The Evolution of the Campus Novel

niceworkOne of the most interesting sessions at our recent University Book Festival was a talk by the author, David Lodge, on the Evolution of the Campus Novel.  Those of you who know me well will be aware that I had the privilege of being taught by David and that I am as great an admirer of him as a teacher as I am a novelist, so this was one event I certainly wasn’t going to miss.

Although they weren’t his first novels, it was David Lodge’s Campus Novels, Changing Places, Small World and Nice Work that really brought him to general attention.  Centred in and around Rummidge University, no one who worked or studied on our campus had any doubt as to which institute of higher learning he was really writing about and those of us who were students read eagerly to see what insights we could glean about the private lives of our tutors, not to mention the grimy revelations about faculty politics.

Talking about the history of the genre, Lodge made the point that it was very much a post World War II phenomenon.  Although there were novels set in and around universities prior to that date, they were, for the most part, either about student life or mysteries of one sort or another.  For Lodge, one of the defining factors of the Campus Novel is that its subject and point of view is that of the university staff rather than that of the students.  He spoke about early American examples, such as Mary McCarthy’s The Groves of Academe and Randall Jarrell’s Pictures from an Institution both published in the early 1950s, but pointed out that the term Campus wasn’t used in the UK until the establishment of the University of East Anglia in 1963 and that the major English examples all came later, following on from the great expansion of university education in the 1960s.

It was this expansion and the consequent opportunity for professional writers to join the staff of the growing number of universities that Lodge saw as one of the major factors in the rise of the genre.  Novelists need to create a world in which their fictions can exist and suddenly they found themselves with a ready made world around them.  It isn’t a coincidence that most Campus Novels are set in Faculties of the Arts or Humanities; this was the microcosm of the world in general that their authors found themselves inhabiting and many of the characters and situations they met there were ripe for exploration.

Inevitably, the question arose as to whether or not any of the characters the reader meets in these novels were based on real people.  There was great controversy when McCarthy’s book was published as several colleagues or ex-colleagues felt that she had used the novel to settle old scores.  Lodge insists that in his case the only such instance is the character of Morris Zapp in Changing Places, who is based on his great friend Stanley Fish.  I found that fascinating.  There may have been many objections when McCarthy’s book was published but I wonder how those same people would have felt had they been left out?  I ask this because I know several people who are ‘proud’ to claim that they were the inspiration for one or other of Lodge’s characters and I’ve actually worked with two who were convinced that they were the real Philip Swallow.  They wear their fictional status as a badge of distinction.  What Lodge did do was to ‘invent’ two new Universities which now actually exist, University College, Limerick and the University of Gloucester.

Another question raised was whether or not the Campus Novel travelled and Lodge was pretty clear that he thought it was just an Anglo-American phenomenon.  For the most part European Universities are not designed as campus institutions and it is that sense of living and working within a closed community that is central to the genre’s being.  And, also, he claimed that the European Academy was much more concerned to preserve their dignity than was the case in most British or American Universities.  The prevalent tone of the Campus Novel is either comical or satirical and therefore perhaps not to the taste of our European neighbours.

One of the best things about a talk like this is that you come away with a list of titles to add to your tbr pile.  Having spent most of my adult life in and around either college or university campuses I love this genre.  As well as McCarthy and Jarrell other authors mentioned included Malcolm Bradbury, Robertson Davies, Rebecca Goldstein, Francine Prose and Amanda Cross.  Bradbury and Cross I’ve read but the others are all just waiting to be explored.  Despite the fact that I have little enough time to read the novels Lodge suggested, if you have other authors you would like to add to the list I would be more than grateful.

….and the other

virgilio-dias-universitc3a1ria-2011-o-s-t-60-x-60It is Saturday morning and I am breathing a sigh of relief that all teachers will recognise, you know, the one that comes when you finally reach the end of the first week of term.  There is something about those first five days, whatever age or level you are teaching, that always seems interminable.  Time travels in diverse paces with diverse persons as Shakespeare so wisely said, but he could just as well have added and at diverse intervals.  The rest of term will now fly by and before we know it we will be looking back and wondering where the days and weeks went and how we could possibly have got through so little.

Anyway, as a result I have read precious little this week, which given the fact that the next seven days include both the first Monday and the second Wednesday of the month and therefore two different book groups meetings can only be seen as something of a disaster.  So this is going to be a very brief post indeed simply sharing with you a couple of things you might enjoy.

First, for those living within reach of Birmingham, the programme for the University of Birmingham’s book festival, Book the the Future, has just been announced.  It’s taking place between Thursday October 24th and Tuesday October 29th and everyone is welcome.  You can find out what’s going on on the official website and most of the events are free.

I’m spitting feathers because I’m in Stratford on both the Saturday and Sunday and so will have to miss great chunks of the celebrations but I’m going to plenty on the other four days, including taking The Bears to hear Tony Robinson (they are great Time Team fans) and then, having packed them off home, going on to hear David Lodge talking about the rise of the campus novel.  Given that I worked for many years with the man who was supposed to be the inspiration behind Lodge’s own Philip Sparrow, I am really looking forward to that.  However, for this avid fantasy fan, the real highlight for me comes on the last day when Robin Hobb, author of the Farseer, Liveship Traders and Tawny Man trilogies is coming to speak.  Hobb was a book group discovery way back in the first year we met and all of us were surprised not only at the quality of her writing but also the way in which she celebrated the power of women – not always that common in fantasy.

If you can join us then you really will be very welcome and if you do decide to come then let me know and if I’m free it would be nice to take the opportunity to meet up.

The other ‘share’ is for everyone. It is a stage direction I came across that I thought you might like to let your minds conjure with.  The seventeenth century English composer, Henry Purcell adapted Shakespeare’s comedy A Midsummer Night’s Dream for his opera The Fairy Queen.  Perhaps I should say that he adapted the play loosely because the last act no longer features Nick Bottom and his friends performing Pyramus and Thisbe but instead removes Theseus’ court to China where the fairies all manifest themselves and Juno appears in a chariot drawn by a peacock.  Halfway through the act there is this wonderful stage direction

six monkeys come from between the trees and dance

Suggestions as to how they actually staged this would be most welcome, although I don’t think I’m actually going to try and replicate the feat.