A Week in Books: The solitary adventure of thought

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The Independent Culture

The highs and lows of literary or scholarly solitude are hard to endure, and harder still to convey. Far easier, for many writers, to turn their gaze on minds in herds: in clans, groups, gangs, cliques and - overwhelmingly, for 50 years - in universities. Around this time, another cohort of students will enter higher education avid to find out if the hilarious but dismaying news brought by the campus novel can conceivably be true. For some, the answer will be: alas, yes; for others - alas, no. And the novels will grind on, with more donnish drunks and more student sirens, despite reasonable suspicions that Zadie Smith's On Beauty has grabbed the last word on this genre.

Elaine Showalter canters amiably across a half-century of campus comedy and intrigue in Faculty Towers: the academic novel and its discontents (Oxford, £12.99). She moves from Amis, McCarthy and Snow through Bradbury and Lodge up to J M Coetzee, Jonathan Franzen and Philip Roth. Academic aspirants will note that you get to write as breezily as this between OUP's august hard covers only when you have the sort of gold-plated CV Showalter can boast.

Still, her survey has all the stylistic snappiness and relish for mischief that marks the funniest books she cites. And she offers a lucid fresher's guide to the process by which an optimistic mid-century search for social "microcosms" amid the ever-spreading groves of academe gives way, by the embittered Eighties, to the fractious fury and glum introspection of the "culture wars".

What Faculty Towers misses is what its genre also prefers to overlook: the solitary adventure of thought, with its hopes of heroic discovery and its risks of pedantic inanition. Showalter bows to Middlemarch as "the supreme academic fiction", but fails on the whole to follow the vein of novels about intellectual hubris, tragedy and pathos that runs from Eliot's creation of the life-choking Mr Casaubon. She does examine Byatt's Possession, but has nothing to say about Iris Murdoch, Elias Canetti, Cynthia Ozick... Later, she regrets that campus fiction has been too tame, "substituting satire for tragedy", but her own book tends to avert its eyes from the darkness of science or scholarship on the far edge of knowledge. This theme goes back way beyond the japes of Lucky Jim Dixon. At its roots lie the vaulting, dangerous dreams of Dr Frankenstein, if not Dr Faustus.

You can, as the American philosopher-novelist Rebecca Goldstein has, write compellingly about the frontier loneliness of thought and still deliver the satirical spritz readers enjoy in academic novels. According to the usual comic conventions, that writer's or thinker's chair stands empty because its occupant is out downing a drink, shagging a student or fixing a committee. Yet he or she may be pacing disconsolately on heath or street, striving - like the flawed philosopher Mr Ramsay in Virginia Woolf's To the Lighthouse - to see beyond, say, the letter "Q" in the intellectual alphabet. Fed on campus fictions, the class of 2005 may expect to see a version of Jim Dixon (or Bradbury's Howard Kirk) behind the academic desk. It would be cheering if, from time to time, they came across a Ramsay too. The lonely life of the mind can be a thing of force as well as farce.