Searching for the Literary Grail

Musings on David Lodge's "Small World"

Musings on David Lodge‘s “Small World

David Lodge’s novel “Small World” has been variously described as a “campus novel”, a clever piece of “critifiction” (a combination of literary theory and practice) and an example of “metafiction”, a literary technique which self-consciously draws attention to the fact that it is a piece of “art” by subtly raising questions about the relationship between fiction and reality (also known as Romantic irony).  In other words, unlike novels which purport to take the reader on a journey out of the everyday into another world where they can suspend disbelief to the extent necessary to feel a part of the other world, metafiction deliberately reinforces the sense that you are reading a piece of fiction that has been crafted for you by a writer with designs on your intellectual capacity for reading behind and between the lines.

“Small World”, which is a fairly unsubtle play on words in itself, given the peripatetic behaviour of the academics depicted in it, is as much a discourse on literary theory and criticism as it is a very funny and entertaining novel.

In some senses it is dated, in that although the plot relies on the “internationalisation” of the campus through the proliferation of academic conferences that arose in the 1980s, and the constant criss-crossing of the globe that entailed for academics of all persuasions, in the book universities have not yet felt the impact of the digital age and are still seemingly flush with enough funds to finance endless scholarly junkets.  This somewhat archaic rendering of campus life doesn’t however detract and may indeed make “Small World” a pleasant piece of nostalgia for any academics of today who read it.

“Small World” is subtitled “An Academic Romance”, which, taken at face value, can be interpreted as the romantic vicissitudes experienced by Persse, the main character, as he pursues his perfect woman.  On another level however, it hints at the older concept of “romance”, which it seems to exemplify, through the strange, almost farcical happenings and string of coincidences which stretch the reader’s capacity for suspension of disbelief to the limit.

The story hinges on the idea of quest, both in terms of the scholarly quest for knowledge and the personal “romantic” one of Persse McGarrigle, the “hero”, suggesting naturally enough visions of the quest for the holy grail, both in the minds of the characters and those of readers.  As a devout Catholic, but also an academic, Persse appreciates the concept in two contexts – first as the Christian legend and also as proposed by Jessie L. Weston, an authority on romantic literature, as a pagan fertility ritual.  Persse is well qualified to assimilate all possible meanings of the grail, whether it be religious faith, fame, or “the love of a good woman”.  This latter takes on special meaning for him, because of his Catholicism and his credo of chastity before marriage.  Once having met the woman who he recognises at  first glance as the woman for him, and one deserving of the divestiture of his virginity, he becomes obsessed by pursuing her.  This takes him on a feverish jaunt from one international conference to another, always arriving a little too late just in the wake of her departure for another exotic destination.  Intoxicating but eternally elusive, his dream woman haunts his thoughts and fantasies to the extent he believes several times he’s found her, but then it turns out maddeningly not to be her.  Seemingly doomed to ever-lasting frustration of his desires, Persse epitomises the knight errant and his target, named fittingly enough Angelica, the fairest of damsels.

In another feat of metaphorical virtuosity, Lodge plays on the theme of the seasons, opening with a bleak and unseasonably snowy April in an industrial midlands town in England and reaching a finale with a similarly unseasonable outbreak of freak spring weather in a wintry New York, where the sudden sunshine and zephyr like breezes serve as fitting accompaniments to the fortuitous resolution of many dilemmas and an (almost) happy ending.

It is quite a feat to undertake literary criticism in a novel that is so “carnivalesque” (as one reviewer described it), and where satire frequently descends perilously close to farce, but  somehow Lodge manages it.

The romance promised by the title is there in spades, although not perhaps in the sense that many might have expected.  Liberally sprinkled with literary allusions, it is a fun read for the budding literary theorist, providing many “ah ha!” moments among the hilarity.  As well, it’s been conjectured Lodge used a well known theorist, Stanley Fish, for his larger than life character Professor Morris Zapp, who has allegedly become such a favourite with readers, thanks to his continuing appearances in the three novels, that Lodge has been begged by his fans to bring him back.

It’s been noted that Zapp, along with a large number of the other characters in the novel, are none too subtle stereotypes.  Persse himself, young, innocent and charming, is typically Irish in his endearingly fumbling pursuit of love.  There are other nationally based stereotypes; German, American, French, Japanese, Italian and so on, all of whom could justifiably be described as characters who exist only to serve the plot and flesh out the dimensions of the “small” world inhabited by Lodge’s main characters.  But I’m not sure that this is such a bad thing.  Learning writers are indoctrinated with the injunction to avoid stereotypes at all costs.  They are glaring symptoms of amateurish writing, we are told, on a similarly base level as clichés, too many adjectives and using “he ejaculated” instead of “he said”.  But if they are amusing, fully drawn and possess just enough quirks to lift them from the hackneyed and banal, as Lodge’s characters are, so-called stereotypes  can work well.  In the style of the old British “Carry On” movies, recognising the stock “type” of the people making fools of themselves does nothing to detract from our hilarity at their antics.  Quite the reverse, I often think.  And of course the English are as determinedly mocked by Lodge along with all the rest, so it’s quite forgivable.

Satire is a hard thing to do well and must by its very nature rely on coincidence, another literary technique learning writers are admonished to cleanse from their drafts.  However this novel is bursting at the seams with them and each and every one admittedly exerts a huge downward pressure on the reader’s credibility.  But, in a curious way, they seemed not only necessary, but a strategic piece of plotting, and despite being as blatantly obvious as exposed airconditioning piping in a modern building, they never jar.  Plots that hinge on coincidence are supposedly weak ones, according to the writing experts, although I’m not quite sure exactly why.  Perhaps it’s because they’re too transparent, exposing some manipulative intention on the part of the author.  But isn’t all plot a devious writerly device, with the aim of grasping the reader by his eyeballs from the opening sentence, and persuading him to hang in there until the final climax?

The whole pretext of “Small World”, as previously mentioned, is to keep us aware of the authorial intention, to consistently alert us to the fact that the author’s got his tongue firmly planted in his cheek, and to place his agenda of literary criticism as stage act well and truly front and centre.  Coincidence and slapstick characters are in fact just two of the many special delights of this book.

Contrivance, manipulation, gimmickry even, are devices of invention which all artists recognise as tools of their trade.  They are available for explicit appropriation in devising a work and you really can’t get by without them.  When they are appropriated with the kind of skill that Lodge has mastered, readers will not only happily go along for the ride, they will willingly conspire in relishing the artifice that is, after all, essential to all artistic creativity.

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About annegreen2013

I'm a freelance writer passionate about all things culinary and literary, especially South Australian food and wine, food writing, ethical eating, animal welfare, healthy eating, nutrition and food sustainability
This entry was posted in Books, Brilliant writers, Literary Theory, Writer's_life. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Searching for the Literary Grail

  1. Great reflection on the novel Anne, one of my favourites. I love Lodge’s combination of intelligent commentary, literary references and humour – this made me want to pick him up again. A master of fiction who can break all the rules with style – my hero!

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