Hedonists, Sociopaths and Eccentric Dons*

Sarah Wilkinson 13 October 2007

*Any similarity to persons at the University of Cambridge is purely coincidental.

Degrees ‘R’ Us by Anonymous

FOUR OUT OF FIVE STARS

Initially the title of this satire made me cringe; it seemed bland and certainly didn’t inspire me with confidence in the skill of the writer. However, within pages I was laughing out loud at the outrageous yet worryingly recognisable behaviour of the administrators of St Sebastian’s University. The new Aussie Vice Chancellor, Professor Alf Flanagan is called in to save the university from financial difficulties. In between occasionally throwing his wife down the stairs, indulging his habit for collecting cuckoo clocks and the odd ‘fair dinkum’ he builds on his mafia-like contacts in the casino business in order to establish the new casino management course at the university.

The university is convinced to give all manner of odd degrees to suspicious institutions for large sums; hence the title. The unwilling hero of the novel–Mr.Anonymous himself–is drawn in to the hilarious events as his philosophy department is phased out, along with other ‘old fashioned subjects like Mathematics, English, Physics or Theology’ to make room for the new courses, including one in stripping, or rather ‘artistic dance.’

Dr. Felix Glass finds himself in several peculiar situations, the comedy of which is increased by his utter English-ness. His bemused and touching indignance upon being led into a room filled with porn DVDs when he asks to see the academic library in the Vegas based main faculty is just one in a series of increasingly comic events. My favourite was the unveiling of a giant portrait of a very camp St Sebastian being attacked by arrows which pin fifty pound notes to his muscular chest. The perplexed academics proceed to wonder why the university swiftly becomes the top location for civil partnership ceremonies as overjoyed new grooms pose in front of the portrait. After all, says Felix’s fellow rebel Magnus, ‘Buggers can’t be choosers.’

Beyond the enjoyable if slightly schoolboy humour, the novel is a clever and unforgiving attack on the increasing trend in today’s universities, in which ‘the students come a very poor second to the imperative of making money.’ Mixed in with this is an insight into the dark side of the departmental politics of academia, for example when Felix is systematically bullied out of his department by his new colleagues. Few are left unscathed by the author’s witty yet cutting insight. The new chaplain, Friar Chanty-Prigg, for instance, preaches poverty and abstinence yet lives off caviar and his hobby of groping the members of the choir, whilst being constantly followed by his parade of ‘effeminate boys.’ This is, however, more than just the bitchy and funny diatribe of a grumpy academic. The author is proficient at creating credible, likeable and quirky characters that I genuinely cared about as well as interlacing several stories which were skilfully brought to resolution.

This is a riotous comedy with a very dark, cynical side as well as an enjoyable story. It provides an enthralling insight into the other side of university life and should be enjoyed by all who have ever been in some way connected to a university. It’s also fun to try and recognise characters and places in the novel, although I’m sure the eccentricities of academia are transferable and comical across universities nationwide.

Katie Gibson

The Night Climbers by Ivo Stourton

THREE OUT OF FIVE STARS

The premise of Ivo Stourton’s debut novel is not an original one: a group of youths with access to obscene amounts of cash embrace a life of decadent hedonism only to find themselves spiralling towards misery and self-destruction. It’s a story as old as capitalism itself. A tried-and-tested formula is not an irredeemable flaw, however, and Stourton injects this one with enough new twists to freshen it up and make it his own.

The tale is narrated by James Walker, a lawyer and Cambridge graduate with an addiction to porn and a penchant for prostitutes. When an old crush from his student days pays him an unexpected visit at his office he takes her back to his apartment. As the couple reminisce, the just-about-plausible story of James’s undergraduate career is revealed through a series of flashbacks. Stourton handles these transitions from present to past elegantly, subtly exposing the contrast between the sweet, naïve boy James was when he matriculated and the amoral yuppie he has become.

As a lonely fresher, James is delighted when he falls in with charismatic Francis Manly and his glamorous posse. The son of a Zimbabwean model and an English peer, Francis is exotic, aristocratic and, most importantly, rich. It’s not long before he begins to excite James’s homoerotic desires. Simultaneously, Francis’s best friend Jessica arouses his heterosexual ones. Bank-rolled by Francis’s father, the trio and their mates indulge in champagne, cocaine and Romeo y Juliet cigars. They are more than mere party animals, however. They are rebels extraordinaire. At night they risk life, limb and rustication to scale the colleges of Cambridge as ‘night-climbers’. When their cash flow is cut off, their compulsive extravagance drives them to take even bigger risks.

Much of the hype surrounding the novel has derived from the fact that (according to rumour) night climbing really is practiced at Cambridge and has been throughout the university’s history. Stourton’s descriptions of the activity certainly capitalize on the aura of romance the illicit activity has accrued over time, but they are far from being the best bits of the book. More impressive is his subtle observation of the ways money and sex can influence relationships. Stourton’s shrewd understanding of human nature makes him seem older than his twenty-four years and invites comparisons with F Scott Fitzgerald and Evelyn Waugh. His true virtuosity, however, lies in his ability to unravel his plot swiftly enough to hold your attention but gradually enough to prevent you from getting lost. It’s a fine balance, but he maintains it throughout like a dab-hand. The novel fails to achieve Booker Prize-winning quality, however, because of Stourton’s rather curious writing style. His expression is at best laboured and at worst absurd. In Stourton’s world, the central heating doesn’t simply switch on; instead, ‘antiquated heating systems’ begin ‘clunking into life like animals coming out of hibernation, shaking and groaning as warm blood flowed back through their arteries’.

Stourton’s novel is not going to cause a literary revolution–it’s better suited to being thumbed in airports than studied in libraries. It is, however, an impressively compelling story with suspense and eroticism in just the right measures. Producers will be vying for the film rights in no time.

Alex Bateman

Engleby by Sebastian Faulks

THREE OUT OF FIVE STARS

Engleby is not a comfortable read. Set largely in Cambridge, Faulks’s latest offering takes us inside the unstable mind of Michael Engleby and recounts the build up to and the aftermath of his time as an undergraduate, when ‘something terrible’ happens. Unlike his previous novels, Faulks has not had to venture far beyond his own backyard of memories for historical detail. Whereas Charlotte Grey and Girl at the Lion D’or called for Faulks to flex his Francophile wings and swoop inside military history, Engleby begins in the 1970’s and follows the protagonist through a career that largely echoes Faulks’s own-minus the criminal convictions, that is. Public school, Cambridge, Fleet Street; all mark progressive stages in the author’s life just as they provide the backdrop for this unnerving tale, and it is in the anecdotal detail of these settings and their inhabitants that Faulks’s prose shines.

From early on, however, the protagonist’s almost autistic attention to detail and uber-cool attitude creates an uneasy relationship between reader and narrator-one which never quite recovers. Even as we read the final words of the narrator we remain suspended in a state of ambiguity, unable to decide whether Engleby is inherently evil or criminally insane and whilst this ambiguity is provocative initially, it results in a kind of apathy towards the character’s all-too-predictable fate.

The depictions of bullying in his public school, on the other hand, are harrowing. Michael is frequently subjected to naked baths before dozens of voyeuristic adolescent eyes and is often forced to sleep on a soaking mattress. At one point he is forced to lie still whilst an older boy masturbates over him. In these moments his perverseness in adulthood is somewhat explained and yet his lack of emotional response prevents us from sympathizing with or excusing his actions. It is understandable for a heart to harden as a defence mechanism. It is not quite so easy to understand one born as hard as stone.

His days at Cambridge are spiked with a heady mixture of drugs, precociousness, lonely pub-crawls and narcissism which means that to see the true beauty of the city we must look through the more sober eyes of Jennifer, the object of Michael’s obsession. Her diary entries are refreshing in their youthful innocence: ‘I do love the dirty brick of the miniature terraces and the mist from the river and the cold mornings, even now in May,’ though even these are tainted by the notion that they are being recollected by a profoundly disturbed mind. For someone who knows Cambridge well there is always the joy of identifying the loosely disguised colleges and local landmarks. The Eagle is referred to as ‘The Kestrel’, whilst colleges are amusingly decipherable. His own room in college, for example, is ‘in courtyard that I reached by a tunnel under the road’. Ideas anyone?

The Fleet Street years are enlivened by encounters with such political characters as Jeffrey Archer and Margaret Thatcher yet unfortunately this section bears the distinct feel of the dentist’s waiting room as we distract ourselves with celebrity lives whilst awaiting the inevitable. In the midst of clambering up the journalism ladder Michael is finally whisked away to a mental asylum after the truth about the ‘terrible’ event is discovered by the police, long after the readers have figured it out. Faulks’s research into psychiatry for Human Traces is well-used in these final chapters and hints of something resembling humanity in Michael–his attempts to spare his sister further pain, his growing fondness for several other patients–are welcome after a read as cold as the Russian winds blowing across the Fens.

Sarah Wilkinson