Our book group’s discussion of David Lodge’s satirical campus novel Small World (1984) produced a scenario worthy of inclusion in the novel itself. It became apparent quite early in the proceedings that the book’s proposer was labouring under the misapprehension that he had asked us to read another novel by David Lodge, Nice Work. He forlornly brandished the covers of the two books for our inspection, citing an uncanny similarity of appearance.
We had barely recovered our poise after this revelation, and agreed that we would, in fact, discuss Small World, when a late arrival joined the group by taxi from a long luncheon. In his case, the comic novel he was irrepressibly set on expounding seemed to be Whisky Galore.
Making sense of the ensuing discussion was at times challenging, and to produce a cohesive account of the evening is a task beyond the abilities of this writer. I will therefore simply outline our more relevant exchanges in the order in which they arose.
David Lodge’s biographical background was sketched in by the proposer. Notably relevant were his tenure of a Professorship in English Literature at the University of Birmingham, his additional experience of teaching in American universities, and his literary friendship with Malcolm Bradbury.
There was agreement that the novel, although satirical, was not in all respects an exaggeration of the truth. There were enough academics and conference-goers in our group with experience of the period in question (the 1970s), to verify Lodge’s portrayal of such events as potpourris of booze, ennui, sex, and tourism. This was qualified by the lament of scientists present that such was not their way, and that clearly scholars in the humanities were more promiscuous and hedonistic – or at least had more opportunities to be so.
It was observed that universities and academia ran on much more cash-strapped lines nowadays, with attendant pressures on their staff, and that David Lodge was depicting more easy-going times.
Structure and narrative elements were discussed: one reader pointed out that part one seemed very different from the rest of the novel; another commented on the enjoyable interweaving of different characters and threads; a third on the undisguised use of coincidences (for example Cheryl reading the very book that Persse is seeking). It was observed that underlying literary references, such as the quest for the Holy Grail, were lightly handled, and exuberant satire was the dominant mode. Racial stereotyping was commented upon as an easy source of humour. Overall, one reader felt that Lodge was perhaps trying a bit too hard, and preferred others among his novels, while another thought that this was his best work. There was some brief discussion of the merits of Nice Work, Changing Places, Deaf Sentence, and his academic book The Art of Fiction.
We discussed the place of Small World within a well-defined genre, the campus novel (although of course the ‘campus’ of this novel is global). Tom Sharpe, Malcolm Bradbury, Kingsley Amis and Bernard Malamud were invoked. One reader complained of a certain predictability, but another drew attention to significant differences of approach within the genre.
In so far as Lodge’s characters are used to exemplify different methodological and philosophical approaches to the study of literature, we felt that the satire was quite subdued, and that Leavisite, structuralist, feminist, Freudian, etc approaches were presented with only slight exaggerations. The function of literary criticism is, however lightly handled, a pervading and serious theme of the book. We were mostly happy with Philip Swallow’s remarks at the conference as a reasonable everyman’s definition of the function of literary criticism, and one that illuminated our own activity as a group of people meeting to discuss literature.