Small World: An Academic Romance
Later the Same Day
Almost single-handedly, David Lodge has done what many would have thought impossible. He has taken a moribund—some might have said dead—minor genre, the academic novel, from its sickroom, set it on its feet, given it a slap or two, and sent it out to places it has never entered before. The genre was at its best during the 1950s when nonacademic novelists and poets in considerable numbers began to take jobs as “writer in residence” in institutions of higher learning, particularly “progressive” ones; often they came away astounded by what they had seen—and eager to tell. Some of the academics themselves, less than enthralled by the scholarly pursuits for which they were trained, decided to try writing a novel—and naturally chose the subject closest to their eyes or spleen. The liveliest productions of that period can still be recalled—and reread—with pleasure: Mary McCarthy’s The Groves of Academe, Kingsley Amis’s Lucky Jim, and that small masterpiece, Randall Jarrell’s Pictures from an Institution. At their best, such novels combined exuberant satire of academic types and the positions (both intellectual and hierarchical) they held with a kind of knock-about comedy that often slipped into farce (Lucky Jim cutting up the bed sheets). Occasionally one found, as with C.P. Snow’s The Masters, a sober meditation on the workings of academic power.
What happened, of course, is that the academic novel soon became a vehicle for settling professional or personal scores and venting petty hostilities. A smug knowingness replaced the earlier exuberance; types quickly degenerated into stereotypes: the embittered faculty wife, the English department wimp, the platitudinous fraud, etc. Campus adultery or other forms of sexual irregularity became the chief centers of action. The genre turned sour, reaching what I recall as its nadir in an ill-natured novel called Party at Cranston, which exposed the alleged impotence of one (thinly disguised) literary critic of distinction and the sexual rapacity of another of comparable fame or notoriety. Well before the campus storms of the late Sixties uprooted a number of longstanding assumptions, the academic novel had become as unfashionable (with readers and publishers alike) as the giant tail-finned cars of the decade when it most thrived.
What David Lodge has managed to do is to make the genre international, and to reveal new sources of satiric enjoyment in some of the exotic growths that have sprung up in the wake of the 1960s. In Changing Places (1975), he lifted a dully domesticated and ambitionless Englishman, Philip Swallow, from the red-brick University of Rummidge (roughly Birmingham) where he taught and sent him to Euphoric State University (roughly Berkeley) just in time for all the action in 1969; while at the same time transporting Morris Zapp, a brash, cigar-chewing structuralist, from Euphoria to the humdrum precincts of Rummidge. The transatlantic comedy of Changing Places—the comedy of cultural displacement and moral confusion—is handled not only with wit and ingenuity but with knowledge: Lodge knows the American …