PROFESSORS of English are a curious lot. We annotate expertly the personality quirks of fictional characters, yet we can be oblivious to our own quirky behavior. We have been known, as well, to wax humorless on the subject of comedy and to write incomprehensible jargon about perfectly clear prose. We are also, now and then, sensible and even lucid, but these qualities, at least to those who write academic novels, are less interesting than our foibles. It is the difference between what we know and what we do that provides our chroniclers with grist for their satiric mills.
Among recent fictional portrayals of the literary establishment at work and play I can think of none so consistently entertaining or, in an odd way, so genially fair-minded as David Lodge's Small World. This delectable comedy of bad manners was published last year in Great Britain, where it received favorable reviews and was nominated for a Booker Prize, Britain's premier award for fiction. It will almost certainly enjoy an equally cordial welcome on this side of the Atlantic, at least in bookish circles. Whether those outside the academy will take Lodge's wit and learning to heart is something I can't predict. His novel, structured around a series of literary conferences here and abroad, contains parodies of fashionable critical thinking that may be lost on anyone who hasn't studied theory in New Haven. I trust, though, that the esoteric patches will be patiently accepted as landlocked equivalents of the whale-blubber digressions in Moby-Dick. There is, after all, much in Small World that will provide shocks of recognition for attentive readers, be they doctors, lawyers, or Indian chiefs.
The novel is a sequel to a slighter but no less bawdy and playful work called Changing Places, in which two professors temporarily exchange positions -- and wives. Philip Swallow, a mild-mannered don at a provincial British school call Rummidge, finds himself at "Euphoric State" (just across the bay from "Esseph") at the height of the free- speech circus, and Morris Zapp, a cigar- chomping American powerhouse, spends the year at placid Rummidge. Small World finds these two, now 10 years older, back on their own campuses, at least when they are not jetting to scholarly meetings -- Lodge is clearly our laureate of the airlines. This time around the author has devised an especially ingenious plot replete with elaborate conundrums, puzzling characters, and obsessive quests. Small World, unlike its more conventional predecessor, is subtitled "An Academic Romance," a genre defined by one of its characters: "Real romance . . . is full of adventure and coincidence and surprises and marvels and has lots of characters who are lost or enchanted or wandering about looking for each other."
AS EVEN the title suggests, Lodge is indeed partial to coincidence. He also introduces us to adventure and marvels as well as to an appealing character who wanders over the globe looking for his true love. Persse McGarrigle, an Irish poet, flies from conference to conference in pursuit of the maddeningly elusive Angelica Pabst. But who is this femme fatale? Is she a romantic heroine? A topless dancer? An MLA member? All of the above? And who is the mysterious Miss Maiden who keeps popping up? These and other questions are resolved in a series of denouements which, satisfying as the finale of one of Shakespeare's sunnier comedies, induce a cheerful suspension of disbelief.
The cast of minor characters adds much to the comic texture. We meet, among others, a wealthy Milanese professor whose Marxist convictions do not for a moment inhibit her indugence in la dolce vita, and a prolific novelist who suffers writer's block after a tenacious scholar armed with a computer tells him which words appear most frequently in his works. I like, too, the young Turk who dutifully punctuates his conversation with phrases culled from the collected writings of "Bill Hazlitt."
Nor is one likely to forget the Strangelove- like critic who is never without an ominous black glove. The scene in which that glove comes off is a shocker. It is, though, only one of many surprises in a narrative, full of twists and turns, that is infused with a rare creative exuberance. I only hope, since Professors Swallow and Zapp are barely in their fifties, that David Lodge will consider bringing them back for more globe-hopping fun and games. He quite obviously dotes on these creations of his imagination and, as Bill Hazlitt says, the art of pleasing consists in being pleased.