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In 1978 Lodge had attended a huge academic conference, with an attendance of 10,000, in Manhattan, and in the following year he attended two smaller ones, one in Switzerland and one in Israel. The participants indulged themselves, away from the academic sessions, in all sorts of extra-curricular activities, and many of them were competing for some Holy Grail like a well-endowed Chair. He has drawn on his experiences for this novel.

We find some of the same characters we met, ten years earlier, in “Changing Places”: chief among them Philip Swallow, now head of the English Department at Rummidge University (in which Part One is set), and Morris Zapp has come over from the United States to give a lecture at a dreary academic conference, wittily described, held in Rummidge. In “Changing Places”, te first volume in the Campus Trilogy, literary theory was given some extensive treatment in the last section: in “Small World” it comes quite early on, with long discussions on Structuralism, and there are quite a few references to other theorists and to literary texts which may not be all that well known to some readers: there is a danger that will give up on the book at this point. If, however, they persevere, they will come to passages concerning sex, contraceptives and Catholic guilt, themes which surface every now and again in Lodge’s work; and it’s all rather farcical and, in my opinion, rather forced and crudely plotted.

At the beginning of Part Two we are introduced (or re-introduced) to about a dozen academics from different parts of the world. It’s really too many: some disappear for many pages at a time, and when they reappear, it is hard to remember under what circumstances we have last met them. Lodge tells us, in alternating snippets, what they are all doing at the same time in their different time zones. It seems to me that he plays with these people like a juggler showing his skill by keeping several balls in the air at the same time. Several of his characters are shown in sexual activities or phantasies. There is also quite a bit about airports and air-travel, as there was in “Changing Places”. It’s becoming quite formulaic and therefore a little tedious. In Part Two there is no clue as to how all these episodes hang together, other than that, far apart, they happen simultaneously.

In Part Three there is more of the same, though the episodes are more prolonged and less kaleidoscopic. The author is obsessed with sleazy sex joints. (But I have to say that one affaire in this part is quite touching.) There are some literary conferences: one in Bellagio, one in Amsterdam, one in Ankara (and Lodge obviously knows these places well), but the attention given to them is rather perfunctory. There is quite a funny passage about how a computer analysis of one writer’s favourite words makes it impossible for him write any more: he feels he has to avoid those words, but all synonyms seem wrong to him.

And - oh, no! - Part Four starts with yet another longish description of travel by air; followed by yet another general description of the academic conference circus; then there is a brief reference to a conference in Zurich in which, of course, its red-light district is commented on; a brief passage follows of a conference in Heidelberg, most of which is taken up with two of its participants going to bed with each other; followed by another passage about a conference in Athens where two other participants do likewise. After having moved fairly rapidly from one of these stories to the next, there is then another change of pace, and we get a prolonged but zany story about the young virginal Irish poet whom we have met several times before trying to track down the ever-elusive woman with whom he has fallen desperately and pathetically in love. Now a helter-skelter quest takes him within a very few days from Western Ireland to London, to Switzerland, back to London and then to Los Angeles, Honolulu, Tokyo, Seoul and eventually in Jerusalem - all giving Lodge the excuse to show his familiarity with all these locations. She has flitted from conference to conference, each ending just before our poet arrives. It’s meant to allude to the search for the Holy Grail, and the most extreme example in the book that, with all the air travel it involves, this is indeed a Small World - but it’s wholly unbelievable, and surely meant to be so. (OK - let’s go the whole hog of unbelievableness: in one of the episodes in this part one the principal characters in the book is kidnapped for a ransom.)

Part Five opens with one of those conferences with 10,000 participants. Needless to say, present all together among those 10,000 are pretty well all the characters we have met before. It is the climax of the novel in more sense of the word than one. Talk about a dénouement - meaning the unexpected disentangling of all sorts of relationships! But for our young Irish poet, the end of one quest is merely the beginning of another.

The writing is stylish and witty, of course; the references to literary theory both learned and suitably mocking; the plotting, however irritating I found it, is ingenious; but, despite pulling together of many threads at the end, I found the novel over-long and too scrappy to hang together. The man has talent, but the mentality displayed in too much of this novel strikes me as basically juvenile.
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on 17 February 2014
I have read most of Lodges books and enjoyed them. They concentrate on what he knows best life in universities and all the rivalries over work and sex. This one I enjoyed much less Perhaps because the characters were less believable and the situation of flying around the world to conferences appeared indulgent and out of step with the reality of post Thatcher university cut backs.
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on 6 March 2015
Bouyant comedy of manners, courtesy of David Lodge. Professor Zap of America meets Rummidge University in a colourful pastiche of academics and some of the people that bring them together.
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on 13 April 2015
Those of us who enjoyed reading 'how Far Can you go?' and saw it as being far from scurrilous but as being an accurate description of a group of students in a chaplaincy (several friends from my days in that set up wrote 'Have you read… Isn't it just like us, Kevin, Jane and Chris &c.?' and colleagues who are Roman Catholics and have grappled with the contraception issue - all of these found his previous writing so realistic and I wonder how realistic this is as a descriptions of the pretensions of academic life.

The novel blends together well in its structure. Every loose end gets tied up somewhere and the intertwining with various other lives of the main characters is very skilful.

The parody of the opening of Chaucer's Prologue to the Canterbury Tales is as amusing as it seems true; people going to conferences where they endure the penance of hearing papers but are on the look out for sights and sexual adventures. The high number of promiscuous sexual acts strikes one as at least as funny as they are immoral; if one stops moralising for a moment and accepts that they are part of most of our fantasy lives anyway, the joke is on us.

'Obsessive reading is the displaced expression of a desire to see the mother's genitals' condemns me, though I wouldn't have thought that was quite true - obsessive reading is part of my lack of health, certainly.

'In discussing your paper we should not be discussing what you actually said at all but discussing some imperfect memory or subjective interpretation of what you said.' is too true to comment upon except to say that the model of revelation which accepts that we discern the word of the Lord through the interaction of our mental furniture with the words read and preached is the only model which is consonant with incarnation.

The academics trying to pretend to enjoy the pantomime Puss in Boots is true of many observations of the withdrawn, educated people trying to be in touch with the world of the ordinary, one might even. say 'the normal'. Their Freudian interpretation which. sees the Doctor as one who brings back the dragon slain by George to real life, the Robin Hood figure related to the medieval Green the Grail connection of the king, phallic boots and 'Puss' speaking for itself &c. are all probably true in that folklore has these traces of ancient mythology but the need to spell them out shows a lack of real involvement. They are like theologians endlessly discussing the faith without having internalised the message themselves.

The academics live their lives in compartments, flitting jet-propelled from one continent to another devoid of the ability to maintain stable relationships back home and always on the lock out for new adventure, excitement and happiness that has so far eluded them. 'He is the most learned man who knows the most of what is farthest removed from common life and actual observation, that is of least practical utility and least liable to be brought to the test of experience'.

For all their compartmentalising of life, the academics are portrayed as human. The food in the Shelves of the plane will go into the bellies of the passengers and then into the septic tanks of the aircraft's belly. Yet it is a humanity one stage removed from reality, as in the case of Rudyard Parkinson. whose reading is his love and whose writing is his sex. When he reads the great Poets he is in communion with great minds. When he writes reviews, articles and books there has to be an audience or it becomes a selfish act as unsatisfactory as masturbation or coitus interruptus. The one academic supposedly in touch with reality, the Marxist Fulvia, is herself cut of touch. She maintains a high standard of living because it would do no good to sell all, give it away and live amongst the poor. The forces of history will bring about the revolution, regardless of the actions of one bourgeois person, so she may as well continue her rich lifestyle and use it to be able to give funds for the cause - she sounds like many a Clifton churchgoer.

One academic sees through the whole pretense when he arrives in Turkey to give a paper on an obscure topic to a handful of people - thousands of pounds of public money had been expended on bringing him there, secretaries had typed letters, telex machines had chattered, telephone lines hummed, precious fossil fuels had been burned up, all for this and yet he was seeing the desperately poor as he was driven from the airport to his hotel Yet he is caught up in the game. Another academic who discovers real love after years of writing papers about romance literature continually 'misses the boat', literally, as he tries to find the object of his love who eludes him across the continents of the world. And yet one cannot be such a philistine as to call for a halt to university life, maybe because one is also part of the game. Games are very important.
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on 24 June 2015
very interesting book reflecting the social lives of academics, an easy read
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on 29 August 2015
great item, no problems.
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