I am conscious that I have written a run of pretty negative reviews in recent weeks, so to redress the balance and cheer myself up a little I have just re-read an old favourite, Kingsley Amis’s 1954 novel “Lucky Jim”.
Jim Dixon is a lowly academic at a provincial Midlands university. He hates his job, his boss, his “digs” (ie lodgings), his colleagues – he doesn’t even like his girlfriend very much. The novel follows his struggle to impress his boss sufficiently to avoid getting the push, which involves having a pointless piece of research published, delivering an end of term lecture on “Merrie England”, and generally brown-nosing his boss and his boss’s family for all he is worth. (“Educating Rita” nicked the drunken end of term speech by the way). Because every instinct within him objects to this he does a poor job of it, and only avoids being dismissed through his titular luck in being offered a much more desirable job out of academia.
The comedy derives from Jim’s inability to express his rage and frustration. His interior monologue expresses this anger effectively enough, but externally he has to keep up a pretence. This conflict leads him to self sabotage – most dramatically at a weekend stay at his boss’s house when he gets drunk and starts a small fire in his bedroom (see quotes below).
The expression “laugh out loud” is used far too often in the context of books – I see the phrase on the blurbs of books quite regularly – but I can honestly say in all my journeys to work and back I have never heard anyone burst out loud with laughter when reading a book. But “Lucky Jim” genuinely, hand on heart, makes me laugh, out loud. Out of context quotes probably lose much of their impact, but I still find the description of Jim’s drunken escapades at Welch’s house really funny; his description of getting, being, and recovering from being, drunk are completely spot on.
Here’s some of the scene with Jim slowly realising just how drunk he is:
“It wasn’t as nice in the bathroom as it had been in the bedroom. Though it was a cool night for summer he found he felt hot and was sweating. He stood for some time in front of the wash basin, trying to discover some more about how he felt. His body seemed swollen below the chest, and uneven in density. The stuff coming from the light seemed less like light than a very thin but cloudy phosphorescent gas; it gave a creamy hum” (Chapter 5)
And this is the hangover description, one of the best I have ever read, which opens chapter 6:
“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….His mouth had been used as a latrine by some small creature of the night, and then as its mausoleum. During the night, too, he’d somehow been on a cross-country run and then been expertly beaten up by secret police. He felt bad.”
Note incidentally that this isn’t just funny, but it is clever and well written too – the creamy hum quote for instance is a great example of a “I know what you mean” kind of imagery.
Lucky Jim has a strong period feel. This is very clearly recovering post-war Britain, with the war and rationing fresh in everyone’s minds. References to the war are scattered through the novel like a background noise. The contrast between Dixon as a representative of a new generation, wanting to break free of the shackles of pre-War Britain, and his many opponents, is a precursor of the coming rebellions of the 1960s. I appreciate Dixon isn’t a political figure, and would resist being co-opted into any rejection of traditional values – Amis was deeply conservative, not to say misogynist. Much of Dixon’s anger comes from his sexual frustration – his girlfriend Maureen places strict boundaries on their relationship. But we don’t read Lucky Jim because of its social commentary.
Despite this period feel I was delighted at the extent to which the novel had not dated. Normally humour doesn’t age well – try watching Fawlty Towers today; what was once side splitting now hardly raises a smile. But “Lucky Jim” speaks to some timeless themes – frustration with authority and the eternal internal struggle between doing what is right and doing what one wants.
Amis in later years degenerated into a bit of a self parody, and never met the heights of Lucky Jim again. That’s not to say his other novels are not worth reading – I found “The Green Man” for example quite compelling when I read it many years ago, and he won the Booker in 1986 for the Old Devils – but his grumpiness eventually became just a bit too insistent. But if you haven’t read it before, or even if you have, give yourself a treat with this gem.