“Haven’t you noticed how we all specialize in what we hate most?”
Thanks to the reissue of Lucky Jim by New York Review books, I decided on a reread–something I do occasionally with books that I’ve especially liked. The lure of this re-read can be explained by my inordinate passion for the Campus novel, my admiration for Kingsley Amis, and my fondness for NYRB in general. It’s been years since I first came across Lucky Jim, and I remember that I found it to be one of the funniest novels I’d ever read.
The intro written by Keith Gessen made the purchase worthwhile (plus my old copy has gone astray). Gessen writes with a light comic touch combined with an understanding of Amis’s early struggles and a good grasp of the humiliations suffered by anyone trying to get their foot in the door of academia. Gessen begins with a description of Amis and Philip Larkin:
Lucky Jim is a young man’s book, in fact the book of two young men. They weren’t exactly angry young men, but they were extremely irritable. College friends with similar backgrounds, they had graduated from both Oxford and the Second World War to find themselves in an England that was in terminal decline. It was bankrupt. It was losing the overseas possessions that had once been its pride, and the people in charge were snobs and incompetents. Worst of all, no one seemed to appreciate the young men’s genius: neither the women they met nor the publishers to whom they sent their work.
That’s the first wonderful paragraph that both sets the tone for the novel and makes the point that the relationship between Amis and Larkin became the genesis for Lucky Jim–a comic novel in which the protagonist is a “hybrid” of the two men. Included are a few hilarious extracts from letters Amis wrote to Larkin with their included digs at academia, and here we see the frustration felt by the fictional Jim Dixon. Amis and Larkin obviously chafed at the constraints imposed by academic life, and the invention of the game, ” ‘horsepissing,’ in which they’d replace words from classic texts with obscenities” is evidence of their rebellion within the ranks. And it’s this sort of rebellion that explains the duality of the behaviour of the novel’s protagonist, Jim Dixon, for while he bows and scrapes to ensure his continued employment at the university, he also actively sabotages his efforts.
The novel begins with Jim Dixon trying–somewhat unsuccessfully–to pin Professor Welch to an offer of tea at his home. It’s not that Dixon really wants to go for tea since this means having to endure Welch’s mind-numbingly boring company, but it’s a politically wise engagement for a young man who wishes to impress his boss and hopes to stay teaching medieval history at the university at which he’s tentatively employed for two years. Welch, a university fossil, is a powerful individual whose nod of approval will go a long way. This is a frightening prospect as Welch prefers to waffle on about his recorder playing or madrigal singing rather than discuss Dixon’s future at the university. Dixon finds it impossible to steer Welch onto the desired subject–let alone extract two coherent sentences from the man. Although, of course, Welch isn’t quite as deranged as he pretends to be. The waffling, the indecision, the rambling, barely coherent sentences are a modus operandi frequently employed by those fossilized professors who are firmly entrenched in the halls of academia. Here’s a wonderful example of Jim trying to have a conversation with Welch on that ever-important topic of publication:
‘Yes, that Caton chap who advertised in the T.L.S. a couple of months ago. Starting up a new historical review with an international bias, or something. I thought I’d get in straight away. After all, a new journal can’t very well be bunged up as far ahead as all the ones I’ve…’
‘Ah yes, a new journal might be worth trying. There was one advertised in the Times Literary Supplement a little while ago. Paton or some such name the editor fellow was called. you might have a go at him, now that it doesn’t seem as if any of the more established reviews have got room for your … effort. let’s see now; what’s the exact title you’ve given it?’
Dixon looked out of the window at the fields wheeling past, bright green after a wet April. it wasn’t the double-exposure effect of the last minute’s talk that had dumbfounded him, for such incidents formed the staple material of Welch colloquies; it was the prospect of reciting the title of the article he’d written. It was a perfect title, in that it crystallized the article’s niggling mindlessness, its funeral parade of yawn-enforcing facts, the pseudo-light it threw on non-problems. Dixon had read, or begun to read, dozens like it, but his own seemed worse than most in its air of being convinced of its own usefulness and significance. ‘In considering this strangely neglected topic,’ it began. This what neglected topic? this strangely what topic? His thinking all this without having defiled and set fire to the typescript only made him appear to himself as more of a hypocrite and fool. ‘Let’s see,’ he echoed Welch in a pretended effort of memory: ‘oh yes; The Economic Influence of Developments in Shipbuilding Techniques, 1450-1485.’
That quote is one of my favourites from the book as it captures Jim’s frustration (which he can do little about) and the niggling feeling that he’s a fraud since he cannot, in all honesty, believe that his chosen topic is anything less than catatonically boring and hardly relevant to the world outside of the university walls. But that’s the brilliant thing about academia: find some obscure topic which is obscure for a reason, and then write about it convincingly as though you’ve uncovered something that will rock the world to its foundations.
The novel is concerned with Dixon’s antics as he tries to ensure his future teaching History, but there’s a subconscious element to Dixon which, paradoxically, actively works against him, and it’s through this strain that the novel’s humour emerges as we see Dixon actively sabotage his own bowing and scraping efforts to please Welch. Dixon manages to get himself invited to the Welch home for the weekend, but since he knows he won’t be able to stand (read ‘behave‘) the company for the entire time, he arranges for a roommate to call with an ‘emergency’ that requires his presence back home. The weekend at Professor Welch’s home repeatedly illustrates Dixon’s inability to fit in. He gets drunk and trashes his room, and in order to cover up the damage he enlists the help of Christine, the girlfriend of his sworn enemy, pretentious, insufferable artist Bertrand Welch, who just happens to be the son of the man who can make or break Jim Dixon’s career.
For most of the story, Jim seems to be trapped in his own life. He’s frantic to impress Welch, a man he cannot admire; he’s not in the least attracted to neurotic fellow academic Margaret but still dallies with her as she seems within his league. He also tries to evade the earnest questions of serious student, Michie, who has the audacity of having an extremely attractive girlfriend and the annoying habit of trying to pin Jim down to concrete study descriptions. Does it escape Jim’s attention that he’s as wily and slippery with Mitchie as Welch is, in his turn, with Dixon?
Lucky Jim, published in 1954, was Kingsley Amis’s first book, and what a brilliant start to a glorious career. Apart from all the humour, it’s a significant book. Here’s Kingsley Amis, from a humble background, a scholarship boy, who made good and dragged himself up by his bootstraps into the hallowed halls of St John’s College, Oxford. Was he grateful to find the door open? Was he flattered to be invited inside that ivory tower to join the echelons of England’s Elite, or did he discover that no matter what, he was always going to be the awkward guest at the table?
Lucky Jim is a story of conformity, a story about how one man tries to fit in the confines of a career culture that part of him has no desire to belong to. We realise this, of course, before Jim does, and that’s what makes his half-hearted efforts and his self-sabotage so funny. If he wants to impress Welch, he should learn to play the recorder and demand more madrigal singing. He should settle down and calmly and methodically court Margaret. He should flatter Bertrand and stop poaching Christine. But, of course, Jim can do none of these things, and this is where the novel’s wonderful humour can be found. Jim knows what he should do, but there’s part of him that rebels against conformity and longs to break free of the constraints imposed by an academic life. I, for one, identified with Jim, and so cheered him on through all of his delightful scrapes, hilariously bad behaviour, and unfulfilled revenge fantasies.