The Campus Trilogy by David Lodge
|The Campus Trilogy by David Lodge|
|Reviewer: Lesley Mason|
|Summary: Gentle satire of life at Uni from the heyday of the sixties student revolutions to the hard times of the Thatcher cuts. Sharp, witty, a total joy.|
|Buy? Yes||Borrow? Yes|
|Pages: 912||Date: July 2011|
|Publisher: Vintage Classics|
Somewhere along the line the word "vintage" stopped meaning simply the wine crop of any given year, and started to mean the wine of a particularly good year, and then to mean anything of a past year that was (is) of outstanding quality. Such is the mutability of language.
"Vintage Books" was founded by American publisher Alfred A. Knopf (what a name!) in the USA in 1954 but didn't make it to the UK until 1990. Part of Random House, the UK incarnation's function is primarily to publish paperback editions of hardbacks originating elsewhere in the empire. A strand of Vintage's output is labelled Vintage Classics and claims to be the top twentieth-century classics list in the UK. With Graham Greene, Harper Lee, Ernest Hemingway and Virginia Woolf to their credit, it's hard to disagree.
But who is this chap, Lodge? And how does he get to be in such esteemed company?
That I'm asking the question might say as much about the gaps in my education as it does anything else, but perhaps it's also the fact that much of the man's output hasn't had quite long enough to mature to really be considered "classic".
The trilogy at hand was first published between 1979 and 1988. Forty years isn't that long in the life of a book. Not-yet-proven longevity is the only reason I can come up with for there being any doubt at all. If this work isn't recognised as a classic, as being so utterly of its time, but relevant beyond it: it will be.
The three books that make up the trilogy are Changing Places, Small World, and Nice Work.
The campus concerned is that of Rummidge University (and in the first novel also that of Euphoria State in Esseph). Any coincidence or similarity between Rummidge and Birmingham, or Esseph and San Francisco are perhaps not entirely coincidental.
Lodge was a lecturer at Birmingham University and, in 1969, took a six-month associateship at the UC Berkley. During the 1970s he really did travel around the world expenses-paid as conference attendee. Thus the settings for the first two novels. Small World was set in 1979 when Margaret Thatcher was merely embarking upon her voyage of destruction, but by the late 1980s when Nice Work hit the shelves, the damage wrought was evident and probably already irrecoverable. It is no surprise that this third foray into academia mixes it with the sharp end of business, prefigures the rise (and fall) of the banking classes and is somewhat darker in tone than the two that go before it.
Phillip Swallow is an undistinguished lecturer in English at Rummidge. He's published pretty well nothing at all and has no real ambitions. He loves literature. He loves his wife, his children and is genuinely happy with life. He's at the top of the Lecturer scale by dint of perseverance and being reasonably good at teaching and is unlikely to go any further. By dint of luck and the last-minute withdrawal of the preferred candidate, he is offered the Exchange.
For reasons best left to the subtle humour of Lodge's prose, Rummidge runs a regular exchange with Euphoria State University. For six months, they get one of our professors (or in this case the best we can offer) and we get one of theirs.
The other half of this deal is one Morris J. Zapp, world-renowned Jane Austen expert and as ambitious as they come. Apparently based on a Jewish-American friend of Lodge's who delights in the pen-portrait, Zapp has published everywhere, struck out for twice the going salary (and got it), smokes offensively large cigars, wears incomprehensively vulgar suits and yet manages to be utterly charming.
This is the era of student protests, free love, drugs and all of that. All of that obviously gets worked into the storyline, much of it based on real events of Lodge's time at Berkeley, all of it exaggerated and twisted for comic effect.
That there should be an unexpected degree of wife-swapping resulting is perhaps not so surprising.
Naturally the other foil for laughs is the Anglo-American difference. If you think the nations are divided by a common language, you've yet to learn the half of it. Protests in the U.S. result in the National Guard and tear gas; in the UK virtually no-one notices a few academics handing out leaflets and a student sit-in.
Overall though, the novel is about people. It reflects the speed with which society was changing (slower in Britain than in the States) and how that impacted on the people involved, particularly the women. In many ways the wives are back-story characters to this exchange trip, but it will transpire, it is they who get most out of it.
Cut to 1979. Ten years on. Swallow is now Head of Department and has had a notion that Rummidge should host its very own Eng Lit conference. Surprisingly (to Swallow alone) ill-attended it does have the saving graces of the undeniably gorgeous Angelic L Pabst, who smights all who look upon her, but is actually quite serious in her pursuit of understanding of Romance in literature, the duly-smitten Persse McGarrigle, the suitably maidenly Miss Sybil Maiden (of Girton, naturally) and the star-turn of Morris J Zapp – who has now deserted Austen for a much more modern, not to say shocking, turn of lecturing.
Zapp and Morris rekindle a friendship and independently set off around the world at the conference-expenses of their respective universities. Closely followed by McGarrigle funded somewhat expectedly.
If the first novel was about what happens if you're given everything too easily, about the privilege of the few, then the second one is the quest novel. Three men are tearing round the world looking for something: a woman, true love, a UNESCO Chair of English Literature. What the grail is, doesn't really signify, except as a signifier.
Ah yes, this is also the novel where it stops being all about the child-like behaviour of students and lecturers and starts to be about the nonsense they speak.
The nonsense aspect of literary criticism is taken to extreme delights in the final volume. Swallow is still heading up the department, engaged more in administration than academic study these days, and the focus switches to the next generation. Dr Robyn Penrose and her on-off boyfriend of many years standing, Charles, are both academics. Charles has tenure (but in Suffolk of all places) while Robyn is still trying to earn hers at Rummidge. She is by far the best and most respected of the teachers, and probably also of the academic theorists, but she also the youngest and as everyone else has tenure and the cuts are cutting deep… she is likely to be out of a job fairly soon.
This is the pressure which persuades her to become an Industry Shadow and forces her to spend one day a week shadowing the MD of Pringles engineering company.
The stage is set for much learning how the other half lives (on both sides). While Robyn is learning about the declining craft of heavy engineering, Charles eventually tangles with the growing (darker) art of merchant banking. In between they spend many a weekend discussing whether Derrida's critique of metaphysics lets idealism in by the back door, or whether Lacan's psychoanalytical theory is phallocentric, or whether Foucault's theory of the episteme is reconcilable with dialectical materialism. Pringles' MD, Vic Wilcox, really couldn't care less – but he has a sharp and practical view on how to run a university in the new age.
IN THE BEST TRADITIONS
Lodge claims that the campus novel dates back to the early fifties, with Mary Macarthy's Groves of Academe and Amis's Lucky Jim, but of course it goes back much further. Dorothy L Sayers and Agatha Christie were venturing into Morse territory back in the 1930s. From the very beginning the whole point about collegiate life was its "closed-ness", its very existence as a world-apart.
Like modern-day monasteries, universities are communities unto themselves, distinct from the towns in which they reside, run on their own peculiar rules. This gives writers the freedom to construct arcane traditions and mores and use them either as mythical motives for murder or simply as mechanisms for humour.
The very contrivance of the academic lifestyle – thinking for a living – and the structures which go to support it are ripe for gently malicious sniping.
This is Lodge's stock in trade. He takes the campus, his own experience of it and makes suitably delicious fun of it all. Unlike later-comers to the genre, he knows where to draw the line. Tom Sharpe would pick up many of the themes left hanging by Lodge (and if you want to criticise his novels is that none of them reach an ultimate tidy conclusion) and stretch them beyond dry wit into farce. Of the two, I find Lodge the better writer, primarily by virtue of his restraint. He lets a joke stand or fall upon your own understanding of it.
The subtler quips may well depend upon your ability to recognise the milieu and if you never went to University you will miss just how true many of his observations are. That scarcely matters though as he also laces the work with brandy-snaps of silliness. Who else could get away with calling a character Penny Black? Wilcox, Angelica Papst, Swallow, Desiree, Fulvia Morgana: they're all perfectly good names, but somehow when you pile them one on top of another it does begin to sound like the character list for a Carry On film.
Throughout he manages to combine the subtle with the direct I just want to know asks one character, for those who might have missed it, how you combine being a Marxist with living like a millionaire? The skill is doing this in a way that never comes across as being condescending and rather than detracting from the humour simply adds to it.
There are few true laugh out loud moments in The Campus Trilogy and I wouldn't dream of spoiling any of them by quoting, but I read all three novels back to back (the best way I would argue), all 900 pages (all-but) inside a working week, and smiled the whole time.
I'd like to thank the publishers for sending a copy to the Bookbag.
Further reading suggestion: If David Lodge's humour appeals to you then we've reviewed quite a few of his other books.
You can read more book reviews or buy The Campus Trilogy by David Lodge at Amazon.co.uk
You can read more book reviews or buy The Campus Trilogy by David Lodge at Amazon.com.
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