“If you want to get laid, go to college. If you want an education, go to the library.” (Frank Zappa)

This week I went to visit friends in Oxford, an incredibly beautiful city: the dreaming spires, the May morning choirs, the seasons of mists and mellow fruitfulness… er, where was I?  Oxford has a mythology about it as Britain’s oldest university which inspires both fear and rapture, but I don’t think that’s necessarily limited to Oxford or Cambridge.  Going to university can be an exhilarating, terrifying, wonderful time no matter where you are.  And it can also be a massive let-down, when actually nothing major happens and it’s just another step of many on your path. So this week I thought I’d look at two novels that try and capture this time, one set in Oxford, and one at the fictional Drama Arts school in London. Both novels consider the gap between our aspirations and dreams, what we wish were true, and the reality we have to navigate around these hopes.

Firstly The Lessons by Naomi Alderman (Penguin, 2010).  Alderman studied at Oxford herself, and so there is a sense of authenticity in her descriptions of Oxford both in terms of the geographical surroundings but also in the psychology of the university: “This is Oxford: it need not be all or nothing, but it lends itself to that way of thinking.”  The lack of romanticism means there is a limit to which The Lessons adds to the mythology of the place which was somewhat refreshing.  However, there is more than a whiff of Brideshead in the tale: a naïve young man arrives at Oxford, is befriended by a rich man from a Catholic family, who introduces him to his glamorous circle, but all is not as it seems…sound familiar? But The Lessons still manages to tell its own tale.  The main protagonist, James Stieff, is miserable at Oxford until the pretty and talented Jess introduces him to Mark, an erratic and charismatic student whose enormous wealth means he owns a crumbling Georgian mansion where he and the rest of the group (bookish Franny, glamorous Emmanuella, and Simon who I felt was quite undeveloped, preventing me from reducing him to a single adjective easily), all live.  During their time at Oxford they bond over student parties and intrigues, but after university they drift apart as so easily happens.  However, James and Mark are bonded by an event at university which means they are not so easily split:

“I thought he needed to be saved and that it was for me to do.  In that moment I was lost.”

Mark is mentally unstable and although previous mental illness is alluded to it’s never properly explained.  When James reflects, fairly early on:

“For this is the heart of the matter: disasters occur where accidents meet character.”

It is a foreshadowing of where the tale will take us.  The character of Mark is both compelling and flawed, and this fatal combination is ultimately destructive to all who get too close.

The Lessons in many ways is a straightforward book with a simple plot and the resolution is low-key.  However, to an extent I thought this was its strength: few of us live life on a determinedly grand scale and the events and realisations we experience can seem outwardly small, however great the significance to us as individuals. Although James believes:

“It is ridiculous to think we can learn anything from so arbitrary experience as life.  It forms no kind of curriculum and its gifts and punishments are bestowed too arbitrarily to constitute a mark scheme.”

He does in fact learn lessons, but they’re just not as clearly delineated as when they are bestowed from within an academic structure:

“No wonder we spend our adult lives feeling we’re simply pretending to know what we’re doing.  After sixteen years spent doing exams , where the lessons we’ve received perfectly fit the challenges we’re faced with, our preparations for the unpredictable events of normal life will always seem shoddy and haphazard.”

I thought Disobedience, Naomi Alderman’s first novel was far stronger than The Lessons, (especially in terms of characterisation, only Mark and James were fully drawn), but this novel still had something to say about how we come to terms with what we learn, inside and outside the classroom, and how we carry that into our lives with meaning.

Secondly, Lucky Break by Esther Freud (Bloomsbury, 2011).  Before she turned to writing, Freud trained at Drama Centre London, and although the Drama Arts of Lucky Break is fictional, it certainly seems authentically drawn (the temptation to wonder if any characters in the novel are based on specific actors is hard to resist).  A group of students start at Drama Arts, a training school with the ethos of: “Break them down to build them up.”  They all embrace the opportunity to be broken, despite Nell worrying that being overweight will mean she always plays maids and wenches, Charlie being a stunning beauty who is utterly selfish, and Dan becoming something of a teacher’s pet.

“There would be actors, acting, and then them, inhabiting their actual characters, an entire psychological life, both physical and mental, all mapped out.”

However, once in the world of jobbing actors rather than in the classroom, they find their idealism quickly fades.  Nell’s friend Sita constantly plays girls despairing at an arranged marriage, as the industry is unable to cast an Asian woman as anything else, there are limited roles for women, and only 8% employment.  The casting couch remains and any signs of physical imperfection result in a career crisis.

Freud’s fluid writing and subtle characterisation creates flawed, believable characters in a highly readable style that whips the reader along.  Although acting is a profession surrounded by glamour that most of us will never experience, Lucky Break shows the reality of the industry and all its inherent frustrations, while at the same time making it understandable as to why people persevere against the odds.  The allure of that lucky break exists not only for actors, and can be a driving force, even when it seems entirely ethereal and beyond reach. Lucky Break is ultimately more optimistic than The Lessons about holding onto idealism once you leave the sheltering confines of further education and head out into the world, but both show the value of realising that the lessons, and therefore learning, never quite end.

Here are the books donning (get it? donning.  Oh wow, I apologise.  That was truly bad.) a mortar board.  I know it just looks like a big black square but I promise it is a mortar board, I just couldn’t get it to balance properly (as with the books, so it is with my head. Is the impossibility of wearing academic dress part of the elitism? In which case I’m screwed.)

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One thought on ““If you want to get laid, go to college. If you want an education, go to the library.” (Frank Zappa)

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