Jeffrey Moore’s top 10 campus novels

Jeffrey Moore is the author of Red-Rose Chain, a tale of a romantic Yorkshireman who teaches Shakespeare with forged credentials at a Montreal university. Red-Rose Chain won the Commonwealth Best First Book Award in 2000.

1. Lucky Jim by Kingsley Amis
Going out on a limb here, I know. With its themes of “orgiastic boredom” and soul-crushing pretension, this is the prototypical campus satire, savage and anarchic. What Amis knew better than anyone else, it seems to me, is that good satire depends on a light touch. If you push it, if you don’t let the reader complete the equation, the humour vanishes. Does Lucky Jim still make us laugh today? I’m with Christopher Hitchens here, who recently ranked it as “the funniest book of the past half century”.

2. Pale Fire by Vladimir Nabokov
A poem of 999 lines by the murdered American poet John Shade is glossed by an emigré scholar named Charles Kinbote. In one of his footnotes, which take up most of the book, he shows us this mimeographed memo: “Several members of the Department of English are painfully concerned over the fate of a manuscript poem that fell into the hands of a person who not only is unqualified for the job of editing it, belonging as he does to another department, but is known to have a deranged mind…” One of the most singular and inventive novels of all time.

3. Disgrace by JM Coetzee
The heir to Kafka and Beckett writes spare, effortless prose that most writers couldn’t match with the effort of two lifetimes. This unremittingly tense and disquieting novel recounts the fate of a scholar of Romantic poetry who resigns in disgrace after an affair with a young student. Among other awards, it won the Commonwealth Writer’s prize in 2000. (The more interesting best first book category was won by your humble servant, and after the ceremonies in New Delhi I was mistakenly given one of Coetzee’s trophies: a book-shaped wine case with four well-vinted bottles inside, which I took back to Canada. Coetzee was given my trophy – a pen, I think.)

4. Nice Work and Changing Places by David Lodge
Two campus novels par excellence. In the first, the factory clashes with the university, personified by engineer Vic Wilcox and English lecturer Dr Robyn Penrose. The plotting is ingenious and so are the comic debacles – Kingsley Amis loved this novel. In the second, two universities on opposite sides of the Atlantic have an annual exchange: this year Morris Zapp changes places with Philip Swallow, who are almost as polar as Jerry Lewis’s Nutty Professor. They end up swapping not only positions, but homes and wives. Lots of self-referential techniques here, including an intrusive narrator and gags about omniscience.

5. The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie by Muriel Spark
A deliciously disturbing portrait of an eccentric and egotistical Edinburgh schoolmistress and her group of favoured pupils, her “crème de la crème”. The voice is clear and unforgettable: “I am descended, do not forget, of William Brodie, a man of substance, a cabinet maker and designer of gibbets, a member of the town council of Edinburgh and a keeper of two mistresses who bore him five children between them. Blood tells.” With its flashbacks and flashforwards, its interweaving of politics, religion and treachery, the story has more moral ambiguity and complexity than you would have thought from watching the film.

6. The Human Stain by Philip Roth
Off-campus, a 71-year-old dean named Coleman Silk has an affair with an illiterate woman half his age; on-campus, he is accused of racism after asking his class this question about two black students who have missed the first five classes: “Do they exist or are they spooks?” Intricately constructed, masterfully written, and crammed with ideas and insights. It’s hard to believe that Roth, who is at the top of his game here, will soon be the age of Coleman Silk.

7. The Professor’s House by Willa Cather
Cather writes in a crystalline prose influenced directly, a professor once told me, by the Latin classics. I wouldn’t know. This novel, arguably her best, is structurally beyond praise: a realist section describes the middle-aged disillusion of Professor St Peter, and a mythopoeic section recounts his memories of his favourite student. Rich and resonant.

8. The History Man by Malcolm Bradbury
Stealing a page from Lucky Jim perhaps, Bradbury portrays academia at its most pretentious and predatory. A bit more heavy-handed and dated than the Amis, it still contains some superb scenes of high farce and grim wit. A dashing, au courant sociologist teaches at a new university, “a still expanding dream in white concrete, glass, and architectural free form”, where he practices his “radical sociology” on his wife, lovers, students and colleagues. Lots of orgiastic affairs, wine-drenched parties and intellectual jousting. When I read it years ago, I remember being irritated by the paragraphs, which go on for ever.

9. Der Campus by Dietrich Schwanitz
After allegedly raping a student, a star sociologist is pushed to the edge of sanity by the PC police, “conviction terrorists” and crucifying journalists. A bestseller in Germany in the 90s, this novel doesn’t appear to be out in English yet. I wonder if Julian Barnes, who once translated a book of German cartoons, could manage this one.

10. Wonder Boys by Michael Chabon
One of the more elegant stylists around, at least in America, and one of those who leave me emerald with envy. After his disgustingly precocious first novel Mysteries of Pittsburgh, Chabon spent five years on a follow-up called Fountain City. But around the 1,500-page mark he realised it was spinning out of control, so he jettisoned it and wrote Wonder Boys in a matter of months. Its protagonist, a pot-smoking writer-professor who stumbles through the charred remnants of his marriage and career, is a novelist with an unfinished and unfinishable manuscript of 2,611 pages…


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