Top positive review
22 people found this helpful
Umberto Eco Rated this Book as the funniest novel ever
on 12 June 2001
The story takes place in 1969 as two professors, American Morris Zapp and Englishman Philip Swallow swap places at each other's universities. Swallow goes to Zapp's Euphoric State University (California, probably Berkeley) and Zapp goes to Swallow's University of Rummidge in England's Midlands, (probably Birmingham). In Changing Places David Lodge is an academic writing about academics.
In the background students are revolting, feminism is beginning, US consumerism is rampaging and the prominent English welfare state is becoming more and more worn out. In the foreground the comparison of the two worlds of academe, English and American, becomes a microcosm for the two nations as a whole. The novel explores how the two professors (and their respective wives), become reciprocally aware of how much their life-style and their set of values, inside and outside the Academe, owe to what they progressively recognize as one's own and the other's national identity and character. Literary criticism too is a distinct feature of national identity: Zapp is a champion of specialization, while Swallow despises theory as something un-English.
Swallow sees the Americans as being better off but not having a better life than the English. They are more cynical and he is uncomfortable with the way they place the pursuit of their own ends above nearly everything. Zapp sees England as gloomy, poor, shabby and boring, linked to welfare solidarity and unaware of the power of free enterprise, but he is impressed by family bonds, the warmth of human relationships and the survival of moral scruples.
Neither side wins and no sterotypes are allowed since the narrator invites the reader to sit beside him and at his detached height judge by his own common sense. Common sense of course being a characteristic that the English value very highly.
In Changing Places literature claims a social conscience, an ability to go beyond the surface of things, an ability even to be self-critical. Literature emerges as a form of discourse which wants to increase the reader's critical and literary competence. To emphasise this point Lodge uses a narrative technique that incorporates other forms of communication and exposes their weaknesses. Newspaper articles are shown to have a bogus claim to transparency. Film's claim to represent reality is shown to be limited.
The use of the campus novel is in itself an intriguing facet of Englishness. It offers social analysis but confined to a small arena and can be located between high-brow and low-brow. The style is usually in the form of popular satire but because it often involves writers teaching writing at university it raises itself to a level of seriousness. Satire shows only the weak sides of a society to enhance a critical laughter but the novel's literary status is very high thanks to its sophisticated narrative technique and because an understanding of society's weak sides has been shown to us by the 'wise author' who keeps claiming the privileged social and moral role devised for him by F.R. Leavis. Ultimately the reader is only mildly challenged by the novel and is invited to share the view of the narrator. Overall the novel re-inforces the privileged position of literature, while it updates the traditional narrative techniques of the novel.
In a foreword to the French translation of Changing places, Umberto Eco described it as the funniest novel of the 20th Century. I can only agree.