David Lodge: Changing Places
British and American novelists have had great fun mocking or condemning their academic institutions – think of Kingsley Amis in Lucky Jim, for example but David Lodge manages to poke fun in this novel at both British and American universities as well as all things British and all things American and the British view of Americans and the American views of the British and he does it in a very British low key but very funny way.
Euphoria State University is in the state of Euphoria (ha ha), a state located between southern and northern California, whose main town is Esseph (geddit?). It is typical American university – financially well endowed, with a large English faculty, whose members make good living on grants. Given that Lodge went on a visiting fellowship to the University of California, it is not difficult to guess the model. ESU has an exchange agreement with the English University of Rummidge, purely because both universities have a mock Tower of Pisa. Given that Lodge taught at the University of Birmingham (Birmingham is known as Brummidge in English slang), it is not difficult to guess the model. Rummidge is a bit run down and certainly not as well off as ESU.
Morris Zapp is the world’s leading authority on Jane Austen. However, his second marriage is breaking down and his wife, Désirée, has given him a chance to repair the marriage by moving out of the Zapp home for six months. To avoid the embarrassment of doing so publicly he decides to take advantage of the ESU/Rummidge exchange programme. On the other side of the Atlantic, Philip Swallow is the world’s leading authority on absolutely nothing, married with three children and going nowhere fast. In fact his faculty head sends him to ESU merely to get him out of the way so that he can promote a younger and more able man in his absence. Interestingly enough, Swallow has previously visited the United States and Esseph, while Zapp, despite being an expert on Austen, has never visited England before. The novel starts with each man setting out on his respective journey.
From there on, it gets complicated. Swallow, inadvertently, sleeps with Zapp’s daughter (from his first marriage) and then, quite advertently, with Zapp’s wife. Zapp, of course, sleeps with Swallow’s wife. It’s student demonstration time and Swallow becomes somewhat of a hero in ESU, while Zapp gets involved in the British version. Both become involved – despite themselves – in the local faculty politics and both do quite well out of it. Of course, it all starts to fall apart when they discover their respective spouse’s infidelity and their respective spouses discover their infidelity.
But what makes this novel so enjoyable is the wonderful way Lodge puts down both Brits and Yanks – their food and their views of the other’s food, their climate and their respective views thereof, sex (of course!), academia, architecture and real estate, transport and so on. It’s all done mockingly, not savagely. Lodge enhances the humour with his parallel lives theme, to make this one of the funniest books on academia you will ever read.
First published 1975 by Secker and Warburg