University life: which works of fiction are most telling?

John Sutherland, Sarah Churchwell and others pick books that capture truths about the sector

November 20, 2014

It has long been the practice of disgruntled academics with a literary bent to vent their frustrations by writing a campus novel, and their colleagues have been devouring the often comic results for at least 60 years.

But for those few who have not yet got beyond Lucky Jim, we wanted to solicit views on which were the most striking examples. And who better to ask than five academics in English literature?

Former Wellesley College and Cornell University lecturer Vladimir Nabokov is cited twice, for two different books, while ex-University of Sydney, University of Cambridge and Wolverhampton Polytechnic academic Howard Jacobson also figures prominently.

But universities are made up of students as well as academics, and two contributors cite novels that recall the writer’s time as an undergraduate. Not that they are necessarily any good. As John Sutherland suggests, sometimes a novel is compelling for what it represents rather than for any proximity to great literature.

But several of the accounts we present suggest that the best campus novels do indeed achieve that proximity and bear a profundity that far transcends the genre’s reputation for jaded satire.

Thomas Hughes writing at desk

Tom Brown at Oxford

by Thomas Hughes (1861)

Does it matter that all these highly trained minds, who form our opinions day in and day out, squeezed through the same tiny educational aperture?

What dominates the narrative is Oxford: a moral assembly line that can take any portion of the haphazardly ingested youth of England and turn out Tom Browns

Yes, whatever the joke says, I was certainly there and I can remember it well. The 1960s, that is. One of the texts of the decade, when England swung like a pendulum do (you probably don’t remember the Roger Miller song), was Colin Wilson’s The Outsider. Among other things, hairy Wilson decreed that you could get all the higher education you needed with a British Museum reader’s ticket, an Aran sweater, a sleeping bag, Nietzsche and a soft patch of Hampstead Heath.

His paideuma was too outside for many, even in the 1960s. But Hampstead Heath wasn’t the only domicile on offer to the young hipster with a thirst for knowledge. You could, post-Robbins, sign up for Albert Sloman’s quartier latin (“Alphaville”, the less respectful students called it, in a wry allusion to Jean-Luc Godard’s dystopian film) in Wivenhoe Park, Essex. Or follow the “new maps of learning”, laid down by David Daiches and Asa Briggs at Sussex. Or breathe inspiration from the new creative options at the University of East Anglia.

All universities – not just The Open University – were open. Moulds had been broken; higher education was no longer mouldy. But British higher education is like silly putty. However you reshape it, the stuff just imperceptibly returns to its original, immutable, shape.

A scenario. David Cameron comes on the Today programme (current editor: Jamie Angus) to vigorously defend the economic policies of George Osborne. They’re putting the country right. “No they’re not,” Ed Miliband and Ed Balls insist, a couple of clips later. Ultimately, we can’t be sure, opines Nick Robinson, playing both sides as usual.

On World at One, Martha Kearney returns to the fray. William Hague strikes in for plan Osborne. That afternoon, Anne McElvoy writes a rush-job column for the Standard. Judicious, as ever.

On Channel 4 News, Cathy Newman gives Jacob Rees-Mogg a drubbing. He remains imperturbably Jacob. Gary Gibbon comments wryly from College Green. On Newsnight (current editor: Ian Katz), Osborne continues to defend himself under the gentle probings of Evan Davis. Michael Crick follows with a jesting comment or two.

Next morning, Rachel Sylvester delivers her verdict in The Times, and David Aaronovitch offers a sardonic sidebar. In The Guardian, the two radical attack dogs, Owen Jones and John Harris, snarl and snap. Patrick Wintour offers more measured critique on page three. Boris Johnson bellows eloquently in the Telegraph. Just another 24-hour news cycle.

What the above 21 names have in common is that all were educated at the University of Oxford – and all did humanities or “soft” social science subjects (about half of them choosing philosophy, politics and economics, the degree of the upper classes). Does it matter that all these highly trained minds, who form our opinions day in and day out, squeezed through the same tiny educational aperture? Might there not be a certain “insiderness”? A little flank-rubbing among the Oxonian herd? In a recent combative review essay in the New Statesman, Mark Damazer, master of St Peter’s College, Oxford, defends the great Oxford machine. True, he says: of the 20,000 would-be undergraduates who apply every year, only 20 per cent are accepted. But that’s the luck of the draw. If you want to be exclusive you’ve got to exclude.

Now we turn, belatedly, to Thomas Hughes’ Tom Brown at Oxford (1861). It is a sequel to the best-selling Tom Brown’s School Days. As literature, it’s beyond dire. Not even George MacDonald Fraser could breathe life into it. But with the silly putty thesis in mind, it’s instructive.

Tom, a squire’s son, is “upper middle class”. He has been shaped, but not “completed”, by Dr Arnold at Rugby. The first thing Tom does, in chapter one, is matriculate at his college, St Ambrose’s: “Here [the students] went through the usual forms of subscribing to the articles, and otherwise testifying their loyalty to the established order of things, without much thought perhaps, but in very good faith nevertheless.”

Those articles, of course, were the 39 articles of the Church of England (no Catholics, Jews or Nonconformists, thank you). Tom’s Oxford is founded on subscription and ideological affirmation to “the established order of things”.

Hughes’ plot is feeble. Should our hero throw in his lot with the fast set, the hearties or the swots? He finally opts for the Christian socialism of virtuous classmate Hardy, and declines to seduce the conveniently seducible barmaid.

What dominates the narrative is Oxford: a moral assembly line that can take any portion of the haphazardly ingested youth of England and turn out Tom Browns: liberal, unostentatiously well-educated, above all, “decent”. The best of English. Oxford educates – but more importantly, it “forms” character.

But it’s all different now. Isn’t it? Just ask – well, any of the above.

John Sutherland is emeritus Lord Northcliffe professor of modern English literature at University College London.

Vladimir Nabokov portrait

Pale Fire

by Vladimir Nabokov (1962)

Academics are at once the novel’s target and its most devoted followers. Careers have been made on only slightly less fantastic work

Delirious, funny and dizzying, it is at the same time a hoax and a satire, inviting us to participate in the mania it sends up

If you are a literary scholar, reading Pale Fire is part delight, part mortification. Ostensibly an annotated edition of a 999-line poem in heroic couplets by the late John Shade, a poet-scholar at Wordsmith College in New Wye, Appalachia, Pale Fire hits all too close to home.

Within a few pages we realise that the editor of the book, Charles Kinbote, is off his rocker. He proceeds to hijack Shade’s work with his scholarly apparatus: a mass of delusional footnotes that dwarf the original poem and smother it with Kinbote’s own story. Supposedly the exiled king of the noble, beleaguered country of Zembla (just north of Russia), Kinbote claims to have parachuted into the US and taken a literature professorship at Wordsmith, where he befriended/stalked Shade until the poet’s bizarre death.

On the surface, Nabokov is not so much interested in detailing the college setting in Pale Fire, à la David Lodge, as he is in building a multilayered edifice of artifice that mocks the parasitic nature of criticism. But there is a campus novel submerged in the portraits of the idiosyncratic Wordsmith faculty, such as the scene in the faculty lounge in which one Professor Pardon (a historian, of course) threatens to blow Kinbote’s cover, suggesting that he is really the insane “American scholar of Russian descent”, V. Botkin, who lurks in Kinbote’s notes. The fact that the rest of the academic community, including two trustees and the college president, seem to play along with this madman’s charade tells us what Nabokov thinks of the insular world of academia.

Delirious, funny and dizzying, Pale Fire is at the same time a hoax and a satire, inviting us to participate in the mania that it sends up. The physical act of reading the book, with its vertiginous cross-referencing, onomastics, acrostics and other paranoid wordplay, encourages us to descend down the rabbit hole with Kinbote and his hilariously off-base readings. Academics are at once the novel’s target and its most devoted followers. Careers have been made on only slightly less fantastic work.

As if Pale Fire were not delightful enough (the index alone is a thing of pathological wonder), there is an almost equally amusing discussion around the novel. Brilliant, zany scholars, even more zealously than Nabokov’s own “Shadeans”, debate the novel’s minutiae and spin metacritical theories about it in a slew of books, blogs and venues such as the Nabokov Online Journal and discussion forum NABOKV-L.

Pale Fire has a life of its own: Shade’s poem has been published as a free-standing work, the merits of which have been debated by eminent poetry scholars, and Nabokov’s novel even apparently has its own Facebook account. If there are any would-be Kinbotes out there, Nabokov’s last, unfinished novel, The Original of Laura, posthumously published in 2009 as 138 handwritten 3in x 5in notecards, remains to be annotated/colonised. “For better or for worse,” as Kinbote remarks, “it is the commentator who has the last word.”

Laura Frost is associate professor of literary studies at The New School for Liberal Arts in New York City.

Linda Grant portrait

Upstairs at the Party

by Linda Grant (2014)

The government paid us to spend three years being students, which meant, in those days, a way of life suited to Renaissance philosopher-kings

The bookish only child who positively bursts into her twenties on a giddy surge of intellectual self-determination could have been me

For years I wanted a campus novel that spoke to me. I wanted one that wasn’t shot through with the wearisome misogyny of Kingsley Amis, or the elitist exoticism of Donna Tartt. As a student at the University of East Anglia, I had an on-site, trailblazing campus novelist, Malcolm Bradbury, but his Watermouth felt far more like Brighton than Norwich. Howard Jacobson – a family friend – had immortalised my late father (as well as one of his wives and classic cars) in one of his novels in the early 1980s, but even that didn’t speak to me.

I came across Linda Grant’s writing only this summer and it gripped me instantly. The bookish only child depicted in her latest novel, Upstairs at the Party, who positively bursts into her twenties on a giddy surge of intellectual self-determination, could have been me as much as it is surely Grant. This is despite the fact that while I was at UEA in the late 1980s, Grant and her protagonist, Adele, were undergraduates at the University of York in the early 1970s.

The adult Adele writes of York’s founders that “their plan was to defeat ideology with a quiet, humane liberalism of human rights, equality and a spirit of public service […] The freedom of the university was the plate on which our lives had been handed to us. Real freedoms, for the administration had decided it would not act in loco parentis. There were no rules.”

That ethos remained alive even by the time I went to York’s sister plate-glass institution in the twilight of the Thatcher era and the dying days of student grants. We came to love grey concrete architecture, which we took to be the audacious incarnation of the similar dreams and ambitions of UEA’s founders. The extraordinary buildings contrasted with the former golf course that surrounded them, punctuated by a large, artificial lake (much like York, again, except that ours was a “broad” because this was East Anglia, after all).

Grant captures how the university as a cultural phenomenon has evolved and how we often go back – in our imaginations or in actual fact – but how we can never really go back. Visiting UEA now, I am a ghost, treading previously familiar paths and knowing that, somewhere under the sediment left by subsequent generations of students, teachers and builders, lies that part of me that the university formed and that part of the university that I formed.

This language of the melancholic revenant is one Grant adopts when Adele, now an adult, returns to her alma mater and viscerally senses how so much of the optimism of the 1970s has faded. Grant’s writing is deeply moving: “I had the vertiginous sense of time-travelling, but there was something lost and cold and alone about our party in late middle age walking in our own footsteps. Something was a dream, now or then. The memory of our young selves burned with an intensity we had not felt for many decades. We were compromised people in so many ways and were the accretion of our compromises. The founding spirits had not warned us that this was who we would become.”

The novel examines, through Adele’s eyes, the benign neglect of a liberal university at a time when “the government paid us to spend three years being students, which meant, in those days, a way of life suited to Renaissance philosopher-kings, until we were turfed out blinking and unprotected like baby koalas ejected from the womb on to the alien, leafless world of an Antarctic ice floe”.

It’s this laissez-faire ethos which comes to scar Adele and her peers irrevocably – but I won’t say how for fear of spoiling any would-be readers’ enjoyment of Grant’s extraordinarily redolent and exquisitely written novel.

Emma Rees is senior lecturer in English literature at the University of Chester.

Vladimir Nabokov portrait


by Vladimir Nabokov (1957)

Nabokov heaps acidic contempt upon Pnin’s colleagues - adding a few passing swipes at absurd undergraduates, like a lion lazily shredding gazelles

The author’s satirical mockery, the famous ‘laughter from Montreux’, fuses here with lament, longing and despair

While I’d like to give an honourable mention to The Groves of Academe (1951) by fellow American woman Mary McCarthy (not least because many credit it with being the first modern campus novel), there is no doubt that my favourite campus novel by far is Vladimir Nabokov’s Pnin.

Based on Nabokov’s experiences teaching at Cornell, the book tells the poignant tale of Russian émigré Timofey Pnin’s failed attempts to adapt to life at an American university. Bumbling, decent and pathetic, Pnin is not an anti-hero, but an unhero, a modern little Quixote whose quest to find a home can only ever be frustrated. Exposed to constant ridicule for his comic foibles, particularly his struggles with English, Pnin clings to his stubborn love of his lost language, and the lost motherland it symbolises.

What makes Pnin so remarkable is that Nabokov’s satirical mockery, the famous “laughter from Montreux”, fuses here with lament, longing and despair. (The only other novel I know that manages to be simultaneously satirical and elegiac is The Great Gatsby.) Nabokov heaps acidic contempt upon Pnin’s colleagues – adding a few passing swipes at absurd undergraduates, like a lion lazily shredding gazelles – while gradually ensuring that our compassion for Pnin transmutes into sympathy and even to a surprised admiration.

The campus novel usually pokes fun at the academic romance of devotion to the life of the mind, exposing the venality and pettiness beneath the lofty claims to intellectual high-mindedness. But Nabokov neither jeers at academic isolation nor romanticises it. Instead, the great chess player’s move in Pnin is to make his humble pawn a symbol of spiritual exile and deracination, of our basic need for fellowship or even simple affiliation. Presented with an American cartoon, which is supposed to be funny, Pnin can see only the “impossible isolation” that subsidises the joke and bursts into tears. The campus comedy is turned inside out: instead of chafing academics for the trite reason that they fight over allegedly trivial matters, Nabokov suggests that the campus represents what we all want: sanctuary, belonging, homecoming. Instead of ridiculing academics’ soi-disant peculiarities, Nabokov generates his comedy from their universality.

Pnin’s helpless decency in the face of heartlessness leads the reader to believe that something has to give: either Pnin’s good intentions, or his ability to survive. Instead, Nabokov quite uncharacteristically sets Pnin free into a new romance with the American road. Ultimately, Pnin’s tale of exile, estrangement and escape becomes not a story of academics squabbling in ivory towers, but a story about the human condition, how we bear grief, isolation, the world’s assault upon our ideals and dreams: how beneath our manifest absurdity, there might be some lingering dignity after all.

Sarah Churchwell is professor of American literature and public understanding of the humanities at the University of East Anglia.

Howard Jacobson portrait

Coming from behind

by Howard Jacobson (1983)

The last straw for Goldberg is Wrottesley’s decision to twin itself with the local football club and share not just its facilities but its hopeless take on life

It may have been published 30 years ago, but it still has the power to shock us into moments of recognition

What can a university have in common with a football club, someone asks in Howard Jacobson’s campus novel, Coming from Behind (1983). The response is: “We are all showmen together. Furthermore we are all playing to empty houses.”

This novel may have been published 30 years ago, but it still has the power to shock us into moments of recognition. Will it ever come to this, as we scrabble with increasing desperation for students and sponsorship?

Jacobson’s novel pits Cambridge against Wrottesley Polytechnic in the troubled inner life of its Jewish hero Sefton Goldberg, as he battles his way through every kind of assault on his security and self-esteem, nursing memories of better times and higher aspirations. Of course, the danger with fictional representations of university life is that they can date as quickly as platform heels or mullet hairstyles – but, like any fashion trend, if you wait long enough they come round again.

Resistance to change has always been a feature of academic life. First it was computers, modules, semesters and emails. Then it was virtual learning environments, podcasts and online marking – not to mention all the reconfigurations of departments into schools, and schools into faculties. Jacobson’s novel captures all of this in his Department of Twentieth-Century Studies, which “had once been Humanities and before that Arts and before that Liberal Studies and before that English and History”. The last straw for Goldberg is Wrottesley’s decision to twin itself with the local football club and share not just its facilities but also its hopeless take on life.

Cambridge may have been Sefton’s glorious past and dreamed-of future (as he applies for a fellowship at Holy Christ Hall), but it is by no means exempt from Jacobson’s satirical gaze. At Cambridge, Sefton recalls, embarrassment reigned, along with an alien culture of medievalism, avoided eye-contact, silent speech, anxiety, reticence and pain. Even his college’s porter is skilled in inflicting shame and self-doubt as he checks him in (“all I’ve got here is a Goldblatt”). For Jacobson, universities are essentially places where bruised, hypersensitive egos survive on uneasy compromises, whether through guarded friendships or united resistance against common enemies.

Sefton’s Wrottesley colleagues are as mad as anyone from Lucky Jim, and all, in their own way, preserve some little piece of eccentricity from the pressure to conform. Those who embrace the modern world are rarely treated sympathetically in university novels, but nor are those who take their teaching too seriously. As Sefton’s students sit “passive and suspicious in orderly rows, their pens held uncertainly in tattooed fingers”, he tricks them into believing that the greatest English novelists were Edward Bulwer-Lytton and Mrs Henry Wood.

The details may have changed (there was no research excellence framework or impact agenda back in 1983), but Jacobson captures all the helplessness and secrecy of high-minded disengagement from brutal values. In a telling image of the kind of eccentric academic behaviour no longer tolerated, Sefton is shown using his filing cabinet to store “used copies of the Times Higher Education Supplement” along with job advertisements and student essays that might be plagiarised – only he can’t make up his mind. No transformational change agenda for him just yet.

Valerie Sanders is professor of English and director of the graduate school at the University of Hull.

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