If you were to ask me who my favorite writers were, I would probably not list Julian Barnes, yet this last novel of his I read is the fourth of his I can remember reading, and I went through it relatively quickly. From what I can gather this sophomore novel was not very well received when it came out, and I can understand why.
It is a novel about a man's mid-life crisis - a middle class historian called Graham - so expect alcohol, younger women and a propensity to pent-up Freudian rage. Keeping these things in mind, the novel speeds to its conclusion and fails to develop the women characters or their responses to Graham's actions, in particular his ex-wife Barbara, whose marginal role does not reflect her agency in the events that play out.
With all that in mind, it was a piece of its time and shows a novelist reaching beyond his own experience for the first time (his debut, Metroland, is a roman a clef about his own adolescence and time studying in France) and feeling his way through. A great read for Barnes fans or those, like me, who enjoy novels set in the late seventies/early eighties Britain.
I don't tend to read novels more than once, but this one I have gone through twice in very little time. David Lodge is better know for his quirky campus novels that manage to be both intelligent and extremely funny at the same time, and through all his novels his lapsed Catholic faith haunts his protagonists. They mess about with graph paper and temperature measurements in order to both adhere to Catholic teaching about the openness to fertility and keep up with the sexual revolution taking place around them.
In "How Far Can You Go" Lodge focuses in more depth on these themes and writes a short novel spanning over two decades of change in the Catholic Church as experienced by a group of university students. The title plays on the earlier, teasing game played by Catholic lovers - when did one move from venial to mortal sin? - as well as the slow unraveling of Catholic theology and practice.
The issue of Vatican II and whether it really did reflect a sea change in theology is as hotly debated by Catholics now as it was in the late nineteen seventies when Lodge wrote the novel, and though the novel has inevitably dated - a final chapter reflects on the possibility of John Paul II 'turning back the clock' - it is a fascinating insight into the mood of freedom and experimentation that still pervades many peoples' attitudes to Vatican II today.
If you are a septuagenarian priest or nun and you want to explain to your Sunday school group what the 'Spirit of Vatican II' is, then this is a balanced and accessible way of doing so. If you are a tweed-loving, red trousered Traddie with a penchant for the Sarum Rite and you cannot stand the sight of a bishop without his cassock, then this might go some way to understanding why using a thurible can cause so much havoc at Mass.