Changing Places by David Lodge (1975)

This is Lodge’s fifth novel and the one that made his name and cemented his reputation as a leading exponent of the ‘campus novel’ ie comic novels depicting the foibles and absurdities of modern university life. It is a comic masterpiece, still very funny 40 years later. It won the Hawthornden Prize and the Yorkshire Post fiction  prize.

Plot

It is 1969 and Philip Swallow, down-trodden and rather directionless English teacher at shabby Rummidge university (clearly based on Birmingham Uni where Lodge taught from 1967 to 1987) has been awarded the opportunity to teach for a term in the beautiful setting of Euphoria university in the fictional state of Euphoria (a thinly disguised version of Berkeley university, San Francisco). Meanwhile, high powered and ruthless academic operator, Morris Zapp, has likewise been offered the chance of teaching at Rummidge. And so they are changing places.

Schematic

We have observed in Lodge’s earlier novels a fondness for structuring devices – the use of three distinct timeframes for Ginger, You’re Barmy and the use of the day-in-a-life structure for The British Museum Is Falling Down, along with the deployment of literary pastiches.

Basic parallelism Changing Places is similarly self-aware. The fundamental structure (job swap) is not just the starting point for the novel but structures the entire plot: the novel opens by cross-cutting between their flights  – which are occurring at the same time – and goes on to describe their arrivals in their respective cities, their struggles to find accommodation, their first impressions of their new campuses and colleagues. The most obvious parallelism is that, after various amorous adventures and mishaps, they both find themselves having affairs which each other’s wives.

The parallelism isn’t subtly buried. It is prominent from the start, in the opening chapter where the narration cuts between the two protagonists in their respective flights, coping with airplane food and eccentric fellow passengers.

And the obviousness of the devices is part of their humour. Lodge is saying: ‘See! It is all a construct, all a game.’ The overtness of the contrivance contributes to its comic effect.

Literary forms This is further emphasised by the use of Modernist literary devices ie the novel is divided into six part, several of which are written in highly artificial, very literary, formats. Section three – titled Corresponding – contains letters between the errant professors and their wives, who have stayed at home. It is a homage to, or pastiche of, the classic epistolary novel of the 18th century (in fact the earliest novels all consisted entirely of letters between the main characters eg Pamela or Clarissa). Section four – Reading – moves the plot on by means of cuttings taken from newspapers, press releases and student newspapers. And the final, sixth, section – Ending – describing how the two professors and their wives converge on New York for a summit conference about their marriages – is cast in the form of a movie screenplay (cut to… close up of… sound effect… etc).

The funny thing is that none of this detracts from the comedy. On the contrary, it makes the reading experience more enjoyable, makes you feel the book is smart and witty, and makes you feel smart and witty for ‘getting’ it.

Watered down It is noteworthy, in passing, how the use of effects like this – first, and often best, deployed in the great masterpiece of Modernism, James Joyce’s Ulysses – caused outrage and confusion back in 1922 – but 50 years later has been tamed and domesticated. What was – and still reads as – an epic disruption of the entire notion of reading in Joyce’s hands, has been made totally acceptable to a Sunday supplement audience in what is, essentially, a tale of suburban wife-swapping.

Maturity

Describing it as a ‘masterpiece’ makes it sound a little too hard-edged, a little too cut-throat for the amiable Lodge universe. What makes it so brilliant and so much better than its predecessors is, I think, its imaginative depth. Given the extent of the overt schematic described above, the surprising thing is how persuasive the characters and incidents are: they manage to be predictable but also, unexpectedly ‘real’.

For example, both professors have difficulty finding accommodation in their new cities, and the stereotypical depiction of Rummidge’s freezing, unheated and badly plumbed houses is as funny as Swallow’s adventures in wonderfully convenient but liable-to-subsidence Californian apartment. The topic is all-too-predictable, but the treatment is highly observant and full of persuasive details.

The irksome English student, Charles Boon, who Swallow encounters on the flight out and fancies he’ll impress with his knowledge of America, takes him and the plot by surprise by turning out to be a kind of student radical superstar, with his own radio phone-in show, leading various protests, totally at home in the world of pot parties and very available young women.

I smiled when Zapp discovers his flight to England is populated almost entirely by young American women travelling here to take advantage of the newly-liberalised abortion laws. He is disconcerted by the questionable morality of this, but sinks his head in his hands when his blithely confident neighbour explains that she’s not only pregnant but the father is her Catholic priest. O tempora, O mores. So far, so wryly funny. But this woman, Mary Makepeace, goes on to play a larger role than you might have expected, turning up later on in a strip club Zapp visits on a bored weekday, having decided not to go through with the abortion but finding herself penniless. Zapp helps her out of that situation and, through a series of comic coincidences, into finding accommodation and then friendship with Swallow’s wife, Hilary.

In a peculiar way, the very schematicness of the design ends up giving the story greater plausibility. Comedy needs the right ambience: there must be an establishing mood which permits laughter. (Although, admittedly, you can still have the comedy of hate or of despair.) But the right kind of humane comedy can go to a deeper level, where it mingles with or reveals – not epically profound truths about human nature – but what we recognise as something like the actual warp and woof of experience, unexpected turn-ups, strange coincidences, who’d-have-thought-it moments.

The wives

This depth of experience is exemplified by the wives in the novel, Desirée Zapp and Hilary Sparrow. It would have remained a kind of comedy of manners and an exercise in comparing rainy embarrassed Englishmen with sunny go-ahead Yanks, if not for the presence of Desirée and Hilary. They very effectively throw cold water on their husbands’ horny fantasies. They remind us of the difficulties and challenges of middle age, of looking after children, of responsibility, which the holidaying men are all too ready to throw off.

Possibly the funniest part of this consistently funny book is the series of letters between husbands and wives in part three. Lodge shows how the epistolary form is still remarkably effective because it allows the characters to express what’s important for them in a quick, flexible way, without the author having to set up and describe elaborate scenes. A character can just write ‘Oh and another thing…’

A lot of the comedy comes from the wives’ deflation of their husbands’ heroic self-images, but they quickly emerge as strong, well-defined characters in their own rights. Desirée is a tough, no-nonsense, ‘ball-breaker’ as her husband describes her, who, during the course of the novel, discovers and starts taking part in the new Women’s Liberation movement. A lot of her repartee is laugh-out-loud funnily frank and blunt and crude and spot-on in its skewering of her pretentious husband.

But I found myself coming to like Hilary most of all. She is the model of the harassed, embarrased, prudish English stay-at-home wife, worrying if they can afford central heating and whether the irritating knocking noise from the washing machine means they need to buy a new one. Her response to Philip’s furtive admission that he’s been unfaithful is both funny and oddly moving. She responds with cold fury (she goes straight out and buys the central heating system she’s abstained from for so long) but is also plunged into confusion about how to deal with the horny advances of Professor Zapp – now Philip has been unfaithful, should she match him? (It is one among many comic strands that Zapp, fed up of eating TV dinners, is interested at least as much in her wonderful cooking as her body.)

Hilary’s disorientation, her on-again, off-again reponses to the randy Yank, her uncertainty about how to cope with the completely unprecedented situation, are at the same time very funny, but also moving and ‘real’. And also a fascinating indication of the social history of the time, when millions of traditionally-minded people were having to assimilate radical disruptions in society and behaviour.

Hilary to Philip

… But quite apart from the expense and the problem of the children, Philip, I don’t think I would want to fly out anyway. I’ve read through your letter very carefully and I’m afraid I can’t avoid the conclusion that you desire my presence mainly for the purpose of lawful sexual intercourse. I suppose you’ve been frightened off attempting any more extra-marital adventures, but the Euphoric spring has heated your blood to the extent that you’re prepared to fly me six thousand miles to obtain relief. I’m afraid I’d find it a strain coming over in that kind of context, Philip. Even the 17-day excursion fare costs £165-15-6, and nothing I can do in bed could possibly be worth that money. (1978 Penguin paperback edition, page 150)

It’s funny. It’s clever. It’s moving. It’s thought-provoking. Changing Places is a really brilliant novel.

Related links

Oh happy day

This song is referenced in the text as a hit of early 1969, on the radio in the background while the characters go about their adventures.

David Lodge’s novels

1960 – The Picturegoers
1962 – Ginger, You’re Barmy – Jonathan Browne is fresh from gaining a First in English when he is plunged into National Service among brutal proles and cruel NCOs in a windswept barracks in Yorkshire. Onto this amiable backdrop is nailed a melodramatic story about his friend at university, Mike the ginger-haired renegade of the title, attacking a cruel NCO, being imprisoned, being spring by the IRA, and then forced to return to make a raid on the barracks which Jonathan, by freakish coincidence, ends up foiling.
1965 – The British Museum Is Falling Down – a day in the life of young academic Adam Appleby, unhappy Catholic father of three, who spends a day at the BM failing to do any research and finds himself embroiled in more and more comic complexities, all the time panic-stricken that his wife might be pregnant for an unbearable fourth time.
1970 – Out of the Shelter – the boyhood and teenage years of Timothy Young, child of very ordinary suburban London parents, who is a toddler during the Blitz, a boy at the end of the war, and a teenager when he goes to stay with his older sister in post-war Germany, where he makes all kinds of discoveries about war and peace and life and love.
1975 – Changing Places: A Tale of Two Campuses – It is January 1969 and two English Literature professors are swapping jobs for a term: down-trodden Englishman Philip Swallow is heading for the Californian delights of Euphoria State University, and lit crit superstar Morris Zapp is heading towards rundown rainy Rummidge University. How will they cope with the resulting culture shocks? A hilariously knowing romp, a sophisticated comedy classic.
1980 – How Far Can You Go?
1984 – Small World: An Academic Romance
1988 – Nice Work
1991 – Paradise News
1995 – Therapy
2001 – Thinks …
2004 – Author, Author
2008 – Deaf Sentence
2011 – A Man of Parts

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