From the 1960s to the 1980s, campus fiction was a version of pastoral, comically recounting erotic antics, ideological squabbles and international misunderstandings peculiar to an academia depicted as a world apart, disconnected from the rest of society. In the past decade, however, the tone has become more sombre: David Mamet’s Oleanna, J M Coetzee’s Disgrace and now Philip Roth’s The Human Stain trace the downfall of male academics, ostracised when real or perceived sexual transgressions come to light. And these stories are clearly conceived as having wider resonance, mirroring or foreshadowing the loss of authority of other father figures, including political leaders.
Sexual misbehaviour is not the initial offence of Coleman Silk, Roth’s truculent professor, whose fall results instead from casually enquiring, before a lecture, about two missing students, ‘Does anyone know these people? Are they spooks?’ Although unaware that the absentees are black, he is accused of racism, and – devastated