Too many of my friends are academics, so when I spotted a comic novel about them on the 501 list, it leaped into my To Be Read pile. This 1970s tale concerns meek “English Lit” lecturer Philip Swallow, from a small university in the UK, doing a job-swap with Morris Zapp, a Lotus-driving ladies man professor from a prestigous unversity in the US. Each man becomes entangled in the other’s life – drawn into faculty politics and affairs of the heart. The novel follows the chaos which ensues.
Set at time when women’s rights were a fiery topic it’s not surprising to find issues from that era cropping up. Although as a modern reader I thought it would have been more interesting to show one of the academics being a woman, particularly as both Philip and Morris appear pretty clueless about the female of the species.
Amazingly, the differences between the UK and US university systems which Lodge lampoons in the story still remain largely in place. Quibbling over the placement of a question mark (or query mark?) hasn’t changed. Relationships haven’t changed much either, as proven when the two academics are drawn into various relationships with wives and students. Hence the novel hasn’t dated as much as I thought it might have since publication in 1975, although I don’t recall anti-war protests on campus during my undergrad days.
Like Edmund Crispin’s “The Moving Toyshop” this novel delights in literary jokes – a character mocks epistolary novels in a letter in a novel, for example. He isn’t above slap-stick either. I loved his elevator chase scene. Like Melville’s “Moby Dick” Lodge enjoys trying out different forms within the story so don’t be too surprised when he slips into screenplay format or press releases.
Did I enjoy “Changing Places”, yes, although at times the prose veers towards pompous and preachy. Who might enjoy this short novel (234 pages)? Anybody who studied English at university, in fact anybody who studied any subject and likes the idea of seeing what really goes on behind the closed doors of their lecturers’ offices. Although they’re not all as outlandish at Swallow and Zapp, honest.
(Read August 2013)