The University Novel is dead. Previously boasting Nabokov and David Lodge among its many exponents, the genre, long considered moribund, now seems to have met its timely end. The University Novel typically features an institute of higher learning as an important part of its setting, as well as students and academic staff as its main characters; and so there is something sad about the fact that St Andrews, in its 600 year history, has never played home to a University Novel worthy of renown. The publication of Adoring Venus, self-billed as ‘the first mainstream contemporary novel to be set almost entirely in St Andrews’, does little to placate this sadness, but rather, leaves you wishing that, like the genre as a whole, this book had been put out of its misery.
When the novel opens, the protagonist, Professor Alan Mackilligin, is preparing himself for his wife’s death. The first chapter contains not only a description of the relationship between Mackilligin and his wife, shown through the use of flashbacks, but also shows the effects of bereavement on the ageing art historian. Yet, whilst the issue of bereavement appears throughout the novel, forced in as a clunky leitmotif, Mackilligin does not dwell on his wife’s death for too long, as within the first chapter, he encounters Rebecca, an 18-year-old undergraduate who, in a prime example of overwrought symbolism, ‘reminded him of Vivian’. The novel continues to describe, with crude precision, the relationship between the academic and Rebecca, from the ‘rupture of her hymen’ during their first clandestine meeting, to its eventual demise.
From Thomas Mann’s A Death in Venice to Alan Hollinghurst’s The Folding Star, the literary canon is replete with novels that explore the topos of the cross-generational relationship. Yet, while Adoring Venus may purport to portray the psychological effects of the ageing process and the consequent obsession with youth, it fails to be anything more than a salacious fantasy. The focalization of the third person narrative through the central character and the tiresome overuse of rhetorical questions, may be a clumsy attempt to give insight into Mackilligin’s emotions and fears, thus creating pathos and sympathy for the bereaved protagonist. But it fails, largely because this insight conveys not the image of a fragile man, but rather that of a pretentious, selfish sexual predator more concerned with the loss of his erection, than the loss of his academic career.
If the portrayal of Mackilligin makes for uncomfortable reading, the representation of women in the novel is downright offensive. Rebecca is portrayed as unbelievably naive, and completely uninformed about current affairs, even needing Mackilligin to explain climate change.
Worse still, is her willingness to submit to the control of her ageing lover and to take the place of his late wife. Any attempt to focalize the narrative through Rebecca, or to report her speech, sounds unrealistic, as she uses an outdated lexicon and subscribes to the social mores of a bygone age, where ‘denims’ (or jeans to you and me) come to be a contrived symbol of sexual deviance.
She serves as nothing more than a two-dimensional character that represents entrenched, outdated gender stereotypes.
Should the genre be resurrected, St Andrews deserves to be the setting of a University Novel, but one that achieves verisimilitude in depicting the cultural idiosyncrasies of the historic town, rather than untrue and offensive stereotypes. It deserves a novel that is more interested in dramatizing the real-life goings-on of the students and academics, rather than indulging in lurid delusions.
This novel, I fear, will not enjoy the orgiastic success the author desires. It is, quite frankly, dreadful.