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Post  eddie Sun Jan 22, 2012 5:15 pm

Small World by David Lodge

Week three: on writing Small World

David Lodge, Friday 20 January 2012 22.55 GMT

David Lodge David-Lodge-sitting-in-hi-007
David Lodge. Photograph: Sophia Evans

In the 1970s, when I was a senior lecturer at Birmingham University, I began to do lecture tours of universities in foreign countries at the invitation of the British Council and to give papers at international conferences in foreign cities. The latter were usually much more enjoyable than similar events in England, with their spartan accommodation in student halls and canteen food to match. Abroad you stayed in hotels, ate in restaurants and did some sightseeing in congenial company.

David Lodge The-Campus-Trilogy
The Campus Trilogy
by David Lodge

In the summer of 1979 I joined a horde of participants in the James Joyce Symposium in Zurich, and went straight from there to another conference on Narrative Theory in Israel, where I was greeted by several Joyceans I had just met in Zurich. It struck me that jet travel had created a new academic community, a global campus inhabited by wandering scholars who met in exotic locations to demonstrate their professional skills (it was a time when traditional literary scholarship was being challenged by a host of competing new methodologies), while at the same time indulging in the pleasures of tourism, and sometimes amorous dalliance. I thought there might be an entertaining novel to be written about this phenomenon, in which the contrast between the high ideals of academia and the human weaknesses of its members would be illustrated on a broader canvas than usual.

I sketched the plan of a novel with a large cast of academics of various nationalities, including Philip Swallow, Morris Zapp and several other characters from my earlier book, Changing Places, and a naive young hero who would be a novice on the global campus, caught up in its jet-propelled peregrinations. I could think of plenty of locations and situations to put them in, beginning with a comfortless conference at the fictional University of Rummidge in the English midlands, but for a long time I was held up by the lack of a narrative structure. Some 30 pages into the notebook which I dedicated to the project was a despairing question: "What could provide a basis for a story?" And then a few pages later, a breakthrough: "Could some myth serve, as in Ulysses? Eg, the Grail legend – involves a lot of different characters and long journeys."

I was thinking of the way Joyce modelled his account of a day in the lives of some Dubliners on Homer's Odyssey, and I had just been to see John Boorman's flawed but exciting film Excalibur, which suggested to me an analogy of a mock-heroic kind between the errant knights of the Round Table and modern globe-trotting academics. I was also thinking of TS Eliot's poem The Waste Land, and his use of Jessie Weston's interpretation of the quest for the Holy Grail as the Christian transmutation of a pagan myth about the restoration of fertility to a sterile kingdom and its Fisher King.

I added to my cast an aged, distinguished but sadly impotent scholar called Arthur Kingfisher, who had in his gift the Unesco chair of literary criticism, coveted by ambitious academics on account of its light duties and huge salary. I named my idealistic young hero Persse, after the chaste Arthurian knight Perceval, and the elusive young woman he falls in love with Angelica, after the heroine of Ariosto's chivalric romance Orlando Furioso. (Years later I came across an intriguing personal ad in the Los Angeles Times : "Angelica, where are you? Still searching. Persse.")

The idea was to superimpose a satirical comedy of modern academic manners on a pattern of mythic motifs and romantic archetypes, the interlacing of several plotlines in traditional romance licensing an extravagant use of coincidence to contrive connections between my numerous characters and their fortunes or misfortunes. Since academics love to talk shop, my characters could plausibly provide a kind of commentary on the proliferating literary echoes and allusions for readers unfamiliar with their sources, but I tried to make the novel also simply enjoyable as a narrative combining suspense, mystery and comedy.

I set the story in 1979, the year of its inception, and incorporated the Zurich and Israel conferences, but not Mrs Thatcher's general election victory in the same year. By the time Small World was published in 1984, her policies had drastically changed the climate on Britain's campuses. State funding was cut, new appointments were frozen and the ethos of business management was being imposed on universities. In this context a novel about academics swanning around the globe on conference grants seemed to some of my colleagues, and a few reviewers, inopportune. Most readers, I'm glad to say, responded to Small World in the carnivalesque spirit in which it was written. But my next novel, Nice Work, returned to Rummidge in a more soberly realistic mode, to complete a trilogy which was never consciously planned as such.
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