I am currently rehearsing for a play by Helen Machalias called In Loco Parentis. It is set on campus at university and explores the question of just who is responsible for the welfare of the students. It raises some interesting issues and as I am working with young folk who are still undergoing the graduate experience I am amazed at how much it has changed in the past twenty years. In other ways it hasn't. To wit: people still do the incredibly stupid things that we used to, but now they look to blame someone else for the consequences.
Anyway, it led me to think about the novels I have read set in universities and how they have changed over time. It seems the biggest difference has been in 'elitism' which has now come to be a dirty word. People used to go to universities because they were academically bright. Now they go because everyone can and it stops them having to get a 'real' job for a few more years. In general the attitude towards those attending (both students and lecturers) has become less respectful or mysterious and a lot more antagonistic and commonplace.
I have never read Brideshead Revisited by Evelyn Waugh, or any of Tom Sharpe's varsity novels, although I'm told they're hilarious. I was also told that about Lucky Jim by Kingsley Amis, although I didn't find it to be so. I read it at a fairly young age, but I found it callous, cruel, sexist and with a chip on its shoulder. I feel the same way about Bret Easton Ellis' novels, with an added dose of shiny narcissism and lackustre prose, so I am discounting The Rules of Attraction.
Although James Joyce's Ulysses nearly destroyed me (it is the novel it has taken me the most attempts to read), I actually read A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man at the first try. I'm not a fan of the stream-of-consciousness novel, however, so it's not one of my favourites. Nor is Europa by Tim Parks for the same reason, although there were some light moments buried amid the lengthy paragraphs.
Thomas Hardy's Jude the Obscure is a powerful tragedy but it made me laugh out loud, which cannot be a good thing. Maybe I am lacking in sensitivity, but I felt Thomas trampled all over subtlety, as did Donna Tartt in The Secret History. This is highly praised by many of my friends (whose opinions on such matters I respect) but I failed to see anything above the obvious in this over-long and condescending novel. I do consider J M Coetzee's Disgrace to be a piece of brilliance, but it strays from campus early on, so probably doesn't count as a university novel.
5 Favourite Varsity/Campus Novels:
- Still Life/ The Biographer's Tale - A.S. Byatt: the woman can write! And no, before you ask, I've not yet read Possession. It has been on my bookshelf for years, calling to me for a special occasion - this Christmas perhaps?
- Deaf Sentence - David Lodge: the first novel of his that I have read. I doubt it will be the last.
- Jill - Philip Larkin: his poetry can be a bit annoyng, but his prose style is sublime.
- Gaudy Night - Dorothy L Sayers: life at a women's college in Oxford, struggling for equality in both academic and social spheres - but such fun!
- Degrees for Everyone - Bob Jones: academic satire, which is cutting, acerbic and sadly true.