It’s that time of year. Young people across the world will head to college this week. We tell them they must go, that in their classes they will find the pleasures of the life of the mind, that the university will teach them to think. We do not tell them that the university also can be a source of absurd intrigue, where professors sleep with students and engage in the pettiest of academic battles. For that, we have campus novels.
The campus novel became a literary trend in the middle of the last century. As the experience of an undergraduate study became available to the middle class, it became a natural setting for bourgeois intrigue. Writers, it seems soon, began to overdo it. “If novels about college life were taxable, we could soon afford another war,” mused an evidently disgruntled critic for the Los Angeles Times in 1963.
The genre is indeed plentiful. Here are a few of the best to bring with you as you return to campus this fall.
The Secret History by Donna Tartt
If you have not heard of this literary-bestseller of a murder mystery, where exactly have you been living? Tartt’s debut novel, published in 1992, follows a sextet of student friends attending a small Vermont liberal arts college. The group is tight-knight, pretentious and obsessed with ancient Greeks. But one friend soon begins to turn on the others, and soon it is clear to them: Bunny Corcoran must be dealt with. But his death only plunges his friends into more problems.
Pictures from an Institution by Randall Jarrell
Jarrell, a poet much less famous than his talent deserved, wrote this satirical novel after spending time teaching at Sarah Lawrence College. The book is especially celebrated for its portrait of the indelicate writing teacher named Gertrude Johnson, a visiting novelist who “spirit shone through her body as if the body were an old pane of glass” and who is prone to insulting people to their faces. Jarrell based the character on his friend Mary McCarthy.
On Beauty by Zadie Smith
Set at a university very much like Harvard but called Wellington College, Smith’s novel follows a black British family who has settled in America. The book pokes light fun at the love American campuses have for identity and progressive politics without quite invalidating the genuine feelings of those making the arguments. Smith famously gave herself a cameo as a “feckless” visiting novelist, as though she wanted to indicate, in a generous spirit, that she was also poking fun at herself.
Lucky Jim by Kingsley Amis
The story of Jim Dixon, who is dubious about having fallen into his work as a professor of medievalism, already has been the subject of worldwide acclaim. Amis’s comic novel is frequently compared to the best of PG Wodehouse. Dixon hates his superior and despises the kind of weekend socializing required in small academic settings and is the sort of person who reflects, famously, that “there was no end to the ways in which nice things are nicer than nasty ones”. Too right.
Possession: A Romance by AS Byatt
The notion that scholarly work might have its own intrigue and romance is very difficult for a novelist to illustrate. Hours spent gently sorting through old papers in archives don’t provide much inherent drama. Yet Byatt figured out a way to get the addictive, dizzying spell of research across in this exceptionally romantic book. It follows a graduate student and a feminist professor who discover that two obscure poets, their mutual obsessions, once actually met – and had a secret affair.
The Marriage Plot by Jeffrey Eugenides
When the first excerpt from this novel ran in the New Yorker in 2010, it was the sort of thing that every bookish person in New York went around asking each other: “Did you read this yet?” Come for Eugenides’s deconstruction of the traditional romantic plot that ends with a wedding; stay for the way Madeleine and her suitor talk about their mutual obsession with the theories of Roland Barthes.
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April 7, 2018 at 08:44PM