I’m squeezing in one more review for the 1954 Club this week, with a book that has been languishing on my TBR shelves for more years than I care to remember!
Regarded as one of the finest comic novels of the twentieth century, Lucky Jim caused quite a scandal when first published in 1954. The titular Jim Dixon is a hapless young academic, lecturing in medieval history at a provincial university who is desperate to hold on to his job, not out of any great love for teaching or medieval history, but because he doesn’t know quite what else to do with himself. He chose medieval history as his speciality as is seemed like a soft option and is now more interested in making sure the prettiest girls sign up to his course, than worrying about the actual content of the course itself.
Jim is an amiable and flippant protagonist and Amis guides the reader through a rogue’s gallery of lecturers, fraudulent arty types and academic bores as Jim ties to hold on to his university position and straighten out his love-life, preferably with as little effort as possible.
Doing what you wanted to do was the only training, and the only preliminary, needed for doing more of what you wanted to do.
When the novel opens, Jim’s primary concern is convincing his head of department Professor Welsh, not to end his contract at the end of term. To this end, he is trying to get an article published in a new history journal, is cajoling students to sign up to the new course he has yet to devise and is attempting to keep Welsh and his family sweet on a personal level. In all of these endeavours, Jim is failing miserably. He spends too much time at the pub, when he should be working on his lectures, he gets off on the wrong foot with Welsh’s son Bertrand and he is extricated in a romantic relationship with Margaret, a fragile and needy woman who is adept at emotional blackmail and just happens to be convalescing with the Welsh’s following a suicide attempt.
Much of the humour of Lucky Jim comes from Jim’s haphazard attempts to do what he needs to do to hang on to things he doesn’t really like. He has found himself doing a job I which he has no real interest and forced into the social orbit of the Welches, who he loathes. Amis has clearly had experience in this academic world and every character is sketched with a scabrous hilarity as their artifice and pretentions are unsparingly skewered.
Much of what makes Jim a likeable character, despite his complete lack of ability to take any responsibility for his life, is his candour and lack of guile in comparison to those around him, particularly Bertrand Welch who becomes his nemesis in his romantic commitments. The pretentions of the world that Jim has found himself a part of also leads to some fantastic set-pieces as Jim is farcically made to endure many trials in his quest for a settled life.
One of the most entertaining concerns a weekend at the home of the Welch’s and features enforced madrigal singing, sneaky escapes to the pub and the trashing of a spare bedroom in a drunken stupor. Public drunkenness rears its head again, when Jim, giving a lecture upon which his entire academic career could rest, turns to whiskey for courage and delivers a lecture that is unforgettable for all the wrong reasons. The book also contains one of the funniest depictions of a hangover I have ever read.
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 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.
In less sure hands, Jim could be an infuriating character, with his feckless self-absorption and penchant for childish pranks, but Amis balances these more infantile aspects with a genuine desire on the part of Jim to do the right thing. Even if he isn’t always sure what the right thing is.
Some aspects of the book have dated, particularly the depiction of the female characters who all exist on a spectrum of their sexual attractiveness and never really come alive as characters in their own right. The ending might also feel a little pat to some readers, but the clue is in the title. Without giving too much away, Jim is lucky and his luck wins out in the end, however Amis is smart enough to suggest that, even with everything falling into Jim’s lap at the end, he still has the potential to mess it all up again.
Lucky Jim is a work of satire that sharply attacks both the social hypocrisy at the heart of academia and the literary pretentions of the preceding years. In style and tone, the novel is refreshingly and irreverently accessible, written with a wry and whimsical sarcasm which brings the reader in on the act and must have seemed incredibly radical at the time of original publication.
READ ON: BOOK
number read: 366
number remaining: 380
I am a 40 something book buying addict trying to reduce the backlog one book at a time!