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David Lodge - Small World

BOOK: David Lodge - Small World
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David Lodge - Small World

Author’s Note

LIKE Changing Places, to which it is a kind of sequel, Small World resembles what is sometimes called the real world, without corresponding exactly to it, and is peopled by figments of the imagination. Rummidge is not Birmingham, though it owes something to popular prejudices about that city. There really is an underground chapel at Heathrow and a James Joyce Pub in Zurich, but no universities in Limerick or Darlington; nor, as far as I know, was there ever a British Council representative resident in Genoa. The MLA Convention of 1979 did not take place in New York, though I have drawn on the programme for the 1978 one, which did. And so on.

Special thanks for information received (not to mention many other favours) are due to Donald and Margot Fanger and Susumu Takagi. Most of the books from which I have derived hints, ideas and inspiration for this one are mentioned in the text, but I should acknowledge a debt to two which are not: Inescapable Romance: Studies in the Poetics of a Mode by Patricia A. Parker (Princeton University Press, 1979) and Airport International by Brian Moynahan (Pan Books, 1978).

Prologue

WHEN April with its sweet showers has pierced the drought of March to the root, and bathed every vein of earth with that liquid by whose power the flowers are engendered; when the zephyr, too, with its dulcet breath, has breathed life into the tender new shoots in every copse and on every heath, and the young sun has run half his course in the sign of the Ram, and the little birds that sleep all night with their eyes open give song (so Nature prompts them in their hearts), then, as the poet Geoffrey Chaucer observed many years ago, folk long to go on pilgrimages. Only, these days, professional people call them conferences.

The modern conference resembles the pilgrimage of medieval Christendom in that it allows the participants to indulge themselves in all the pleasures and diversions of travel while appearing to be austerely bent on self-improvement. To be sure, there are certain penitential exercises to be performed—the presentation of a paper, perhaps, and certainly listening to the papers of others. But with this excuse you journey to new and interesting places, meet new and interesting people, and form new and interesting relationships with them; exchange gossip and confidences (for your well-worn stories are fresh to them, and vice versa); eat, drink and make merry in their company every evening; and yet, at the end of it all, return home with an enhanced reputation for seriousness of mind. Today’s conferees have an additional advantage over the pilgrims of old in that their expenses are usually paid, or at least subsidised, by the institution to which they belong, be it a government department, a commercial firm, or, most commonly perhaps, a university.

There are conferences on almost everything these days, including the works of Geoffrey Chaucer. If, like his hero Troilus at the end of
Troilus and Criseyde
, he looks down from the eighth sphere of heaven on This litle spot of erthe, that with the se Embraced is and observes all the frantic traffic around the globe that he and other great writers have set in motion—the jet trails that criss-cross the oceans, marking the passage of scholars from one continent to another, their paths converging and intersecting and passing, as they hasten to hotel, country house or ancient seat of learning, there to confer and carouse, so that English and other academic subjects may be kept up—what does Geoffrey Chaucer think?

Probably, like the spirit of Troilus, that chivalrous knight and disillusioned lover, he laughs heartily at the spectacle, and considers himself well out of it. For not all conferences are happy, hedonistic occasions; not all conference venues are luxurious and picturesque; not all Aprils, for that matter, are marked by sweet showers and dulcet breezes.

Part I

One

“APRIL is the cruellest month,” Persse McGarrigle quoted silently to himself, gazing through grimy windowpanes at the unseasonable snow crusting the lawns and flowerbeds of the Rummidge campus. He had recently completed a Master’s dissertation on the poetry of T. S. Eliot, but the opening words of
The Waste Land
might, with equal probability, have been passing through the heads of any one of the fifty-odd men and women, of varying ages, who sat or slumped in the raked rows of seats in the same lecture-room. For they were all well acquainted with that poem, being University Teachers of English Language and Literature, gathered together here, in the English Midlands, for their annual conference, and few of them were enjoying themselves.

Dismay had been already plainly written on many faces when they assembled the previous evening for the traditional sherry reception. The conferees had, by that time, acquainted themselves with the accommodation provided in one of the University’s halls of residence, a building hastily erected in 1969, at the height of the boom in higher education, and now, only ten years later, looking much the worse for wear. They had glumly unpacked their suitcases in study-bedrooms whose cracked and pitted walls retained, in a pattern of rectangular fade marks, the traces of posters hurriedly removed (sometimes with portions of plaster adhering to them) by their youthful owners at the commencement of the Easter vacation. They had appraised the stained and broken furniture, explored the dusty interiors of cupboards in vain for coat-hangers, and tested the narrow beds, whose springs sagged dejectedly in the middle, deprived of all resilience by the battering of a decade’s horseplay and copulation. Each room had a washbasin, though not every washbasin had a plug, or every plug a chain. Some taps could not be turned on, and some could not be turned off. For more elaborate ablutions, or to answer a call of nature, it was necessary to venture out into the draughty and labyrinthine corridors in search of one of the communal washrooms, where baths, showers and toilets were to be found—but little privacy, and unreliable supplies of hot water.

To veterans of conferences held in British provincial universities, these were familiar discomforts and, up to a point, stoically accepted; as was the rather inferior sherry served at the reception (a little-known brand that seemed to protest too much its Spanish origins by the lurid depiction of a bullfight and a flamenco dancer on the label); as was the dinner which awaited them afterwards—tomato soup, roast beef and two vegetables, jam tart with custard—from every item of which all trace of flavour had been conscientiously removed by prolonged cooking at high temperatures. More than customary aggravation was generated by the discovery that the conference would be sleeping in one building, eating in another, and meeting for lectures and discussions on the main campus, thus ensuring for all concerned a great deal of tiresome walking to and fro on paths and pavements made dangerous and unpleasant by the snow. But the real source of depression, as the conferees gathered for the sherry, and squinted at the little white cardboard lapel badges on which each person’s name, and university, were neatly printed, was the paucity and, it must be said, the generally undistinguished quality of their numbers. Within a very short time they had established that none of the stars of the profession was in residence—no one, indeed, whom it would be worth travelling ten miles to meet, let alone the hundreds that many had covered. But they were stuck with each other for three days: three meals a day, three bar sessions a day, a coach outing and a theatre visit—long hours of compulsory sociability; not to mention the seven papers that would be delivered, followed by questions and discussion. Long before it was all over they would have sickened of each other’s company, exhausted all topics of conversation, used up all congenial seating arrangements at table, and succumbed to the familiar conference syndrome of bad breath, coated tongue and persistent headache, that came from smoking, drinking and talking five times as much as normal. The foreknowledge of the boredom and distemper to which they had condemned themselves lay like a cold, oppressive weight on their bowels (which would also be out of order before long) even as they sought to disguise it with bright chatter and hearty bonhomie, shaking hands and clapping backs, gulping down their sherry like medicine. Here and there people could be seen furtively totting up the names on the conference list. Fifty-seven, including the non-resident home team, was a very disappointing turnout.

So Persse McGarrigle was assured, at the sherry party, by a melancholy-looking elderly man sipping a glass of orange juice into which his spectacles threatened to slide at any moment. The name on his lapel badge was “Dr Rupert Sutcliffe”, and the colour of the badge was yellow, indicating that he was a member of the host Department.

“Is that right?” Persse said. “I didn’t know what to expect. It’s the very first conference I’ve ever been to.”

“UTE conferences vary a lot. It all depends on where it’s held. At Oxford or Cambridge you would expect at least a hundred and fifty. I told Swallow nobody would come to Rummidge, but he wouldn’t listen.”

“Swallow?”

“Our Head of Department.” Dr Sutcliffe seemed to have some difficulty in forcing these words between his teeth. “He claimed it would put Rummidge on the map if we offered to host the conference. Delusions of grandeur, I’m afraid.”

“Was it Professor Swallow who was giving out the little badges?”

“No, that’s Bob Busby, he’s just as bad. Worse, if anything. Been beside himself with excitement for weeks, organizing outings and so forth. I should think we’ll lose a pretty penny on this affair,” Dr Sutcliffe concluded, with evident satisfaction, looking over his glasses at the half-filled room.

“Hallo, Rupert, old man! A bit thin on the ground, aren’t we?”

A man of about forty, dressed in a bright blue suit, hit Sutcliffe vigorously between the shoulder blades as he pronounced these words, causing the latter’s spectacles to fly off the end of his nose. Persse caught them neatly and returned them to their owner.

“Oh, it’s you, Dempsey,” said Sutcliffe, turning to face his assailant.

“Only fifty-seven on the list, and a lot of them haven’t turned up, by the look of it,” said the newcomer, whose lapel badge identified him as Professor Robin Dempsey, from one of the new universities in the north of England. He was a broadshouldered, thickset man, with a heavy jaw that jutted aggressively, but his eyes, small and set too close together, seemed to belong to some other person, more anxious and vulnerable, trapped inside the masterful physique. Rupert Sutcliffe did not seem overjoyed to see Professor Dempsey, or disposed to share with him his own pessimism about the conference.

“I dare say a lot of people have been held up by the snow,” he said coldly. “Shocking weather for April. Excuse me, I see Busby waving urgently. I expect the potato crisps have run out, or some such crisis.” He shuffled off.

“God!” said Dempsey, looking round the room. “What a shower! Why did I come?” The question sounded rhetorical, but Dempsey proceeded to answer it at some length, and without apparently pausing for breath. “I’ll tell you why, I came because I have family here, it seemed a good excuse to see them. My children, actually. I’m divorced, you see. I used to work here, in this Department, believe it or not. Christ, what a retarded lot they were, still are by the look of it. The same old faces. Nobody ever seems to move. Old Sutcliffe, for instance, been here forty years, man and boy. Naturally I got out as soon as I could. No place for an ambitious man. The last straw was when they gave a senior lectureship to Philip Swallow instead of me, though I had three books out by then, and he’d published practically nothing. Now—you wouldn’t credit it—they’ve gone and given him the Chair here, and he’s still published practically nothing. There’s supposed to be a book about Hazlitt—_Hazlitt_, I ask you—it was announced last year, but I’ve never seen a single review of it. Can’t be much good. Well, anyway, as soon as they gave Swallow the senior lectureship, I said to Janet, right, that’s it, we’re off, put the house up for sale, we’re going to Darlington—they’d been wooing me for some time. A Readership straight away, and a free hand to develop my special interests—linguistics and stylistics—they always hated that sort of thing here, blocked me at every turn, talked to students behind my back, persuaded them to drop my courses, I was glad to shake the dust of Rummidge off my feet, I can tell you. That was ten years ago, Darlington was small in those days, still is, I suppose, but it was a challenge, and the students are quite good, you’d be surprised. Anyway, I was happy enough, but unfortunately Janet didn’t like it, took against the place as soon as she saw it. Well, the campus is a bit bleak in winter, outside the town, you know, on the edge of the moors, and mostly prefabricated huts in those days, it’s better now, we’ve got rid of the sheep and our Metallurgy building won a prize recently, but at the time, well, anyway, we couldn’t sell the house here, there was a freeze on mortgages, so Janet decided to stay on in Rummidge for a while, we thought it would be better for the kids anyway, Desmond was in his last year at junior school, so I commuted, came home every weekend, well, nearly every weekend, it was a bit hard on Janet, hard on me, too, of course, and then I met this girl, a postgraduate student of mine, well, you can appreciate that I was pretty lonely up there, it was inevitable when you come to think of it, I said to Janet, it was inevitable—she found out about the girl, you see…”

He broke off, frowning into his sherry glass. “I don’t know why I’m telling you all this,” he said, shooting a slightly resentful look at Persse, who had been puzzled on the same score for several minutes. “I don’t even know who you are.” He bent forward to read Persse’s lapel badge. “University College, Limerick, eh?” he said, with a leer. “There was a young lecturer from Limerick… I suppose everyone says that to you.”

“Nearly everyone,” Persse admitted. “But, you know, they very seldom get further than the first line. There aren’t many rhymes to `Limerick’.”

“What about ‘dip his wick’?” said Dempsey, after a moment’s reflection. “That should have possibilities.”

“What does it mean?”

Dempsey looked surprised. “Well, it means, you know, having it off. Screwing.”

Persse blushed. “The metre’s all wrong,” he said. ” ‘Limerick’ is a dactyl.”

“Oh? What’s ‘dip his wick’, then?”

“I’d say it was a catalectic trochee.”

“Would you, indeed? Interested in prosody, are you?”

“Yes, I suppose I am.”

“I bet you write poetry yourself, don’t you?”

“Well, yes, I do.”

“I thought so. You have that look about you. There’s no money in it, you know.”

“So I’ve discovered,” said Persse. “Did you marry the girl, then?”

“What?”

“The postgraduate student. Did you marry her?”

“Oh. No. No, she went her way. Like they all do, eventually.” Dempsey swilled the dregs of his sherry at the bottom of his glass. “And your wife won’t have you back?”

“Can’t, can she? She’s got another bloke now.”

“I’m very sorry,” said Persse.

“Oh, I don’t let it get me down,” said Dempsey unconvincingly. “I don’t regret the move. It’s a good place, Darlington. They’ve just bought a new computer especially for me.”

“And you’re a professor, now,” said Persse respectfully.

“Yes, I’m a professor now,” Dempsey agreed. His face darkened as he added, “So is Swallow, of course.”

“Which one is Professor Swallow?” Persse enquired, looking round the room.

“He’s here somewhere.” Dempsey rather unwillingly scanned the sherry drinkers in search of Philip Swallow.

At that moment the knots of chatting conferees seemed to loosen and part, as if by some magical impulsion, opening up an avenue between Persse and the doorway. There, hesitating on the threshold, was the most beautiful girl he had ever seen in his life. She was tall and graceful, with a full, womanly figure, and a dark, creamy complexion. Black hair fell in shining waves to her shoulders, and black was the colour of her simple woollen dress, scooped out low across her bosom. She took a few paces forward into the room and accepted a glass of sherry from the tray offered to her by a passing waitress. She did not drink at once, but held the glass up to her face as if it were a flower. Her right hand held the stem of the glass between index finger and thumb. Her left, passed horizontally across her waist, supported her right elbow. Over the rim of the glass she looked with eyes dark as peat pools straight into Persse’s own, and seemed to smile faintly in greeting. She raised the glass to her lips, which were red and moist, the underlip slightly swollen in appearance, as though it had been stung. She drank, and he saw the muscles in her throat move and slide under the skin as she swallowed. “Heavenly God!” Persse breathed, quoting again, this time from
A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man
.

Then, to his extreme annoyance, a tall, slim, distinguished-looking man of middle age, with a rather dashing silver-grey beard, and a good deal of wavy hair of the same hue around the back and sides of his head, but not much on top, darted forward to greet the girl, blocking Persse’s view of her.

“There’s Swallow.” said Dempsey.

“What?” said Persse, coming slowly out of his trance.

“Swallow is the man chatting up that rather dishy girl who just came in, the one in the black dress, or should I say half out of it? Swallow seems to be getting an eyeful, doesn’t he?”

Persse flushed and stiffened with a chivalrous urge to protect the girl from insult. Professor Swallow, leaning forward to scrutinize her lapel badge, did indeed seem to be peering rudely down her décolletage.

“Fine pair of knockers there, wouldn’t you say?” Dempsey remarked.

Persse turned on him fiercely. “Knockers? Knockers? Why in the name of God call them that?”

Dempsey backed away slightly. “Steady on. What would you call them, then?”

“I would call them… I would call them… twin domes of her body’s temple,” said Persse.

BOOK: David Lodge - Small World
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