Small World: An Academic Romance
Decency is a disadvantage in a novelist, especially in a novelist of manners. The best of the English practitioners—Thackeray, Waugh, Powell, Graham Greene—cast a cold eye on the world, expecting the worst of humankind and rarely being disappointed. Even Anthony Trollope indulged himself now and then in a bout of hand-rubbing Schadenfreude when a villain such as Mr. Slope got his comeuppance. The novel is bad news that stays bad news.
David Lodge is one of the finest makers of fiction now at work in England. I use the word maker advisedly, for he is as much artisan as artist. His books have an admirably crafted, solid, four-square feel to them. They sit well in the mind, as a piece of English silverware or Wedgwood china sits well in the hand. Although he is quintessentially of England, he is open-minded to a degree unthinkable in Waugh or Kingsley Amis. Besides his novels—Therapy is his tenth—he has written five books on literary theory, including one on Bakhtin and another with the resonant title Working with Structuralism. Like his friend and colleague Malcolm Bradbury, he is best known for “campus” novels, his own being Changing Places, Small World, and Nice Work.
Penguin has now reissued Small World (1984), in my estimation Lodge’s finest novel, and certainly his funniest. It is a continuation of the academic adventures of the English don Philip Swallow and his high-powered American colleague Morris Zapp (who is rumored to be modeled on Stanley Fish; Professor Fish should feel honored, for Zapp is a wonderful creation). The two first encountered each other in Changing Places (1975), in which they exchanged posts, Swallow going to the University of California and finding liberation, Zapp coming to Rummidge (Lodge’s fictional version of Birmingham, where he lives) and finding… well, finding England, in all its oddness and hopeless social confusion. Small World is set on the international academic conference circuit, and is a kind of pastiche romance, with a dashing young hero, the Irishman Persse McGarrigle, from the University of Limerick (invented by Lodge, but now a real institution: such is the power of fiction), in pursuit of a delectable damsel who glories in the name of Angelica Pabst. Out of this combination of quest epic and sophisticated modern comedy Lodge has produced a work which is at once riotously funny and strangely poetic:
When April with its sweet showers has pierced the drought of March to the root, and bathed every vein of earth with that liquid by whose power the flowers are engendered: when the zephyr, too, with its dulcet breath, has breathed life into the tender new shoots in every copse and on every heath, and the young sun has run half his course in the sign of the Ram, and the little birds that sleep all night with their eyes open give song (so Nature prompts them in their hearts), then, as the poet Geoffrey Chaucer observed many years ago, folk long to go on pilgrimages. Only, these…
This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!
Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.