Tag Archives: humour

“Changing Places” by David Lodge

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)

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“The Pursuit of Love” by Nancy Mitford

Nancy Mitford, famous society author between 1930 and 1960, is sometimes hailed as the inventor of chick-lit. This book, though fiction, draws heavily on her own childhood between World Wars I and II. As a writer of women’s fiction myself I was delighted to be given “The Pursuit of Love”. I could both knock a book off the 501 List and satisfy my curiosity at the same time.

I can state though, this is not chick-lit in the normal sense of the word. It hard for a post-feminist reader to identify with women who depend so entirely on their husbands and fathers for their livelihoods. Add in the fact that money is never an issue for those swanning around leaky country houses, and happily hunting for foxes between debutant balls, and you’ve got a world that the average modern working girl can’t see as “normal”.

In fact, I think this book is a tragedy, albeit with some very funny moments. It opens with a nostalgic, beautifully written, description of an old family photograph depicting the family the narrator, Fanny, often stays with. The family, modelled on Mitford’s own, is eccentric to a fault, but we mainly follow the loves and trials of Linda, Fanny’s cousin, as she swerves from one awful relationship to the next. First she marries a soul-less conservative MP, then adores an idealistic communist who is barely aware of her existance, and finds real love, with compromises, as a mistress to a French duke and resistance fighter in war-torn Paris, but even then she lacks the happy ending which is a hallmark of modern chick-lit.

Fanny meanwhile lives a more ordinary life, rears children, deals with the “pinpicks” of daily life and its irritations and is easier to empathise with. Particularly as Linda avoids contact with her daughter, Moira, to avoid being tied down to the father. This is her one really heartless action in the book and it’s hard to forgive.

Mitford’s dialogue is brilliantly observed and even the smaller characters are vividly painted. Uncle Matthew is a hilarious lunatic lord playing classical music loudly to wake the house at dawn. The other cousins elope to America or run off to fight in the Spanish civil war. The family in the black and white portrait at the start of the novel is far from boring, and the story of their lives is equally entertaining, even if their world no longer exists.

(read Spring 2011)

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