Catcher of the wry

March 29, 1996

American campus chronicler Alison Lurie talks to Tim Cornwell. The first tale in Alison Lurie's last book, a volume of short stories, Women and Ghosts, features a professor named Gregor Spiegelman. Greg is not only chairman of his department at Corinth University; he is one of the world's experts on Balkan economic history, runs two miles a day, and has the suave style of one of "those European film stars of the thirties".

He is also the kind of man who easily inflicts damage on a woman in a relationship, making her feel sick and small. The ghost of his beaten down ex-wife - actually she is not dead - appears sitting on the kitchen floor, wedged between the refrigerator and the wall, a hole where Greg has put her.

"Like a lot of guys his age," observes his new fiance, who is finally warned off by the apparition, "he believed that no matter how much education they got most women never became rational beings, and their heads were essentially full of unconnected lightweight ideas, like those little white Styrofoam bubbles they pack stereo equipment in."

"This is a phenomenon of university life," explains Lurie, from her home in Key West, a place she describes as a continually changing writers' colony. "The professor who pushes women around." There are occupational hazards to being a professor, she explains, "especially a male professor, because every day people listen to you for an hour without stopping. You have to have a strong moral character not to get your head swollen up."

It is a disease that Lurie does not suffer from while teaching writing at Cornell University, says her graduate assistant, Nina Revoyr. "She doesn't put herself and her opinions above everyone else." Lurie "would never dream of telling someone in workshops that their opinion is stupid". Her style is to observe. She writes about characters as if she were watching, rather than creating them.

British writers often support themselves through journalism; many American writers choose to teach part time. Some, like Philip Roth, move into teaching and out of it. Often they end up writing about it. Lurie, who won a Pulitzer Prize in 1985 for her novel Foreign Affairs, about a group of North Americans at large in Europe, now teaches half time at Cornell, where she first came on board as an English professor in 1968. "When I am teaching I don't write anything but articles and reviews," she says. "I get so frustrated." But from mid-December to mid-August she is free to write every day. She is the author of eight novels, as well as two nonfiction books and three children's books. Inevitably, as a chronicler of campus life, she invites comparisons with her English counterparts David Lodge and Malcolm Bradbury. Lurie graduated from Radcliffe College with a BA in English in 1947; as well as homes in Key West and near Cornell, she has a London flat.

The fictional Corinth, which serves as a location and a point of reference for several of her books, bears more than a passing resemblance to Cornell in Ithaca, New York. They are both big universities in the northern United States - large enough to have many characters living separate lives.

The Cornell writing programme is an elite affair. Hundreds of aspiring writers apply for just four places on the graduate fiction course, where everything is paid for; tuition fees are waived and teaching work provided. It has a high success rate in producing published authors. It is also fairly traditional.

Lurie and her colleagues are not experimental writers, and there are other schools that strive to be closer to the cutting edge. "We would take writers doing creative non-fiction," says Lurie. "But we wouldn't take someone writing a novel within which the only vowel is 'a'".

Revoyr's book, The Necessary Hunger, says Lurie, was a "wonderful" work by a Japanese-American lesbian based on her life as the star of a high school women's basketball team. It will be published by Simon and Schuster next year. But, Lurie says, her students include three men who have written equally good books - but "they were not ethnic, not gay, and their subject was not as exotic and they still have not found publishers. It is difficult for students, who may have written a wonderful manuscript, but if they are pink and male it is not as easy for them to get published as if they were brown and female."

"Many people are panicked by political correctness," Lurie says. But her answer is to look back to the 1930s, when writers like F. Scott Fitzgerald were suddenly unfashionable because they did not deal with working-class people and their suffering in the recession. "Switches like this are hard on writers," she says. "Poor Fitzgerald suffered because critics came down on him as frivolous and selfish and shallow. Suddenly people were reading The Grapes of Wrath instead of The Great Gatsby."

This autumn, she is preparing a course called "the child in literature", on books written for adults which have prominent child characters in them, and about how fiction and poetry deal with childhood and the idea of childhood. Lurie began writing as a child; she was not much good at other childish things, likerunning or riding a bike, and found solace in the magical realism of a child's mind that stillinforms her writing.

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