Yet another Lodge success. This offers everything you come to expect of him: clever but not self-indulgent tricks, humanity, humour, brilliant plotting and wisdom. Morris Zapp and Phillip Swallow, both academics, one American, one English, swap jobs and the differences between the two worlds on either side of the Atlantic are shown up, both academic and social. The book is especially interesting if you want to be reminded just how much Britain has changed in the last thirty five years because the period detail is magnificent. Morris Zapp could almost by a time traveller when he gawps at British simplicities. Perhaps Lodge's greatest trick is to turn ordinary human beings heroes and heroines and very subtly demonstrate the change in their character in response to events. Hillary Swallow, for example, blossoms from a frumpy periphery character to a rounded personality.
David Lodge is one of those authors that are deeply popular and critically acclaimed that much to my shame I had never read. The careful readers amongst you will notice that I used the word had, as I have put this little incident behind me after reading Changing Places, one of Lodge’s earlier works, which for what it is worth won the Hawthornden Prize and the Yorkshire Post fiction prize. Written in 1975, this book tells the story of two lecturers in English Literature, one English and one American, who take part in a teacher exchange scheme. Philip Swallow, journeys to the fictional location of Euphoria on the west coast of America, whilst Morris Zapp makes the return trip to the fictional English location of Rummidge. Neither mans wife makes the trip with their husband so these are two men let loose for the first time in a while. The trip is far more beneficial to Philip, as Euphoria is a beautiful area, with a university of International acclaim whilst Rummidge (which seems to resemble Birmingham) is a dark industrial town, with a university that has trouble establishing itself within its own country, let alone abroad. Moreover, Philip is a staid Englishman, happy to plod along, teach his students, without ever publishing anything or really settling on any area or author that catches his attention completely. Opposing this character is Morris, ambitious, well published, seen as the expert on Jane Austen and a harsh teacher, demanding the best from his students. Fates conspire to give both lecturers similar experiences, despite the distance between them, there is unrest on both campuses and both men play a key part in student relationships, by accident and choice. Philip and Morris, experience an awakening of character, with both men, changing through the experience, whilst keeping their defining characteristics; and both men discover a taste for each other’s wives. Neatly bolted onto this basic story are plot
lines about student unrest and the challenge by minorities of all shape and from to the establishment that took place in the 1960s. Both campuses are beseeched by disgruntled students, wanting more power over the running of universities and more accountability to the student body of those with power over the university. This in part shows the influence of the US over England, as the Euphoria campus had conceded to student demands some years beforehand; offering studenst the chance to publish their own booklet of their views on the courses offered and the lecturer running them. If I had to put this book into a pigeonhole, I would say that it is a farce, much along the lines of Tom Sharpe’s Porterhouse Blue. Both men find themselves involved in hilarious comic situations as the plot gathers speed and momentum and turns from the sublime to the ridiculous, with oppressed Catholic housemaids, mad heads of department with a zeal for shooting any living thing, drugged up orgies, arrest and hero worship. Lodge’s writing style is simply superb, the prose is very tightly constructed and flows beautifully, whilst portraying a wickedly funny and clever storyline. Lodge brilliantly captures those haphazard and embarrassing moments that happen to all, with a sparkling quick wit. To add to this Lodge has tried to innovate in his writing and succeeds beautifully. Two chapters in the book, of some 50 pages are told via correspondence between the men and their wives and newspaper snippets. To find a book that has done something refreshing with the novel as a genre, which actually works in making the book more interesting to read is marvellously uplifting and adds a great deal of appeal to this novel. The characters are marvellously portrayed, with the Englishman being quite, afraid of offending people, polite and staid; whilst the American is loud, brash, ambitious and confident. This is also a book full of ideas and social comm
entary, as mentioned it charts the civil injustice felt by students of the 1960s and 1970s, it charts the women’s liberation movement and its spread from the US to England, the yoga, hippie free love era of the 1960s as women realise that they are not controlled by men they are there own people and can sleep with who they like, when they like. Changing places is also a critique on academia itself, with the poorly qualified and motivated English lecturers given a thorough pasting, along with student’s generally lazy attitudes. (Do not take offence students, I was one once and I know what goes on!) It is also a critique of the American system, which seems to place a huge emphasis on how many articles a lecturer has published, rather than how good a teacher they are. It is true that in this respect Changing Places draws inspiration from Kingsley Amis’s, Lucky Jim. There is more, this book has philosophical ideas behind it. Do one person’s actions have a ripple effect and impact elsewhere in the world? Does fate control everything, or can you control your own life? There is no answer posed by the book, but the questions are put out into the open. Finally, Lodge’s own frustrations with contemporary novels are portrayed, with the death of the traditional novel being a subject for discussion in the final chapter. Will films take over the medium of the written word? Why are all novels written in the same manner, do people not have the brains to evolve the medium? Lodge makes the point that with a film you can never be sure when it is going to end, thus it can shock the watcher more easily than a novel, when you always know how many pages are left. I agree with this to an extent, but today you nearly always know the length of a film and so can check how close you are to the end with a quick look at your watch. However, bucking the trend again Lodge ends this book with a flourish that will leave the reader ra
ther shocked. Do I recommend this. Yes, whole heartedly, this is a funny, well written and easy to read book, with plenty of ideas behind it and a fast running storyline which keeps you hooked into the plot and demanding to know what happens next. Lodge is an author that I will be reading more of and I was thoroughly impressed. The book is published by Penguin, costs £5.99 and is 251 pages long, or short depending on the word that you prefer!
This is an expertly written tale of what happens when two very different men exchange roles. On a deeper level it leads to the question, are all of our lives and fates interlinked? However, I'm not a fan of philosophy and I like to read a book for entertainment, and I certainly got that! The main characters: Morris Zapp: qualifiations:phd, publications:many, the authority on Jane Austen, description: tenacious, well respected. Phillip Swallow: qualifications:no phd, publications:not enough, description:sallow, cosy, not promotion material. Somehow these two men swap jobs and end up swapping wives (quite by accident!). The style employed by Lodge is captivating, he cuts back and forth betwen the two characters as their lives become eachothers and uses newspaper cuttings and letters to keep up the pace. It really is impossible to put down, an astute take on what might have been in tha world of academia set against a swinging sixties background. I would certainly recommend it!
The plate-glass, concrete jungle of Euphoria State University, USA, and the damp red-brick University of Rummidge have an annual exchange scheme. Normally the exchange passes without comment. But when Philip Swallow swaps with Professor Zapp the fates play a hand.