“Cauliflower is nothing but cabbage with a college education.” (Mark Twain)

Hey freshers! If you’re reading this, it means only one thing: you survived Fresher’s Week! Congratulations! Now get yourself dosed up on alka seltzer and down to the GUM clinic, pronto.

If there’s one thing I’m expert on, other than TV detectives and cheese, its being a student. I’m ridiculously overqualified and not studying anything for the past 2 years is the longest I’ve ever gone without sitting a course of some kind, probably ever. I’m feeling decidedly twitchy and trying to decide what I want to educate myself in next (current contenders: whisky tasting/dry stone walling (not a huge demand in London, admittedly)/ French language) but until that time I’ve gone back to college via 2 wonderful novels. And for all those students out there, pay attention to your older, wiser Madame B, and remember:

Image from here

Firstly, Stoner by John Williams (1963), which is something of a rediscovered classic in recent years, with effusive praise heaped on it from all quarters. In this instance I thought the hype was absolutely deserved. Stoner is a beautifully written, acutely observed portrait of an ordinary life which is deeply moving.

William Stoner grows up on a farm without books, until his father takes the remarkable decision that Stoner should study agriculture at the University of Missouri, which he joins in 1910. What no-one foresees, least of all Stoner himself, is that he will fall in love, with literature:

“As his mind engaged itself with its subject, as it grappled with the power of the literature he studied and tried to understand its nature, he was aware of a constant change within himself”

And so we follow Stoner as he becomes a student of literature, then a teacher, and never leaves the university.

“Sometimes he stood in the centre of the quad, looking at the five huge columns in front of Jesse Hall that thrust upward into the night out of the cool grass… Grayish in the moonlight, bare and pure, they seemed to him to represent the way of life he had embraced, as a temple represents a god.”

The life Stoner leads is very ordinary: he makes a disastrous marriage but they stick it out, he becomes an OK teacher, he makes friends and enemies, he has a loving but complex relationship with his daughter… nothing happens and everything happens. The writing is so good that you are pulled along through this everyday story just as much as you would be through a heavily plot-driven thriller.

Stoner is undeniably a sad novel. Stoner has a lot of loneliness in his life and he is victim to circumstances which he cannot control and which are grossly unfair, engineered by people who vent their pain on him. Yet it is not depressing, because he endures and he finds joy. For the bibliophile, there are some beautifully realised passages describing why we love literature:

“the epiphany of knowing something through words that could not be put into words”

More generally, there is peace to be found in accepting the things we cannot change, and there is plenty Stoner cannot change:

“As he walked slowly through the evening, breathing the fragrance and tasting upon his tongue the sharp night-time air, it seemed to him that the moment he walked in was enough and he might not need a great deal more.”

I highly recommend this quietly heart-breaking novel.


Secondly, The Art of Fielding by Chad Harbach (2012), which I never would have picked up, thinking it was a sports novel, if it wasn’t for Kate at Books are My Favourite and Best reassuring me that it definitely was about more than baseball (she’s right); you can read her review here.

The Art of Fielding follows Henry Skrimshader’s career at Westish College, where he is accepted due to his prowess on the baseball field. He is recruited there by Mike Schwartz, an ambitious jock whose knees are giving out; he rooms with Owen Dunne, a beautiful clean-freak who is also a highly talented player and who begins a problematic affair; and President Affenlight discovers a new love of baseball alongside other more surprising things, just as his troubled daughter Pella returns home.

“If Affenlight were to list the things he loved, he wouldn’t include Westish – that would seem silly, like saying you loved yourself. He spent half his time frustrated with, ambivalent about, annoyed at the place. But anything that happened to alter the fortunes of Westish College, Affenlight took more seriously than if it were happening to himself.”

Henry’s career at Westish does not go smoothly and his crisis affects all those around him. There is quite a lot about baseball in the novel and it all went over my head seeing as how I’ve never watched a game in my life and don’t really plan to change this, but it didn’t affect my enjoyment of the novel in the slightest. Harbach’s writing reminded me a bit of Richard Russo, in that it captures a slightly old-fashioned, all-American life, but is involving and affecting because of this, rather than nostalgic and distancing. The focus is very much on well-drawn, idiosyncratic characters and their relationships, so that you feel absolutely drawn into their lives.

I may not know much about baseball, but what Harbach taught me is what I’ve always suspected, that for people who get it, sports and life are one and the same:

“What would he say to her, if he was going to speak truly? He didn’t know. Talking was like throwing a baseball. You couldn’t plan it out beforehand. You just had to let go and see what happened.  You had to throw out words without knowing anyone would catch them – you had to throw out words you knew no one would catch. You had to send your words out where they weren’t yours anymore.”

Really, The Art of Fielding is about love. Love between friends, parents and children, siblings, lovers, team mates, teacher and student, platonic, romantic, familial… in all its guises. And in that it is deeply moving. The ending isn’t sad but it still made me cry on the bus, dammit.

To end, a song I heard last week for the first time in years, and which took me straight back to my first foray into further education:

“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.)