Wednesday, 4 April 2012

Penguin no. 1648: Lucky Jim
by Kingsley Amis

Dixon was alive again. Consciousness was upon him before he could get out of the way; not for him the slow, gracious wandering from the halls of sleep, but a summary, forcible ejection. He lay sprawled, too wicked to move, spewed up like a broken spider-crab on the tarry shingle of the morning. The light did him harm, but not as much as looking at things did; he resolved, having done it once, never to move his eyeballs again. A dusty thudding in his head made the scene before him beat like a pulse. His mouth had been used as a latrine by some small creature of the night, and then as a mausoleum. During the night, too, he'd somehow been on a country run and then been expertly beaten up by the secret police. He felt bad.

There are several novels from the '50s and '60s written around a similar theme, telling the stories of dissatisfied young men with northern accents and lower class backgrounds, all seeking some kind of escape from the limited opportunities of their provincial lives. Having read Saturday Night and Sunday MorningA Room at the Top, A Kind of LovingHurry on DownEating People is Wrong, and various sequelsI never quite made it to Lucky Jim, suspecting it would be much the same, and feeling I'd read enough of these novels with their often unpleasant and self-obsessed protagonists. But this was a mistake: Lucky Jim is in a class of its own - it is an extremely funny, well written, and clever satire on the new universities and the society that surrounds them.

Dissatisfied is a barely adequate description of the feelings of the unfortunate Jim Dixon. It doesn't capture the intensity of his unhappiness: his boredom is extreme, his loathing intense. Educated at the local grammar school, he is now in his first year teaching Medieval History at a provincial university, unsure if his contract will continue beyond the current academic year. With no particular passion for his subject - it was simply the softest option available when studying - he finds everything required of him now an ordeal. His academic life seems to be a series of uninspiring tasks to be completed with the most minimal effort. And yet he continues on, expecting nothing better than this, and lacking the self-belief to change his life. He is trapped in the wrong place, and in the wrong profession, making only the most half-hearted attempts to satisfy his boss Professor Welch.

And yet despite the anger, the lack of application, the inability to control himself, and his ineffectual nature, Jim Dixon is clearly a decent fellow and a likeable and appealing character. As he stumbles through a series of comic and exaggerated accidents and misadventures, he takes part in the academic and social life around him without engaging with it, without even wanting to be a part of it, and this distance makes him a frustrated and highly amusing critic of its pretensions.

For this is where is ire is most concentrated: on the pretensions and affectations of the university elites, with their musical weekends, their pacifism and their real coffee. This is most clearly conveyed in his encounters with the delightfully appalling character of Bertrand Welch, the obnoxious son of Dixon's professor, who fashions himself as an aesthete and a painter, with his beard and his beret, his affected pronunciation and sensibilities.

And yet even his encounters with the bullying Bertrand emphasise Dixon's ineffectiveness. He copes with the dullness and frustration of his life with a repertoire of amusing faces pulled for the benefit of no one but himself, and with the tormenting presence of Bertrand with a campaign of prank calls. But he doesn't do anything practical about his situation.

From Dixon's perspective, he has all that someone like him can expect from life: inadequate lodgings, a dowdy girlfriend, a job he hates. No one needs to impose these limitations upon him, for he imposes them upon himself. They are ideas which infiltrate his thinking and affect his choices. It is a sense of entitlement which divides the classes, and traps individuals like Jim. He may hate the markers of class, the madrigals and the musical weekends, but he is still oppressed by them.

He is lucky in the end, and not because he escapes university life and the limitations of his class, but because he is rescued from them. His eventual triumph over Bertrand seems incidental. It is escape from the provinces which is the answer, and it is people from London who recognise his inherent decency, and step in and give him the opportunity of that escape.

Additional:
Christopher Hitchens in The Atlantic: A Man of Feeling, on why Lucky Jim is the funniest novel of the second half of the 20th Century.


6 comments:

  1. It is ages since I read this book (probably this very same edition!) but I do recall liking it - more than any other Kingsley Amis I read. I remember thinking how different the humanities seem to be than my familiar sciences, in academia.

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  2. You've led with one of my favourite paragraphs in any book, especially the mausoleum phrase.

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    1. Wonderful to hear from you, Tim. Thanks for visiting the blog. And I agree - the mausoleum sentence and the one which follows it: it's the point in the book when you know you are reading something special

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  3. This took me back to my Sixth Year at secondary school when I wrote my thesis (it was called it that, it was really just a long essay) on the Angry Young Men. Along with Lucky Jim, I read Room at the Top, Saturday Night, Sunday Morning and The Contenders. Despite being published thirty years before, for a seventeen year old they were fresh, radical and risque. As someone who is also pursuing a reading list, Arnold Bennett's Literary Taste: How to Form It (Pelican Special no. 511) and having just finished Hugh Walpole's Mr. Perrin and Mr. Traill (Penguin no. 132), I too appreciate the joy of holding (and, at times smelling) a pre-1970 Penguin paperback. What a wonderful blog! (I have no idea what I wrote about the Angry Young Men).

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    1. "Can you not only change yourself by reading books by dead people but can you also measure the changes?" (http://literarytaste.wordpress.com) - what a wonderful concept to build a blog around, exactly the thing to attract the interest of a statistician.

      I first read Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, A Room at the Top, and A Kind of Loving as a teenager and I agree, I loved them at the time. I think of them affectionately as the books which set me on the path of serious reading.

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  4. I've never read any of the Angry Young Men, but I'm up for anything funny. I've always heard about Lucky Jim, but never really knew what it was about - now I know, I think I'll definitely give it a try someday.

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