Willem Frederik Hermans – Onder Professoren
A humorous portrait of Dutch university life in the 1970s, full of fanatical Marxists and Marcusians, the excrescences …
With its recurring characters, this trilogy provides a splendid depiction of academic developments in the 1960s, 70s and 80s, humorous in tone and full of acute observations. In the first book, Changing Places, a British literary scientist and an American colleague take part in an exchange programme. It is 1969 and students on both sides of the Atlantic are livening things up in their own way. Inevitably, the staff are affected, too. In drily comic fashion, Lodge illustrates the huge differences between universities in the old and new worlds, where both main characters have lost their anchors. Emergent feminism and changing intergenerational relationships play their part, too.
The theme of Small World is the international congress circuit, homing in on the way academics use this travelling circus to advance their own professional and more personal ambitions. And how those ambitions increasingly become intertwined. Meanwhile, a subplot raises the topic of plagiarism – in this case by a reviewer of a draft publication – and the inadequate response to it. But the main focus is the tension between romance and sexuality. Which, amongst the literary scientists of the 1970s, means a fierce debate on structuralism versus Freudian symbolism. Yet despite the weighty subject matter, this is an entertaining and, in parts, exciting book.
The final part of the trilogy, Nice Work, brings us to the 1980s. Here we discover the difference between businesses and universities, again through an exchange programme. When a tutor of feminist literary studies and the director of an engineering factory swap places, the cultural divide and mutual preconceptions bring turbulence to both their lives. The attempt to run universities along commercial lines casts a shadow forward into an age when even the humanities are expected to be entrepreneurial and to valorise their work. With all the benefits and drawbacks that brings.
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