If the books are like Small World, they won’t be enough, won’t satisfy. Perhaps I should have waited a bit before beginning the next book in David Lodge’s campus trilogy. But I wanted to see if it got better with the second book, Small World. It did not.
The opening scenes of an academic conference—University Teachers of English Language and Literature—at Rummidge University were promising. A naive Irishman, Persse (only mistakenly named to the English faculty at Limerick College) is introduced to conference traditions: bad accommodations, boring lectures, insecure pedants, preening presenters, and the latest lit crit fad: structuralism. (The book was published in 1984.) Characters from the first book, Changing Places, reappear—Philip Swallow, Morris Zapp, et. al.—and they are just as tedious and unlikable as they were ten years earlier.
That’s my chief complaint. There’s not a single character in this book worth caring—or reading—about. Lodge certainly tries to hedge his bets, adding more and more characters via short, uninspired collage scenes. As dull as the male characters are, they’re paragons of fascination compared to Lodge’s women: the mysterious, beautiful (and thus surprisingly brilliant) Angelica; the annoying wives Hilary (“thick rolls of flesh”) and Beverly (“broad bum”).
The book is meant to poke fun at academe—all that hustling for more prestigious appointments or to ever-more exotic conference locations, all that straining toward humor—but it never becomes funny. The dialogue is stiff. The coarse sexual references seem tacked on for effect. The exposition is supposed to be witty and sly. But who wants to read prose like this?
“There’s something I must ask you, Fulvia,” said Morris Zapp, as he sipped Scotch on the rocks poured from a crystal decanter brought on a silver tray by a black-uniformed, white-aproned maid to the first-floor drawing-room of the magnificent eighteen-century house just off the Villa Napoleone, which they had reached after a drive so terrifyingly fast that the streets and boulevards of Milan were just a pale grey blur in his memory. “It may sound naive, and even rude, but I can’t suppress it any longer.”
The characters, collages, and conferences multiply, then give way to astonishing revelations of twins lost and found, of lust satisfied and subverted. How Shakespearean! It’s the layering on of cleverness that I find most irritating, as if Lodge is saying the reader: do you think this “quest” reference is clever? no? how about this send-up of Marxism? or this? or this? It doesn’t ever become anything but a pile of clever goo.
The best I can say is that I learned a couple of new words: micturate, to urinate (when “urinate” just won’t do); chippolata, alternate spelling for chipolata, a small sausage in a narrow casing (an apt metaphor for this whole book, actually).