Small World by David Lodge

This is a lot of fun – ‘picaresque’ is the word that comes to mind, though that has a hint of damnation by faint praise, which wouldn’t be fair. It is a comic novel, with lots of absurd coincidences and fanastical happenings, all in the name of making fun of academia.

The basis of the plot is the merry-go-round of academic conferences on English literature, where semioticians and interpreters of obscure texts meet to present papers, drink and have affairs. There are lots of references to literature – like an absurd fictional festival to celebrate T S Eliot’s ‘The Waste Land’, with people dressed up as characters from the poem, a bit like Bloomsday in Dublin – and lots of chance meetings and misunderstandings, usually in airports.

The story depends on the idea that there is a group of people who live what might once have been described as a ‘jet set’ lifestyle, moving around the world for the sake of it. The novel was written in 1984 so is redolent of another age of air travel, where security was less dominant and you might be able suddenly to switch planes in order to keep a plot line going. Some of the story now would be bogged down in having bags searched and not being allowed to take hand baggage on. But Lodge is very funny writer and I am sure he would find the humour even in the irritants of modern air travel.

A good, light book, with some memorable characters. I actually got it because I am starting work as an academic and I cling to the belief that fiction can tell us more about reality than reality itself, so a book like this would be good preparation. So far, that assumption is proving correct.


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