It’s a playful novel of two English professors — Morris Zapp from the prestigious West Coast school, Euphoric State (think the University of California at Berkeley), and Philip Swallow from the second-tier British school in a blue-collar city, the University of Rummidge (think of the University of Birmingham) — who trade positions for the spring term in 1969.
That was a tumultuous year on college campuses in the U.S. and elsewhere, and also the year in which Lodge, an English professor at Birmingham, served as a visiting professor at Berkeley.
So, in Changing Places, Lodge is taking the opportunity to compare and contrast, and gently send up, the academic communities in both places.
Foolish but not fools
And, like just about every well-done academic novel (except the bleak yet revelatory Stoner by John Williams), Changing Places is a comedy. Its characters are generally foolish. Lodge, however, is no ogre. He doesn’t make them fools.
Zapp, for instance, is one of those swashbucklers of the intellectual scene who are so brilliant and so aware of their brilliance that they can’t help but rankle their colleagues.
He’s irritated so many, in fact, that, when his second wife tells him that she is going to divorce him, he knows he will be ridiculed for getting thrown out of his house on his ear. So, Zapp jumps at the chance to flee to Rummidge as a way to avoid the jeers.
Yet, once there, he isn’t quite himself. For instance, he gives his landlord, a doctor, a ride to and from a patient’s home.
“God bless you, Mr. Zapp. It’s terribly good of you to turn out on a night like this.”…[I]t was good of him, uncharacteristically good of Morris Zapp. The truth of the sentiment struck him more and more forcibly as he sat in the cold and cheerless parlor of the Reilly house waiting for O’Shea to finish his ministrations, and as he drove him back through the shadowy streets, listening with half an ear to lurid descriptions of Mrs. Reilly’s symptoms. He cast his mind back over the day — helping Mrs. Swallow look for her husband’s book, letting the Irish kid watch his TV, driving O’Shea around to his patients — and wondered what had come over him. Some creeping English disease of being nice, was it? He would have to watch himself.
A novel about novels
Meanwhile, at Euphoric State, across the bay from Esseph (think San Francisco), Swallow finds himself not only living amid continual campus unrest but also knee-deep — or, better put, waist-deep — in the sexual revolution.
And, like Zapp, Swallow succumbs (in his case, probably more willingly) to the local mores. He has a one-nighter with a sweetly willing co-ed. And then a full-fledged affair. With Zapp’s wife.
The exchange of positions, indeed, has the two men and their wives flapping about like four fish in the bottom of a rowboat. And it’s funny. Yet, Lodge aims at more than entertaining his readers.
This is a literary novel inasmuch as it seeks — in this case, through humor — to address the quirks and foibles of human nature. But not just human nature. This is also a novel about novels, and it approaches that subject on two levels.
As English professors, the two men are caught up to one extent or another in the wars of literary theory then raging. Lodge’s attitude isn’t that any particular concept is right or wrong, but, taken to extremes, they’re all pretty silly.
Literature was never about what it appeared to be about, though in the case of the novel considerable ingenuity and perception were needed to crack the code of realistic illusion, which was why he had been professionally attracted to the genre (even the dumbest critic understood that Hamlet wasn’t about how the guy could kill his uncle, or the Ancient Mariner about cruelty to animals, but it was surprising how many people thought that Jane Austen’s novels were about finding Mr. Right). The failure to keep the categories of life and literature distinct led to all kinds of heresy and nonsense; to “liking” and “not liking” books for instance, preferring some authors to others and suchlike whimsicalities which, he had constantly to remind his students, were of no conceivable interest to anyone except themselves (sometimes he shocked them by declaring that, speaking personally on this low, subjective level, he found Jane Austen a pain in the ass.)
That’s funny in many ways. “Mr. Right,” for instance. And Jane Austen as a pain the ass. And, even more, in Zapp’s refusal to recognize the desire of readers for books that they find interesting. That, in other words, they like.
Genius with a capital “G”
Then there is the book that Zapp finds on Swallow’s bookshelves and starts to read, Let’s Write a Novel by A. J. Beamish:
“Every novel must tell a story,” it began.
“Oh, dear, yes,” Morris commented sardonically.
“And there are three types of essay, the story that ends happily, the story that ends unhappily, and the story that ends neither happily nor unhappily, or, in other words, doesn’t really end at all.”
Aristotle lives! Morris was intrigued in spite of himself….
“The best kind of story is the one with a happy ending; the next best is the one with an unhappy ending, and the worst kind is the story that has no ending at all. The novice is advised to begin with the first kind of story. Indeed, unless you have Genius, you should never attempt any other kind.”
“You’ve got something there, Beamish,” Morris murmured.
This is the antithesis of Zapp’s approach to literature, as wrong and as right, in its way, as his. For instance, the capitalizing of “Genius” is hilarious. Yet, it’s also right on the mark.
Remind readers about the writer
The other approach that Changing Places takes as a novel of novels is metafictional.
A work of metafiction — all the rage in the 1960s and 1970s — presents the story but also draws attention to its made-up nature by various techniques that remind the reader about the writer and about the manufacture of the tale.
The book’s six chapters, for instance, are written in a variety of literary styles. The opening one has an omniscient narrator with omniscient readers. Regarding the differences between Zapp and Swallow, each flying on planes in opposite directions to their temporary postings, Lodge writes:
One of these differences we can take in at a glance from our privileged narrative altitude (higher than that of any jet). It is obvious from his stiff, upright posture, and fulsome gratitude to the stewardess serving him a glass of orange juice, that Philip Swallow, flying westward, is unaccustomed to air travel; while to Morris Zapp, slouched in the seat of his eastbound aircraft, chewing a dead cigar…and glowering at the meager portion of ice dissolving in his plastic tumble of bourbon, the experience of long-distance air travel is tediously familiar.
Newspaper stories make up the whole of another chapter. A third is written in the epistolary style, i.e., it’s comprised of letters between the characters. The closing chapter is in the form of a screenplay.
Many writers use metafiction as a means of showing off their literary and intellectual dexterity. That doesn’t seem to be Lodge’s reason.
My suspicion is that all of this is his way of commenting the title of a course that Swallow is ordered to teach at Euphoric State, the Death of the Novel.
If, in Changing Places, Lodge is able to delight, stir and prick the minds and emotions of readers — and he certainly has — how dead can the novel be?
Patrick T. Reardon