Nice Work by David Lodge

Nice Work

David Lodge

Penguin Books.  1988.  277 pgs.

Man Booker Prize Shortlist, 1988.

Other books I’ve read by Lodge:  the wonderful Deaf Sentence and Changing Places.  Nice Work is the third Lodge book  about fictional Rummidge University — a stand-in for the University of Birmingham, UK.  If I give myself a break from the Challenge soon, I’d like to slip in another Lodge — possibly Small World, which is another Rummidge book.

Guardian 1,000 Challenge:  Comedy titles

Vic Wilcox, an industrialist and Robyn Penrose, a university professor have been coerced into participating in a feel-good university-community project that has Robyn spending each Wednesday shadowing Vic at his gritty factory-foundry.  Vic and Robyn are as about unlikely a couple as can be:  Vic is a non-nonsense “buy British” sort of guy with a Polytech background; Robyn drives a Renault and is an untidy intellectual who teaches Womens’ Studies and specializes in Victorian Industrial novels.   Robyn hates Vic’s factory and her visits turn everything in his world upside down.  She nearly incites a strike among the workers and wages a campaign against the girly calendars that are posted throughout the plant.  As you might suspect, the sparks flying between these two characters eventually ignite something else and Vic and Robyn’s overnight trip to an industrial trade show in Frankfort, Germany turns out to be one of the high-lights of the book.

This is one of the most entertaining novels I think I have ever read.  I had the added delight of tracking Lodge’s clever parody of Gaskell’s North and South — with Robyn as Margaret Hale to Vic’s John Thorton.  Thanks to my Challenge reading I actually appreciated all of Lodge’s allusions.  Another pleasure was the cast of  great secondary characters:  I particularly enjoyed Vic’s valium-popping wife, Marge, and even his spoiled and bratty kids.  Robyn’s crowd over at Rummidge U included  a doddery and eccentric Philip Swallow, who we met in Changing Places, and a crew of other roundly-satirized academics.  Add in Robyn’s refined and genteel parents (aka Mr. and Mrs Hale) from the South of England, a Victorian ex deus machina twist that pulls the plot together and a surprise visit from the famous Prof. Maurice Zapp from Changing Places to help Robyn make up her mind on an important matter — and you have the perfect ending.  Although the writing is so good and Vic and Robyn’s characters so memorable you just don’t want this one to end.

Two by David Lodge: Changing Places and Deaf Sentence

Changing Places:  A Tale of Two Campuses

David Lodge

Penguin Books.  1975.  251 pgs.

Guardian 1,000 Challenge:  Comedy Titles

This is the story of two very different English professors:  one English and one American, who participate in an exchange program requiring them to switch campuses and teaching duties for a semester.  The English professor, Philip Swallow, is a quiet, repressed sort without a particular drive to succeed in his career, or in his life.  His participation in the exchange program is actually manipulated behind his back through some complex campus political chicanery — actually the poor guy is being screwed out of a promotion and his department head figures he won’t notice while he’s over in America.  The American professor, Morris Zapp, is the antithesis of Swallow.  As Lodge describes him:   “His needs were simple:  a temperate climate, a good library, plenty of inviting ass around the place and enough money to keep him in cigars and liquor….” Zapp’s motivation to switch places with Swallow is his need to get away from his wife, Desiree, who is threatening divorce and getting involved with Women’s Liberation.  Zapp figures his trip to England will provide the cooling-off period he needs to get Desiree under control.  It’s not as though Zapp loves his wife so much, but he doesn’t care to be humiliated by her or have his comfortable life disturbed.

The rest of the book is a funny comparison between the thinly disguised University of Birmingham (U.K.) and University of California, Berkeley, circa 1969.   Both professors have to deal with the madness of campus unrest and social revolution — layered against the funny cultural differences of being an American at a U.K. campus and a Englishman at an American campus.  Throw in a heavy dose of sexual adventures on both sides of the Atlantic and this must have been a very amusing and daring novel when it was published in the mid-1970’s.  There’s a great deal of literary cleverness in it, too.  Prof. Zapp’s specialty is Jane Austin (he named his two children Elizabeth and Darcy) and there are amusing Austin references in the book.  The problem I had with Changing Places is that none of the main characters are particularly likable.  In sum, this was an interesting anachronism that I wouldn’t have read except for the Challenge.

Deaf Sentence

Penguin Books.  2008.  294 pgs. with acknowledgments.

The same author, over 30 years later!  What a difference.  I totally loved this book.  It was not part of the Guardian Challenge, but I think it should have been.

What’s the same:  Lodge is still dealing with academic life — the main character is a retired linguistics professor.

What’s different:  the big themes of mortality and aging.  From what I’ve read, I suspect some of the book is autobiographical.  The main character, Desmond Bates, is struggling painfully with his encroaching deafness — and David Lodge is also dealing with that disability.  In addition, Prof. Bates is acting as care-taker to his feisty, but rapidly disintegrating, elderly father.  The elder Mr Bates — Harry — an unforgettable former band musician, is evidently modeled on Lodge’s own father who was a musician in and around London in the 1940’s and 1950’s.  I’m wondering if the reality of all of this is what gives the book its strong, true and even tender, nuances.

This may all sound a bit depressing.  The pain of deafness is described with heart-breaking reality.  Desmond’s relationship with his wife is difficult due to his depression, the impact of aging on his sexuality and her impatience with his inability, or unwillingness to take action to improve what he can change.  For example:  Desmond hates wearing his hearing aids and when he “forgets” various horrendous — and sometimes funny — mistakes occur.   The sorrow of his Dad’s mental and physical breakdown is described realistically and painfully.   Despite these struggles, the book has an upbeat quality.  In the end, it takes a death, a birth, a “fatal attraction” relationship and a trip to Poland for Desmond to realize that his life has meaning and that happiness is worth striving for.  I found this book touching, lovely and very real.  Unlike Profs. Swallow and Zapp, Prof. Bates will live in my memory for a long time.

There’s another book by David Lodge on the Challenge list:  Nice Work.  A friend is bringing that to me next week so I’ll be reporting on it soon.