This year I have moved away from classroom teaching to a job in a university, so the first part of September has been unusually restful. I’m aware that the term start for uni students is coming up though so, in honour of this and of my new job, now feels like a good time for a list of my top University-set novels.
It was back in 1992 that Donna Tartt wrote her thrilling debut ‘The Secret History.’ The novel begins after terrible crimes have been committed, the opening paragraph setting out the writer’s skill and her narrator’s chillingly measured tone: ‘The snow in the mountains was melting and Bunny had been dead for several weeks before we came to understand the gravity of our situation. He’d been dead for ten days before they found him, you know.’ What seems at first like an experiment in plural first person writing soon reveals itself as a masterful exploration of college cliques and aspirations. The narrator, Richard, is enamoured by the sophisticated charm, class and glamour of a small group within the college. Questions about who is in and who is out, about how much power dominant personalities can wield and about how far fate can be avoided all make this doorstop of a novel a fast-paced page turner guaranteed to make your own university experiences seem blissfully prosaic.
I mostly revere Larkin for his poetry, but he was also an accomplished novelist and his 1946 book ‘Jill’ was written during his own years as an undergraduate at St John’s College, Oxford. It’s a short novel, but it still finds space to take its protagonist, John Kemp, to the extremes of social humiliation. Kemp is a studious young man who is completely out of his depths among the hideous public-school cliques that surround him. In his introduction to the novel, Larkin references ‘Brideshead Revisited’ (another wonderful university novel), but unlike Waugh, or Donna Tartt, he’s not the kind of writer who will let his protagonist somehow find a place amongst the elite. If painfully cringe-worthy social scenes are your thing, I really recommend ‘Jill’ for a timeless story of shy adolescence.
A real English classic of privileged and eccentric university life, this 1911 novel’s full title is ‘Zuleika Dobson or An Oxford Love Story.’ The all-male world of the university is shocked to its core by the ravishing presence of Zuleika Dobson. Undergraduate after undergraduate falls for her facile and superficial charms, but it seems the outstandingly attractive Duke of Dorset may be her equal, even if ‘he was too much concerned with his own perfection ever to think of admiring any one else.’ Beerbohm met Oscar Wilde during his own Oxford student days and while the topics of his satire may seem more dated than those in Wilde’s prose, his studied irreverence remains a joy. This is hardly a book that recalls the modern university experience, but it is a great period piece and an exotic look at the educational system behind an empire.
If the dated charm of ‘Zuleika Dobson’ doesn’t work for you, a more modern look at a woman infiltrating a men-only university is given in Terry Pratchett’s 1987 ‘Equal Rites’ the third novel in the now epic Discworld series. The first two novels featured the UU (Unseen University), but here it really takes centre stage as the first female wizard attempts to gain access to the magical knowledge therein. I read this book before going to university myself, so I could only partly appreciate the depiction of characters who ‘savoured the strange warm glow of being much more ignorant than ordinary people, who were only ignorant of ordinary things’; those who ‘really pushed back the boundaries of ignorance.’ I can guarantee that more knowledge only makes reading Pratchett more fun, so I recommend Equal Rites to anyone with a taste for comic fiction – whatever their own experiences of education might be.
‘Emotionally Weird’ was my favourite Kate Atkinson novel while I was at university. Published in 2000 it is a laugh-out-loud funny account of student life in a fictional University of Dundee in 1972. Peopled by an eclectic mixture of stoners, hippies, academics and the odd confused civilian it’s a brilliantly playful take on the detective story, with a lovely gentle satire on modern creative writing thrown in for good measure. The narrator, Effie, is trying to complete her degree, including a a creative writing assignment ‘another degree paper I was probably going to fail, and to make matters worse my assignment, ‘The Hand of Fate’, was a crime novel, the least reputable genre there was, according to Martha (‘Why? Why? Why?’) and I had to pretend to her that crime writing was a postmodernist kind of thing these days, but I could tell that she wasn’t convinced. ‘Emotionally Weird’ is a wonderful stand-alone novel from the author who was to write the excellent Jackson Brodie crime series – it’s a coming of age book in so many ways, all framed through a literature student’s experience.
Universities aren’t all about students, of course, and no book list about the academic life could be complete without Kingsley Amis’s 1954 classic, ‘Lucky Jim.’ Jim Dixon is the antithesis of the driven academic. He’s a highly reluctant lecturer in medieval history at an unnamed and uninspiring university and the book follows his desperate attempts to hold on to his job. The plot is full of hysterical highlights that I won’t even attempt to sketch out; instead, I’ll just give a taste of one favourite passages. ‘It wasn’t the double exposure effects of the last half-minute’s talk that had dumbfounded him … it was the prospect of reciting the title of the article he’d written. It was a perfect title, in that it crystallized the article’s niggling mindlessness, its funereal parade of yawn-enforcing facts, the pseudo-light it threw upon non-problems. Dixon had read, or begun to read, dozens like it, but his own seemed worse than most in its air of being convinced of its own usefulness and significance. ‘In considering this strangely neglected topic,’ it began. This what neglected topic? This strangely what topic? This strangely neglected what?’ ‘Lucky Jim’ has to be one of the most self-disgusted accounts of academia in the English language, and I love it!
For another, equally irreverent view of English academia, every book in David Lodge’s Campus Trilogy is a delight. The first is about a cultural exchange whereby Philip Swallow, an unremarkable academic from Rummidge (a fictional Birmingham) is given the opportunity to experience life and work in Euphoric State (a fictional Berkeley). While he is off, Rummidge is hit with his US replacement, Morris Zapp. Between getting engulfed in fish-out-of-water comedy moments, the two men start to settle into their new locations, until more than just jobs are swapped (if you see what I mean). My favourite of the trilogy is ‘Small World’ where Swallow and Zapp are reunited and swept along a seemingly never-ending circuit of international academic conferences. Read this after ‘Lucky Jim’ if you really want to get the most out of the dramatically unprepared academic lecture scene. For English students especially, there is much to relish in these two novels, and the concluding ‘Nice Work,’ as academic theories and fashions are pastiched and mocked. The literary games aren’t just about content, the structure of ‘Small World’ consciously echoes Arthurian romance while ‘Nice Work’ is a reworked ‘North and South.’ Good, if not always clean, academic fun!
I realise there are gaps (I haven’t even mentioned Philip Roth’s ‘The Human Stain’ or Zadie Smith’s ‘On Beauty’). What other top university books would you recommend for readers with a passion for life long learning?