Image: Penguin

Image: Penguin

Whatever your age, there's something timelessly appealing about novels set on university campuses. Maybe it has something to do with the endless possibilities of youth – a short, unjaded period in life that we all experienced, students or not, where the future stretched out like a giant question mark snaking into the distance.

Or is it to do with the fascinating perspective of university lecturers, stuck in a very special circle of hell that Dante forgot to mention – the one where you grow older in a world where almost everyone else stays beautiful and under 21?

It could just be the atmosphere of university that lends itself so well to fiction: a seething hotbed of life, ideas and human folly where professors sleep with students, and sometimes even each other; where students engage in more acts of recklessness than (probably) at any other time in their lives; and where academics fall out in (sometimes) the pettiest of ways.

Whatever the reason, we have been blessed with fictional universities from across the literary spectrum. And here – from coming-of-age narratives to satires of academic life and campus murder-mystery – are some of the best.

The Secret History by Donna Tartt (1992)

A sort of whodunit in reverse, this, as a bunch of eccentric 20-something classics nerds descend into murderous madness fuelled by Greek mythology. Our narrator, Richard, is looking back on his life and what led to the killing of one of his friends – the result of a Bacchanalian rite gone wrong – while a student at an elite college in Vermont.

It has all the trappings of student life, told through the story of the most pretentious group of self-styled intellectual untouchables we all remember from university. They carry rolled-up umbrellas, wear “beautiful starchy shirts with French cuffs; magnificent neckties … a sundress with a sailor collar …” and write essays on Callimachus in Greek.

But soon, their toxic elitism takes on a life of its own and, as time wears on, a series of dark incidents destroy their dreams.

On Beauty by Zadie Smith (2005)

On Beauty is about a lot of things – from professional jealousy and adolescent fascination to female kinship, infidelity and race relations – but it is its setting that pulls all it all into place. That place is Wellington College, a small liberal arts school west of Boston inspired by Harvard University, where Zadie Smith spent a year guest lecturing.

At the story's heart is the rivalry between Howard Belsey, a white English academic, and Monty Kipps, a formidable West Indian intellectual who loves nothing more than to wind up liberals with his conservative views. 

And through their rivalry we are thrust into a world of farcical posturing, pretension and pomposity so dear to the highest level of academia. A perfect example of which is when Howard pontificates during one of his Rembrandt seminars: "What we're trying to ... interrogate here is the mytheme of artist as autonomous individual with privileged insight into the human.” Indeed.


Lucky Jim by Kingsley Amis (1954)

This really is the campus novel of all campus novels – the greatest example of Kingsley Amis' wicked sense of humour, and pretty much a 272-page gag. It follows the misfortunes of a misanthropic history lecturer who’s accidentally landed a job at a redbrick university. He doesn’t fit. He hates the world he’s fallen into, and would far rather flirt and drink than suffer the intolerable pomposity of academic life.

So he is forced to do both. It’s a lethal satire of cloistered academic life and the idiocies, pedantries, and stupid rules with which academia is cursed (according to Amis, obviously).

The climax of the book is when Jim gives a booze-addled lecture on “Merrie England”, an address that's almost too bonkers to summarise, in which he lampoons his peers, ridicules academia while doing a bunch of funny accents and impressions. Then he passes out.

The Idiot by Elif Batuman (2020)

The idiot in question is Selin, though she's really a stand in for Elif Batuman herself in this warm and tender semi-autobiographical coming-of-ager about navigating love, life and belonging in an alien world of academic excellence. Plus, she's anything but an idiot.

In fact, Selin is a Turkish-American linguistics and language major at Harvard. It's the 1990s, so there are no mobile phones or Facebook, just IRL encounters and these newfangled things called emails.

It's not just emails – adult life in general seems rather lost in translation to Selin, as she soon finds herself dangerously overwhelmed by the challenges and possibilities of adulthood. Shortlisted for the 2018 Women's Prize for Fiction, The Idiot grows into a gorgeously innovative ode to the power of language, youthful curiosity and finding one's voice in a noisy world.

Stoner by John Williams (1972)

OK, I know what you're thinking and I don't know how you killed time at university, but John Williams' 1972 masterpiece is not about that. It's about William Stoner, a quiet and respectable university lecturer who married to the wrong woman but can't break free.

As his marriage quickly deteriorates, his wife poisons their only daughter against him, forcing him deeper into academic servitude. He has an affair with a colleague that doesn't work out, while another colleague tries to sabotage his career after they fall out over a promising student.

In short, Stoner is a moving tribute to a life lived without fireworks or marching bands, just the quiet certainty that it is what it is. In other words, Stoner is completely ordinary, like most of us, and yet his life is as rich as anyone's. It is, as Nick Hornby called it, “a brilliant, beautiful, inexorably sad, wise and elegant novel.”

The War Between the Tates by Alison Lurie (1974)

On paper, Brian and Erica Tate have the perfect marriage. They're respected university academics, have beautiful children, good friends and have more than a few pound coins to rub together. But then Brian has an affair with one of his students (a profoundly manipulative hippy named Wendy who makes her advances without “social shame”) and the wheels of their lovely life bounce off into the hard shoulder.

With the Vietnam War raging loudly in the background, what follows is a stinging campus drama of 1960s feminism, parenthood, marriage, protest and academic pomposity that drips with irony and acidic satire.

It is so astute, in fact, that the New York Times called it “a near-perfect comedy of manners and morals to put on the shelf next to Vanity Fair or The Egoist … very nearly all that the novel was meant to be.”

The Human Stain by Phillip Roth (2000)

It's 1998 and US president Bill Clinton has just been impeached for lying about “that woman”. The revelations of his affair sparked a fever of prurience into the lives of anyone with some degree of power. But we're nowhere near the White House in Roth's masterpiece.

We're in a small university town in New England where a distinguished professor, Coleman Silk, has been “retired” for racism. The charge is unfounded, but truth (in Roth's world) is less important that what the Pulitzer-winner called the "ecstasy of sanctimony" – the emerging moral yardstick by which all public figures must abide, or be cancelled.

Anyway, after Silk is hounded out of his job it emerges that he has been hiding a dark, clawing secret all along – one which speaks not just to his own confused past, but to America's, too. It's a spectacular read, what the Guardian called “a fizzing, unplayable spitball of a book, almost unfairly brilliant.”

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