A Tale of … Several Campuses

As Malcolm Bradbury put it in the first line of The History Man: “Now it is autumn again; the people are all coming back,” yet the beginning of the school year simply doesn’t feel right without the murmur of the rain, wet boots and coats, warm sweaters, and red-gilded trees. It’s November already, and I still did not get the proper autumnal kick. I’ve been waiting for three years now and I’m starting to come to terms with the fact that autumn simply does not visit the country where I currently reside. Hence, I’ve decided to live vicariously and feed on the autumn feeling from some of my favourite campus novels.


To be a teacher of any kind, it seems, one needs to be blessed with a certain dose of humour. You need to have the ability to grasp the paradoxical nature of your surroundings, digest it, laugh it off, and let go. This particular tincture of irony, mild sarcasm, and situational comedy seems to permeate the campus novel genre faithfully represented by Kingsley Amis, David Lodge, and Zadie Smith.

The campus has yielded itself so well to writing since it is a world in itself, enclosed within time and space containing all the usually appealing elements of drama and intrigue set against an intellectual backdrop. Kingsley Amis’ Lucky Jim, an early sample of the campus novel genre, already presets some of its staple qualities. There is the socially awkward protagonist, the eponymous Jim Dixon, who teaches a subject that is growing obsolete and practically irrelevant to the increasingly industrial society and who is stumbling and flailing in the mess of his love life and professional ambition. The novel is set around the 1950s in a rural redbrick university in the English Midlands. Dixon fantasises about rebelling against the absurdity and pretension he comes across in academic life, yet the comedy springs out when his ideas uncontrollably escalate from private fantasy to public display. 

David Lodge’s famous trilogy consisting of Changing Places, Small World, and Nice Work spans the period from the 1960s to 1980s and seems to continue building on the foundations laid out by Amis. All three novels are set in the fictional University of Rummidge, a rain-soaked newly built university in the Midlands and they follow the mishaps of a set of professors and their family members on their way to maturing in a number of different ways. Changing Places, whose Dickensian subtitle ‘A Tale of Two Campuses’ hints at the revolutions set in motion by the transatlantic academic exchange as well as the revolutions already under way in the turbulent 60s. The academically unremarkable Philip Swallow from Rummidge swaps jobs with his prodigious American counterpart, Morris Zap from the Euphoric State University in California. At first, both men are quite daunted by the prospect of the upcoming six months, yet they both manage, relatively quickly, to settle into their alternative existences, move into each other’s houses, face driving on the opposite sides of the road, and, to complete the experience, sleep with each other’s wives. Small World derives on the idea of international academic travel and is set within the framework of an international conference circuit intertwined with a young scholar’s almost medieval quest for love, whereas Nice Work pays homage to Dickensian industrial novel by forcing the Rummidge’s ivory towers to adapt and start a reluctant dialogue with its industrial surroundings depicting a shift that had occurred both in the British academia and the British society as a whole in the 1980s. 


This very contrast between the intellectual pretension and human reality is expounded by Zadie Smith in her On Beauty where she exposes the hilarity of the petty university rivalries exemplified by Howard Belsey and his archenemy Monty Kipps and the absurdity of the academic lingo and ambition when faced with the actual reality of human existence portrayed by Howard’s daughter Zora and Carl, the rapper from the gutter, whom she seeks to ‘rescue’, i.e. re-educate and mould according to her own set of standards. The novel is filled with drama and intrigue, dealing not only with the academics, but also with their families who often have a hard time coping with their intellectually superior members. The novel combines comedy and intellectual ambition, exposing its stumbling, tripping, and blundering in full swing. 

© 2016 Erna G. – All Rights Reserved

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