (4)

One does not find in Lodge's fiction the severe, moralizing critique of the secular world that characterized many earlier Catholic novels. His critical and discerning perspective is focused more on the Church. His gentle satire catches all of the ludicrous aspects of Catholic life but has an angry edge when directed at what he sees as pre--Vatican II Catholicism's overly strict and rigid sexual morality, which has caused needless anguish to some Catholics and alienated others. …

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