Small World: An Academic Romance is the third entertaining volume in David Lodge’s single-handed revival of a genre that seemed to have become virtually extinct: the academic novel. Few specimens of the breed have appeared since its heyday in the 1950’s, when comic exposés of faculty life flourished in such novels as Mary McCarthy’s The Groves of Academe (1952), Kingsley Amis’ Lucky Jim (1954), and Randall Jarrell’s Pictures from an Institution (1954). In later decades, the subject of academic life became more the province of the drama, in such plays as Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1962), Simon Gray’s Butley (1971), and Willy Russell’s Educating Rita (1982)—all of which were also made into impressive films. Meanwhile, however, David Lodge was rising through the ranks of the British university system (eventually becoming a professor of English at the University of Birmingham) and producing not only six books of highly regarded literary criticism but also six novels. Three of these novels—The British Museum Is Falling Down (1965), Changing Places (1975), and Small World—bring his expert knowledge of literary history and novelistic form into play on the subject of academic life.
Small World synthesizes and expands the lively talents for literary parody and parallel plotting that Lodge demonstrated in his earlier two academic novels. In The British Museum Is Falling Down, Lodge playfully modulated his narrative voice into the styles of numerous modern novelists; in Small World, he not only spices the narrative with numerous literary allusions but also parodies the current varieties of literary theory so skillfully that one critic remarked that the book could be used as a primer on the subject. Lodge’s second fictional excursion into academia, Changing Places, traces the hilarious parallel experiences of two professors who exchange positions for a semester: the traditional British humanist Philip Swallow and the high-powered American critic Morris Zapp. In Small World, Lodge not only reprises these two characters, along with their wives and their colleagues, but also interweaves the experiences of some fourteen other academics, writers, publishers, and translators into an ambitious and uproarious satire of contemporary literary life.
Small World does have a central character, however, in the person of Persse McGarrigle, a young Irish poet-teacher (and an academic and sexual innocent) who travels to an academic conference in the English Midlands with the old-fashioned notion that he will participate in the exchange of ideas. Instead, he gains instruction from Morris Zapp in the bewildering new realities of the literary profession. “Scholars these days are like the errant knights of old, wandering the ways of the world in search of adventure and glory,” says Zapp, in explaining why professors now spend so much time globe-trotting from conference to conference rather than in the traditional pursuits of teaching and research.
From Sybil Maiden, a kindly spinster folklorist, Persse gains another perspective that in fact also provides the novel with its underlying theme and structure. Miss Maiden sites Jessie Weston’s book From Ritual to Romance (a genuinely pioneering work of literary criticism, first published in 1920, which provided T. S. Eliot with much of the imagery and allusion for his 1922 poetic masterpiece, The Waste Land) in arguing that the explanation for the academic spectacle which Persse is witnessing should be traced back even further than the quest of King Arthur’s...
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