Aged 19 and nearing the end of my first year at university, I dragged an old school friend, Jenny, to Mary O’Malley’s award winning play, Once a Catholic, along with our newly acquired boyfriends, Mike (mine) and Khalid (hers).
Once a Catholic is set in an all girls’ Catholic convent school in the 1950s. Jenny, Mike and I, Catholic born and educated, laughed like drains; Khalid, Muslim by birth, agnostic by nature, simply shrugged and said “I don’t get it.”
I suspect readers of David Lodge’s Whitbread award winning How Far Can You Go might be similarly divided. Written in 1980, three years after O’Malley’s play, it, too, is set in the 1950s. It follows the lives of a group of young Catholics and the title refers to the issue of sexual morality and “How Far You Could Go with the opposite sex”.
Interestingly, Lodge himself directly acknowledges this divide in his potential readership. When his young Catholic characters marry and become reliant on “periodic abstinence as a way of planning their families, a system known as Rhythm or the Safe method” Lodge adds: “I have written about this before… It was intended to be a comic novel and most Catholic readers seemed to find it funny…agnostics and atheists among my acquaintance, however, found the novel rather sad. All that self-denial and sacrifice of libido depressed them.”
Breaking the fiction and acknowledging the novel as a novel is a technique Lodge uses a lot, and to good effect. HFCYG was rejected by hubby just a few pages in because there were too many characters introduced at once. If only he’d persevered to page 14 he would have found: “Ten characters is a lot to take in all at once, and soon there will be more…so it is important to get these ten straight now. Each character…has already been associated with some selected detail of dress or appearance which should help you to distinguish one from another…Let’s just take a roll call…”
Although the characters matter – and I did care what happened to each of them – in another sense they are ciphers, because HFCYG is essentially a philosophical or theological essay masquerading as fiction; in this respect the title also refers to the dismantling of religious belief and “how far can you go in this process without throwing out something vital.” By “vital” Lodge means the answers to two fundamental questions – “how did it all start, and where is it all going?” One point in the story sees Father Austin staring up at the night sky, asking himself “Had other Christs died on other Calvaries in other galaxies?” And even as he recognises it “wouldn’t do”, he also knows “it was much easier to dispose of the old mythology than to come up with anything more convincing.”
I enjoyed this book but, then again, maybe my (non-Catholic) hubby made the right decision to abandon it when he did. Because how far can you go in an exploration of the “fading away of the traditional Catholic metaphysic” without trying the patience of your non-Catholic readers?
Rating: ** Worth reading