Jogging in the woods at Bellagio

Frank Kermode

  • Small World by David Lodge
    Secker, 339 pp, £8.95, March 1984, ISBN 0 436 25663 0

Small World is in the author’s words ‘a kind of sequel’ to Changing Places, published nine years ago. The place-changers, Zapp and Swallow, are again central characters; the dreadful Ringbaum, whose competitiveness enabled him to win a famous game of Humiliation, though at the cost of his job, now turns up again in even more bizarre predicaments, urging his wife to have sex under blankets in a jumbo jet so that he can apply for membership of ‘an exclusive fraternity of men who have achieved sexual congress while airborne’, and which he hopes will allow sexual congress with wives to count. There are also some plot reminders of the older book, but nothing essential. You might think Mr Lodge would have lost some of his high spirits over the years, and the novel which came between these two, the excellent How far can you go?, was sad as well as funny. But although the new book does give one an odd sense that the author who is so fertile in farce has a rather sombre double, a Catholic moralist who is patient rather than amused, it can confidently be said that Small World is the most brilliant and also the funniest he has written.

It is, of course, a campus novel, but the campus has been globalised. Lodge avers, through Zapp, that the big-time academics have now no need of a local habitation: they spend their time jetting between California, Honolulu, Tokyo, New York, Jerusalem, Bellagio and, somewhat to their dismay, Rummidge, England, expenses paid, and with a virtual guarantee that everybody will get laid and sometimes very exotically.

The story begins, perhaps unfortunately, at Rummidge, least glamorous of locales, and for a while it seems we are in for a quite ordinary campus novel. However, we soon discover that the title page is correct in calling it ‘an academic romance’, and an epigraph from Hawthorne adds that authors of romances may ‘claim a certain latitude, both as to ... fashion and material’, which would not be permitted to anyone professing to write a novel. And, with a touch of the professor, Lodge also directs our attention to Patricia Parker’s admirable book Inescapable Romance. For in addition to being a romance, this novel is ‘a tour of the romances’, as Parker said of The Faerie Queene. Particular attention is paid to two belated specimens of the genre, ‘The Eve of St Agnes’ and The Waste Land. Another epigraph is from Joyce: ‘Hush! Caution! Echoland!’

If all this sounds too solemn, we should reflect that Hawthorne also said romance might careen on the verge of absurdity. Among these academics, who tend to equate sexual potency with critical creativity, there is a top man called Arthur Kingfisher, impotent despite the administrations of his Korean mistress until redeemed by young, naive Celtic virgin Persse, our hero, who goes to the MLA and asks the right question. There are twins, a true and a false Florimell (although one is called Angelica), who in extreme youth had been abandoned in a KLM toilet. They have birthmarks like inverted commas, one on the left thigh and one on the right, to show they are citations. The plot is a system of Ariostan entrelacements, mostly effected by aeroplanes and moving at high speed on fuel derived from Jessie Weston as well as Wagner and Patricia Parker.

There is a good deal of useful professional talk, as if the object were to instruct as well as delight. If you are unsure about Jakobson’s views on the arbitrariness of the signifier, you will find explanations. Zapp gives a ludicrous lecture on the plaisir du texte. The French scholar Tardieu treats himself as a narrato-logical function. Somebody who doesn’t turn up (Zapp, actually: he has been kidnapped jogging in the woods at Bellagio) is said to be ‘the subject of a narrative function as yet unexplained’, and other characters are divided into Opponents and Helpers. But all this déformation professionelle is in the book rather than in its author, and in any case the fornication to which it inevitably seems to give rise amuses him more.

Some of the characters – a particularly appalling Oxford English don, for example – lead a double life, partly Arthurian and partly, one suspects, drawn from the life. There is also a Turkish lecturer deep in Hazlitt, a Japanese translator and his English original, the sexually versatile Italian professoressa Fulvia Morgana and her threesome-loving husband. The action takes place all over the world and is full of echoes, not all of them as obvious as the scene in Zurich where people are addressed as Stetson and men carry currants in their pockets. Persse wanders about like a chivalrous knight, seeking less a Grail than a girl. From time to time he finds himself in the chapel at Heathrow, the centre of the place which is a natural centre of the action. Perhaps he should retreat to Ireland and safety? A priest offers him assistance from the Our Lady of Knock Fund for Reverse Emigration. But he continues his quest.

There are a great many ingenious plots here interlaced, and the book in general supports the learned opinion of Angelica, which is that romance avoids the fate of ‘classic’ narrative – namely, the eventual resolution of tension in climax or discharge – for romance

has not one climax but many, the pleasure of this text comes and comes and comes again. No sooner has one mystery been solved than another is raised; no sooner has one adventure been concluded than another begins. The narrative questions open and close, open and close, like the contraction of the vaginal muscles in intercourse, and this process is in principle endless. The greatest and most characteristic romances are often unfinished ... Romance is multiple orgasm.

Lodge’s book is indescribably various in its aspirations towards this ideal type, and Persse is setting off on another quest when the end comes. Sexual, of course: but then romance is, as Persse learns before getting himself invaginated for the first time, ‘a supremely invaginated form of narrative’. And to do it well calls for high imaginative skills, which this book copiously demonstrates.