Lots of people have comfort food, or a song that always puts them in a good mood, or a movie that takes away the blues (one of mine would be Singing’ in the Rain), but for me it’s a certain kind of book. (And yes, I did rhyme that sentence on purpose. Why? Who knows.)
A couple of weeks ago I managed to do something unfunny to my ankle while doing yoga. (If ever you wanted a reason to give up yoga, I now have evidence that it’s actually bad for you.) As a result I have been resting my foot and reading a lot. When I’m ill or I want to be cheered up there are some books I turn to time and time again. They include Cold Comfort Farm, the novels of Nancy Mitford and the short stories of Noel Coward, and The Chronicles of Narnia (you’re never too old) amongst others.
A few days ago I returned to a book that I hadn’t read for years, or rather three books: the David Lodge trilogy of Changing Places, Small World and Nice Work, which I first bought and read in 1994. I’d say I’ve read it at least six times since then. The books are campus novels set in the fictional university of Rummidge, England (based on Birmingham). In Changing Places, Philip Swallow, a professor of English Literature, takes part in a six month academic exchange with his American counterpart Morris Zapp, a professor from a university in Plotinus, Euphoria (based on Berkley in California). The programme has huge implications for both professors, both professionally and romantically, and they return to their positions changed men.
Or do they? After all, how much can anyone really change? This is explored in Small World, which revisits Swallow and Zapp’s stories and adds new characters including Persse McGarrigle from the University of Limerick (which didn’t actually exist at the time of publication). Nice Work tells the story of Dr. Robyn Penrose, another professor from Rummidge, who again takes part in an exchange programme (called the Shadow Scheme) except this time the focus is not academic but instead commercial. Robyn shadows Vic Wilcox, manager of an engineering firm, for two months and then the situations are reversed.
Lodge was himself a professor of English Literature at the University of Birmingham (thus proving once again that every writer draws from their own life in one way or another) and is a very well regarded literary critic, all of which is evident throughout the books as they contain allusions to other novels, elements of pastiche and satire, plus lengthy descriptions of subjects such as semiotics and the industrial novel.
But even though the narrative is set in the world of high academia, it is not a difficult read as a result. In fact the books are very very funny, which is why I have read them so many times. Lodge has a particular knack for sympathetic character description (even though the characters can be bumbling idiots) and he excels in constructing comic sentences, finding the perfect word or turn of phrase that makes you laugh rather than just smile.
Lodge’s book, The Art of Fiction, has been on my Amazon wishlist for ages. It will make the perfect addition to the ‘writers on writing’ section of my library, and now that I’ve been reminded of my love for Lodge, I think it’s my next purchase.
Here’s a short BBC interview with Mr. Lodge from 2008 in which he mentions the novels.