'When I look around at my colleagues these days. what do I see? They‘re all screwing their students. or each other. like crazy. marriages are breaking up faster than you can count. and yet nobody seems to be happy.‘
No. not David Lodge's observation. but that of American professor. Morris Zapp — just one of the liberated Eng Lit conference-goers in Lodge's seventies' farce ‘Small World'.
Professor Zapp and his friends have now been translated into film for a six part adaptation of the novel for Granada TV. starting at 9.30pm on Sunday January 24th. But with AIDS having taken the zeal out of the most confirmed devotees of ‘gross moral turpitudc'. didn‘t Lodge feel a little uneasy at all that History man-style prorniscuity infiltrating our living-rooms‘.’
‘I lad I sat down and written the book today. it would have been very different in that respect'. admits the novelist and academic over a hotel lunch in London. ‘AIDS is a topic which comes into any discussion about drama or film these days. but ofcourse the novel is set in 1979 and is therefore a pre-AIDS story. The solution. I think. was not so much to tie it specifically to that year. which would produce all sorts of problems in art direction. but to set it in a kind of comic universe ofits own. It's in the recent past. so there is nothing up to date about the styles— It‘s a question of whether you‘re trying to evoke a very realistic. sociologically accurate picture oftoday. in which case you couldn't avoid AIDS. or whether you’re sidestepping. by using an obvious fictional realm.‘
Such side-stepping was in any case vital if the series was to capture something of the novel‘s parody of literary Romance. ‘Small World‘ is driven not by a linear plot. but by the circular coincidences and path—crossing of a group of academics globe-trotting in search of the ultimate in conference experiences — cerebral and carnal. ()ur heroes. like the knights of old. fall into both adventures and love (or its modern equivalent) with increasing regularity. while the youngest and most innocent. Irishman. Persse McGarrigle. follows his own quest for the wondrous ‘grail' ofone bespectacled but beautiful. Angelica.
It was this loose analogy with Romance that enabled Lodge to write the book in the first place. ‘I couldn‘t start writing till I had that structure. I had been to conferences in the late seventies and began to feel interested in them as a cultural phenomenon worth writing about. Apart from anything else. it said something about the way the world had shrunk . . . lcould think ofa number of ideas. but I couldn‘t see how to put them together. Then I went to see the film ‘Excalibur‘ about the grail legend and I started thinking about all kinds of romance. and the way Eliot used the Grail as a motifin The Waste Land. . .The idea of a quest and ofgoing out into
the world seemed to fit. with Persse Linitiated by two older campaigners. 8 The List 22 Jan — 4 Feb 1988
One ofa spate of ‘academic‘ novels. David Lodge‘s Small World has now become one of a spate of ‘academic‘ films. He met Stephanie Billen.
"4, O t
and falling in love with some elusive heroine.‘
Smallish. dark. and confessing to a modicum ofdeafness. there is nothing ﬂashy about David Lodge. He talks with quiet authority but no arrogance. Yet his is no mean achievement. As well as sustaining academic posts in California. East Anglia. and for the last twenty years. at the University of Birmingham. the 52 year old author has has written works of literary criticism as well as more than half a dozen successful novels. from the army based ‘Ginger. You‘re Barmy‘ about National Service. to ‘How Far (‘an You Go‘. about the affect of Catholicism on young couples in the fifties and sixties.
Success has left him with no illusions and certainly no feeling that writing a novel is any easier for him now than it ever was. Clearly no prima donna when it came to working with the Granada team. he respects the talent involved.
He is pleased that so much direct literary allusion should have survived on the screen. through Robert Chetwyn‘s imaginative direction. ‘It was written for people who didn‘t have to know the literature and the TV series has used all sorts of visual signals to evoke scenes like the Eve of St Agnes with its medieval atmosphere.
Actually making the series. after the rights were sold at the end of 1984. was ‘rather like the D-Day preparations. with an army of people moving round Britain and other parts ofthe world. from April to October ofthe following year. For the people who were involved in
' ’ /1-.
that. it was almost like a way oflife.‘ But whether the novel bears any relation to real-life conference-going is a different matter. ‘It is a farcically heightened version of what goes on‘. explains Lodge. "There certainly is a sort ofacademic jetset. largely American and not just for English Literature. These people form a kind ofsub-culture oftheir own. flying round the world for festivals and conferences. with an element of tourism and party-ism thrown in. Of course it is much more fun as I describe it than it really is.‘ he admits. But does everyone really. . . ‘.’ ‘Well. it depends on the ambience ofthe conference how much of that goes on. A lot of academics say to me: ‘I‘ve never been to these exciting conferences you describe. while others say it is a recognisable version. To some extent the sex element was explored to pursue the comparison with romance.‘
Lodge also points out that the situation has changed academically since the university cuts of the eighties. ‘As I say. it was set in 1979. the year Thatcher was elected. and the last of the ‘good old days‘ as far as Universities were concerned. There is a hedonistic. almost nostalgic feel about it all now. I‘ve gone to fewer conferences in recent years. British academic life has been devastated.‘ September. Lodge retired from university life. a break which has not felt too strange. since he is still writing criticism and still considers himselfvery much part of the academic world.
To the outside world at least his creativity seems undiminished. He is no Ayckbourne. taking as long as a
Stephen Moore asiProt. Phillip Swallow
year or more to write a novel. but so far. the ‘term off' has enabled him to finish. his latest work. again partly set in the Midlands campus and town of Rumrnidge. ‘It is partly about industry. which is a subject I haven't addressed before. I suppose it stands to the Victorian industrial novel as ‘Small World’ stands to romance ."
Lodge has also written a play. "The Pressure (‘ooker‘. which could be staged in the West End this year. ‘It is about the relations between professional writers in a course on creative writing. It is all about competitive people. rather articulate. being pushed together in a single place and asked to be creative.‘ Lodge taught creative writing in America and at the
University of East Anglia. so had plenty ofexperience to build on. but he admits there are problems about such inspirations. ‘You have to do it.‘ he sighs. ‘You can‘t make the whole thing up out of your head. but it is a problem for all novelists.‘ Skillfully disguisng real people doesn‘t seem to alleviate the worry. ‘I usually have a few sleepless nights worring about whether something I have written could lead people to think that I had written about them.‘
The one person you would expect to feel safe is David Lodge himself. ‘()ut of the Shelter‘. his novel describing childhood in wartime England. was seen to be autobiographical and many of his subjects would seem to reflect his own life-story. but Lodge is quick to point out that as self-revelation. his novels are no more reliable than (‘Iive James‘ ‘Iinreliablc Memoirs'. ‘1 never portray myself. but of course I use my own experience and my own thoughts and feelings. You explore your own fantasy life and things that occur to you . . . things you would disown. but can use in fiction . . . ‘ Lodge's voice begins to tail off. ‘Such as'.’.' I venture. ‘Well. there‘s a bit of me in Philip Swallow and in Zapp. I expressed a number of irritations with British life through Zapp in ‘(‘hanging Places' — ‘ Lodge interrupts himself: ‘But I don't think I want to answer that; it is a secret that the novelist doesn't want to give away. I like to write fiction that is persuasive and convincing. and in some ways it is always a tribute when people are sure that it is autobiography. In reality. I like to keep the seams intact . . .‘
We turn to safer areas. but time is running out and Lodge is anxious not to be late for ‘A Small Family Business‘. the play he is seeing at the National Theatre that afternoon. The interview is over. yet the quietly spoken novelist looks as if he has something else to say. He hesitates. then says it anyway. ‘By the way. I make a brief I Iitchcockian appearance on the campus set in the TV series. They wanted someone to stand there looking at the noticeboard in the corridor— I stand there for a few moments as as the main characters come up. . .' He looks apologetic. as if he might have sleepless nights about that too.
Small World begins on Sun. 24 Jan. STV a! 9.30pm. The novel is available in Penguin.