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Lodge's `Small World': a comedy of scholarship and romance in the jet age

Small World: An Academic Romance, by David Lodge. New York: Macmillan. 339 pp. $15.95. Prof. David Lodge of the University of Birmingham has written several books about criticism and fiction. He is probably better known, however, for his highly amusing novels, such as ``Changing Places'' and ``Souls and Bodies'' (British title: ``How Far Can You Go?''), to name only two.

Although not unduly enchanted by the former, a pleasant but doggedly formulaic tale of a pair of professors, one British, one American, who spend time in each other's countries, I was very much taken with the latter, a touching and hilarious account of a group of British Roman Catholics coming of age in the '50s, '60s, and '70s.

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The latest conception of Professor Lodge returns us to the ``Small World'' of academe, which has mushroomed into a global campus of scholars linked by airplanes, conferences, research grants, computers, telephones, and Xerox machines. Returning also are the peripatetic heroes of ``Changing Places'': American supercritic Morris Zapp and his stodgier British friend, Philip Swallow, along with a cast of -- well, more than a dozen academic types (and stereotypes) from full-fledged professors to graduate students, not to mention a still-angry-but-no-longer-young novelist, a Japanese translator, and a lovely airline reservations hostess.

The central hero, insofar as there is one, is an engagingly innocent, virginal young Irish poet who falls in love with the glamorous, ultra-literate Angelica Pabst, whom he pursues from conference to conference all over the world.

This book is subtitled ``An Academic Romance,'' and in case, like the reservations hostess, you happen to think romances are those paperbacks you see in the supermarket, scholars like Morris Zapp and Angelica Pabst are on hand to remind you what a romance really is: an ongoing, theoretically endless tale, filled with coincidence, mistaken identity, disguise, multiple story lines, subplots, digressions, and multiple climaxes. Not surprisingly, Professor Lodge's modern romance employs many of these traditional techniques and devices, familiar to readers of Ariosto, Boiardo, Tasso, and Spenser.

Perhaps, then, we ought not blame him for populating his book with characters so insubstantial it would be a kindness to mistake them for allegorical figures -- if only they did not lack the requisite Spenserian moral significance! That they are lightweight is, of course, part of their charm, but this charm is diminished by the heaviness of the stereotypes and the obviousness of the situations in which they find themselves.

``Small World'' is undeniably fun to read, but it is also far less scintillating than we might have expected from a writer of Professor Lodge's proven comic talents.

Merle Rubin reviews books regularly for the Monitor.

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