—. Small World: An Academic Romance.[London: Secker and Warburg 1984] Harmondsworth, Middlesex: Penguin, 1985.
I was somewhat distracted this week from the books that I was reading (Nadler’s The Philosopher, The Priest, and the Painter and Eagleton’s On Evil) because my reading group is meeting this coming Wednesday and I had to catch up with my “assigned text.” We’d decided we wanted to revisit a book we had already read and chose David Lodge’s 1984 novel Small World. I then decided that before I reread Small World I should also reread Changing Places, so I did.
I can’t actually remember how long ago it was that I actually read these novels for the first time. Perhaps when they came out? Sufficient to say that I found my rereading to be an entertaining but rather nostalgic experience. Lodge’s Rummidge, which he assures us is “not Birmingham though it owes something to popular prejudices about that city,” (Author’s Note to Small World) evokes memories of the hazards of spaghetti junction or the bleakness of the Old Bull Ring bus station. Changing Places reminds one of just how bleak in terms of such comforts as central heating or, more accurately, its lack, sixties Britain actually was. Small World’s focus on competing theories recalls my own days as a graduate students and the beginning of my career.
Both these novels are “campus novels” satirizing academic life, and characters from Changing Places reappear in Small World. Changing Places covers the 1969 academic exchange of Philip Swallow from Rummidge University in England and Morris Zapp from Euphoria State in Plotinus, Euphoria, USA. Both academics experience extreme culture shock. Small World is set ten years later. Philip Swallow is now Head of Rummidge English Department. Zapp no longer wishes to write the criticism of Jane Austen that will render any further investigation of the novelist superfluous; now he is a theorist with aspirations to the new UNESCO Chair of Literary Criticism.
Most of the action of Small World takes place against the background of academic conferences, those spring time rituals where academics meet to read papers and share ideas. Or as we are told in the Prologue where “participants indulge themselves in all the pleasures and diversions of travel while appearing to be austerely bent on self-improvement.” While the characters in Small World certainly indulge themselves in most of the luxuries of expense account travel, they put more energy into ambition and egoism. Perhaps only Persse McGarrigle from University College Limerick is without egoism. Perhaps. But then, Persse is the naïve quester figure, a picaro in search of the ever- disappearing brilliant student of structuralism Angelica Pabst. Persse wends his way through the intricacies of academia and international airports with the talisman of an American Express card backed by the proceeds from winning £1000 from the Maud Fitzimmons Bequest for the encouragement of Anglo-Irish Poetry.
Lodge’s satire spares no-one. Millionaire Marxists, European semioticians, structuralists, liberal humanists, devotees of Northrop Frye: all are humorously pilloried. Academic snobbery, adultery, ambition, writer’s block, sexual impotence: all are subjected to Lodge’s beadily ironic eye. An observant, twentieth-century Chaucer, Lodge reveals to us as it seems to him the nature of all these conference attenders, what they were and what their degree. In most cases, the degree’s the Ph.D. (Sorry, I couldn’t resist the pun. Small World does that to you: makes you play with words, mangle quotations, parody styles.) At some point in the future, if it hasn’t already been done, someone in the publish or perish world of academia will, no doubt, produce a study version of Small World annotating each of Lodge’s references and parodies.
It certainly helps and I suspect enriches one’s experience of both Changing Places and Small World if one has some familiarity with post-secondary academic life in the mid to late twentieth century and with the great debates over theory, genre, and canon that made or broke careers then. While some of the rivalries and critical debates in both novels now seem to belong in times long past, replaced by others, the vanities, anxieties, hopes, and general human nature of Lodge’s characters still strike a chord. The novels still work whether one has read Jessie Weston or not, whether one is familiar with Saussure and Lacan or not. They still work even if one is unfamiliar with the formal structure of a film script or unaware of the difference between the epic and the romance. They are very funny—in fact, I feel Small World is possibly Lodge’s most farcical novel— novels that deal as all comedy does with the really serious issues such as truth, honesty, love, and loyalty.
Afterthought: Just how did Lodge balance all his writing—novels, scripts, and criticism—with teaching, committee work, and family life? I am always in awe of those whose energy level must be so much greater than mine.