“Lucky Jim” by Kingsley Amis – Not to be envied!

Reading “Lucky Jim” as a teenager in the 1960s, I laughed out loud over the incident where Jim tries to conceal the holes he has accidentally burned in the sheets and rug of his fearsome hostess, wife of the hen-pecked caricature of an absent-minded professor, his Head of Department, Welch.

Returning to it for a book group more than fifty years later, the novel which was published in 1954, seems quite dated, yet perhaps interesting as a “period piece”. Many readers will be perplexed by telephone operators intervening in three minute trunk calls, and descriptions of university life almost unrecognisable today.

Apart from the fact that he is a northerner teaching at a provincial university in the south of England shortly after the Second World War, we are told little about what has shaped Jim Dixon’s frankly rather odd and unappealing character. So one cannot understand why his chosen subject is Medieval History when he finds it so boring, nor why he is so anxious to avoid having his contract terminated at the end of the year, since he seems to despise the university and many of his colleagues. Having made a huge effort to ingratiate himself with Welch, why does he indulge in a series of mean pranks which can easily be traced back to him, and why can he never resist the temptation to provoke those in a position to do him down? He often seems quite adolescent, wishing to strangle or stab everyone who irritates him, doing an ape imitation in private, or contorting his face into a series of expressions to reflect his mood: his Eskimo face, his lemon-sucking face, and so on.

He occasionally shows a flash of decency, socialising with the needy academic Margaret, about whom he feels a certain guilt, although he probably keeps going out with her through a kind of inertia. Also, he refrains from telling the one tale which would deprive Welch’s obnoxious son Bernard of Christine, the girlfriend whom Dixon begins to fancy.

The first of many novels, which won Amis a prize and was soon made into a popular film, this has what now seems a very straightforward plot, plodding in minute to the point of tedious detail through the events of a few days. The convoluted sentences peppered with oddly used words often reminded me of a precocious schoolboy experimenting with terms recently culled from the dictionary. There’s more than a whiff of misogyny in the portrayal of Margaret, manipulative and conveniently unattractive. It has been said that Jim was modelled on the author’s friend, the poet Philip Larkin, but Amis appears to have put a good deal of himself into his creation – the “Angry Young Man”, his keen observation of the world fuelled by alcohol into bitter parody.

I may have found less real humour than expected second time round, but there are a few places where brilliant writing combines with comedy, as in the passage at the end when Jim, desperate to reach a railway station in time, finds himself on a country bus held up for every conceivable reason – the kind of situation we have all experienced.

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