David Lodge

 

Changing Places

 

A middle aged daydream – where adultery is harmless fun. Maybe Lodge is giving himself more leeway than usual (although felicitous adultery is pretty much his modus operandi) in evoking something of the legendary wild sexually free spirit of the late 60s Californian US campus – but it smacks a lot more of fantasy than insight. Still, he’s enormously readable – and the opening extended comparative descriptions of Morris and Phillip had me in from the first few pages. There is insight in his Citizens of the World describing familiar settings through fresh eyes – not a bad trick for the one author. His analysis of the differing educational systems of the States and the UK is at once engaging and perceptive: I particularly liked the way he highlighted the way the British system climaxes before your career even starts:

Four times, under our educational rules, the human pack is shuffled and cut – at eleven plus, sixteen plus, eighteen plus and twenty plus – and happy is he who comes top of the deck on each occasion, but especially the last. This is called Finals, the very name of which implies that nothing of importance can happen after it.

While it’s not quite as extreme in Australia, there are definite shades of the build up and aftermath of the behemoth HSC (in NSW anyway) with the feeling that now everything is set in an unchangeable course.

 

He runs with the whole ‘Changing Places’ daydream, finding it delicious fun. I can see what he’s doing with Phillip Swallow – there is something magical in suddenly seeming to regain your youth when for whatever reason you find you’ve shrugged off the responsibility of being ‘Dad’, even just for a weekend. And England, as symbolised by the utterly sensible and penurious Hillary, is a wonderful thing to escape (through no personal fault). Still, it’s wonderful to spend lots of money, eat out, and sleep in instead of go to work – in some ways the hallmarks of youth – but Lodge despite his age keeps charging on: the freedom of fiction. Even to the point of steadily converging the pairs of spouses – consequence free! It’s all a marvellous game. There’s no reaping: it’s all just sewing.

 

I do enjoy Lodge’s character descriptions – the observations and the way he relates them. And, sure, this daydream races along entertainingly with all manner of unlikely comic events. But I do get put off when in his otherwise (while exaggerated) pretty authentic world the stuff of light humour is adultery. Another age enjoyed, for example, the antics of the black and white minstrels – but isn’t it fortunate that now we’re more aware of the fact that it wasn’t all just singin’ an’ dancin’ with those funny looking monkey people down on the plantation? The minstrel daydream celebrated white self-deception that slavery was just fine for all concerned, and I feel like Lodge is doing the same about adultery.

 

“C’mon, get off your high horse, it’s just some harmless fun.” Which was that – the minstrels or the adultery?

 

Following Lodge’s lead of setting up a mirror in this book, for a foil why not have look at Penelope Lively’s Heat Wave for, perhaps, a wife’s perspective on the harmless hijinks of Changing Places. Lively’s habit of having downright baddies makes her in some ways less pleasant company than the ebullient Lodge (who from his secure position rarely seems to have it in for anyone) but I think Heat Wave would make a very worthwhile sequel.

 

October 2005

2nd reading

(First in 1992?)