Thursday, November 15, 2007

The Grooves of Academe

Sitting in the relative comfort of shade and an actively spurting fountain on an otherwise sunny campus, I am mindful of Lee's battles with a translated version of The War between the Tates, and thinking not improbably about the delicious vectors the novel of academe has taken.

Note that I call it the novel of academe because academic novel invariably means Middlemarch or some other trampoline on which either an author can rail or a Ph.D. write something as a ticket to a tenure track. I have noting, well, relatively nothing against Middlemarch except that it is largely a demonstration of the author's tremendous ability to see things, which is one dimension, but not, I believe, the most important, which is empathy. Yeah,, empathy.

I am also thinking how, although there is often little at risk in a novel of academe, it can be an hilarious indictment of the education we all take so seriously. Take Kingsley Amis's Lucky Jim for example. The payoff, in which Jim of lucky fame, delivers a drunken peroration that gains him the sought-after goal, is alone worth the ride. Take even more recently Richard Russo's Straight Man, a romp in which the protagonist is accused of, among other things, strangling a swan.

Michael Malone's uproarious Fools Cap is what we in the biz call genre warp, which is to say that the groves of academe are met head on with the drama department and the production of plays, which has always been a metaphor, and which is extended here to the fine madness of combustion.

John Williams' Stoner has very little humor in it, leaving us with a wrenching vision of a truly good man, caught between his passions.. It is to the novel of academe as Blood Meridian is to the novel of social consciousness. I am still somewhat bleeding from having read it and having been at an academic event--a lunch involving two deans and an Administrative Provost and a candidate for the position of Department Chair--I look to academics with a certain heightened alertness.

All grows better when Jane Smiley takes on the novel of academe with Moo, a novel that takes on the politics and pretensions of an agricultural institution.

One of the first books of any sort I was sent for review, a book that emphasized my desire to write books as well as review them was the timeless Pictures from a Institution, Randall Jarrell's stunning vision of how agenda-driven and silly those of us who set foot on campus to teach are. It has revealed me to me with a kind of Kissingerian surgical coldness. I still have the pin holes to show where I was attached to the dissecting board.

Go ahead, laugh at the novel of academe, but don't ignore it.


R.L. Bourges said...

ah, shelly, shelly: so many more strange translations to explore! (the experience with The War of the Tates wasn't as difficult as the one i'm having with Russo's Anybody's Fool, but there were moments that felt just like sitting in a theater hall in Turku, Finland watching a meta-play - the one in Finnish on stage, and the one involving the laughter of the Finnish-speaking audience... in this case, battling through the French translator's idea of what academe must be in America, based on the French experience. it was "pittoresque".

lowenkopf said...

Lee: and somewhere on YouTube is a Japanese version of Fiddler on the Roof and I'll try to find something Jerry Fisher sent me in which someone has overdubbed the Beatles' Hard Day's Night into Hebrew.

Chomsky and Wharf are laughing somewhere.

I am laughing here.

P.S. A rendering in Yiddish of your experiences with French Telecon would transform the situation from Becket to Philip Roth.