This article first appeared in Slightly Foxed: The Real Reader’s Quarterly, Issue 51, Autumn 2016.
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© Henry Jeffreys, Slightly Foxed: The Real Reader’s Quarterly, Issue 51, Autumn 2016.
The philosopher Roger Scruton refers to modern academia as the ‘nonsense factory’. In a recent interview he bemoaned students ‘clogging their minds with nonsense from Deleuze and Foucault when they could be reading Shakespeare’. This was very much my experience studying English Literature at university in the 1990s. The lecturers, rather than imparting a great love of the classics, spouted half-digested bits of literary theory at us. I still shudder when I recall the tortured theorising of writers such as Judith Butler (who won the Philosophy and Literature Bad Writing Contest in 1998 for a particularly incomprehensible sentence). Tutorials would consist of discussions of our lecturers’ theories about theory. It was maddening.
Some fellow English Literature students took refuge in drink, drugs or promiscuity. My escape was the novels of David Lodge. Between 1975 and 1988 he wrote Changing Places, Small World and Nice Work, which form a loose trilogy set mainly at Rummidge University, a very lightly fictionalized version of Birmingham where Lodge taught. The first novel, Changing Places, concerns an exchange programme where the stolid and unambitious Philip Swallow from Rummidge swaps with the dynamic, cynical Maurice Zapp from Esseph University in the State of Euphoria (Lodge spent six months teaching at UC Berkeley in the late ’60s).
It is, I suppose, an experimental novel; parts are written in the form of letters, film scripts, flashbacks or newspaper clippings. Don’t let that put you off, though. It’s really a classic fish-out-of-water tale, with the thrusting American baffled by backward Birmingham, and Philip embracing the freedom offered to him by America. Zapp is appalled by cold, pre-central heating England as well as the chilly reception in the English department: nobody talks to him for the first week. Swallow, in contrast, proves an immediate hit in America when he introduces the game ‘Humiliation’ at a faculty party. In it the participant has to name a literary work he hasn’t read, and he gets a point for everyone else who has read it. The way to win the game is to show your ignorance in front of your peers, hence the title.
The sequel, Small World, takes the jet-setting of its predecessor to absurd lengths. There’s a vast cast, and instead of two campuses, it’s set at conferences all over the world: in fact much of the action takes place in aeroplanes and airports. The subtitle ‘An Academic Romance’ gives a clue to the structure. A character defines romance as ‘a pre-novelistic kind of narrative. It’s full of adventure and coincidence and surprises and marvels’, which is an apt summing up of the novel. It consists of a series of quests: the main hero Persse McGarrigle from Limerick pursues his love, Angelica Pabst, around the world while academics compete for that Holy Grail, the UNESCO Chair of Literature, which equals money, status and, best of all, no teaching.
Swallow and Zapp feature, of course, but what ties all the strands together is the Heath Robinsonesque plot where seemingly unconnected events ‒ a publisher having an affair with his secretary, for example ‒ have distant repercussions and Swallow becomes frontrunner for the ultimate prize. It truly is a small world.
While reading Small World I thought to myself, who pays for all the jet-setting? The answer, at least in Britain, is the taxpayer, and the final part of the trilogy, Nice Work, looks at what happens when an academic goes out into the world of work. Dr Robyn Penrose is sent to shadow Vic Wilcox, manager of a Rummidge engineering firm. Swallow and Zapp have only minor roles this time, for in contrast to its predecessors Nice Work is set in the more realistic world of 1980s Britain, where ‘receiverships and closures have ravaged the area in recent years, giving a desolate look to the streets’. Of course Lodge still manages to have lots of fun by making Penrose an expert on Victorian literature and having her journey echo novels such as Elizabeth Gaskell’s North and South while all the time she denies that literature can ever truly be ‘realist’.
Indeed, one of the pleasures of these novels lies in spotting the literary references. Some are obvious, others less so. At one point in Small World McGarrigle stumbles into a street theatre version of The Waste Land, and his acquisition of his lectureship in a case of mistaken identity echoes Evelyn Waugh’s Scoop. Lodge’s warring academics and students are all steeped in literature. Swallow’s game, ‘Humiliation’, only works because the protagonists are so well read. An elderly academic, Miss Maiden, says at one point: ‘I respect a man who can recognize a quotation. It’s a dying art.’ One cannot imagine playing this now because people no longer have the same frame of references. (A friend of mine teaches a creative writing course and the only novel everyone on the course has read is Fight Club by Chuck Palahniuk.)
As well as being an escape, these novels echoed my own struggles with literary theory. Robyn Penrose forces ‘her mind through the labyrinthine sentences of Jacques Lacan and Jacques Derrida until her eyes are bloodshot and her head aches’. I know that feeling. Robyn represents the new wave, the kind of lecturers who taught me at university, whereas Swallow is the old guard, concerned with the primacy of the author’s voice and even believing in the moral power of literature. The trilogy charts the change in English Literature from a study of great writers to a study of writers through the prism of theory or indeed just pure theory. Swallow says in Small World: ‘there was a time when reading was a comparatively simple matter . . . Now it seems to be some kind of arcane mystery, into which only a small elite have been initiated.’
The few novelists who appear, such as Ronald Frobisher, a former Angry Young Man, and Zapp’s estranged wife Desirée, are baffled and isolated by all the theorizing. ‘They both feel intimidated by the literary jargon of their hosts which they both think is probably nonsense but cannot be quite sure.’
Zapp, though of Swallow’s generation, is happy to ride cynically on the back of whatever theory happens to be fashionable at the time: ‘His style of teaching was designed to shock conventionally educated students out of a sloppy reverent attitude to literature and into an ice-cool, intellectually rigorous one.’ This is almost exactly what we were told on day one of our English Literature degree. The problem with this style of teaching is that it’s only applicable to students with a good sound knowledge of literature. This didn’t apply to most of my contemporaries; they hoped to be taught literature and instead they were taught irreverence for something they had never been reverent about. As a character in Nice Work puts it:
The irony of teaching it [theory] to young people who have read almost nothing except a GCE set text and Adrian Mole, who know almost nothing about the Bible or classical mythology . . . the irony of teaching them about the arbitrariness of the signifier in week three of their first year becomes in the end too painful to bear.
These are not just novels of ideas, however. Lodge has a gift for characterization which is particularly apparent in Small World. Well-placed minor characters have strategically important roles and even the most minor characters are portrayed with warmth and flair. There’s Fulvia Morgana, an Italian Marxist, who drives a gold Maserati and holds forth about ‘the necessity of Revolution with her mouth full of sacher torte’. My particular favourites are the Turkish academics, Akbil and Oya Borak, who studied in Hull. A lesser writer would use them as an excuse for some jokes at the expense of this much-maligned town. Instead, back in Turkey now, they miss their old life and on cold winter nights warm themselves with shared memories of Hull, ‘murmuring the enchanted names of streets and shops, “George Street”, “Hedon Road”, “Marks and Spencer’s”’.
Above all these are very funny novels. Much of the comedy comes from their self-awareness but you don’t need to be an English Literature student to get all the jokes. When Morris Zapp is kidnapped by communists in Small World his wife, Desirée, tries to haggle with them over the ransom money. One of the concluding chapters of Changing Places contains a scene that’s pure slapstick: Morris Zapp being chased around a Paternoster lift by the increasingly unhinged head of English at Rummidge, Gordon Masters.
The first two novels also seem alarmingly prescient. There’s a character in Changing Places, Wily Smith, who pretends to be black and is writing a novel about the black experience. Esseph University is desperate to employ more black or native American lecturers so that they don’t seem racist. Small World presents a world transformed by technology: jet travel, direct dialling telephones and Xerox machines, the Internet of the 1970s. Only Nice Work, the most modern of the three, seems dated because it’s so firmly rooted in Thatcher’s Britain. It’s also the only novel where you feel Lodge’s own politics coming to the fore.
Nobody writes novels like these any more. The nearest thing in recent years was Zadie Smith’s On Beauty. Which is a shame – just think how much fun one could have these days with ‘no platforming’ and ‘safe spaces’ at modern universities. Though perhaps student politics nowadays are beyond parody; and of course the madness of academic theory has percolated into everyday life ‒ Facebook has twenty-one terms to define your gender.
Though Lodge satirizes academia, he also loves it. It’s his world, and theory is a game he knows how to play. Small World ends at the MFA, the daddy of all conferences, where a character says that what ‘matters in the field of critical practice is not truth but difference. If everybody were convinced by your arguments, they would have to do the same as you and then there would be no satisfaction in doing it. To win is to lose the game.’ Me, I managed to play well enough to get a decent degree. In retrospect though, I do wish I’d taken a principled stand against ‘the nonsense factory’. It might have livened up those deadly tutorials.
David Lodge’s Changing Places (1977), Small World (1984) and Nice Work (1988) are all available as Vintage paperbacks, each priced at £8.99.