Friday, July 31, 2015

Lucky Jim by Kingsley Amis (56 down 44 to go)

"...he had no charts for these waters, but experience proved that it was often those without charts who got the furthest." ~ Narrative regarding the title character, James Dixon

This is the first time I’ve read Lucky Jim or Kingsley Amis. The novel is the third-person narrative about several weeks in the life of James Dixon, a teacher at an unnamed English university, circa 1950. It is comedy/satire and a very early, perhaps the first, campus novel.

My rating: 3 1/2 of 5 stars

This novel satisfies square B2 of 2015 Classics Bingo: Comedy, Humor, or Satire Classic

Jim, or Dixon, as the narrator most often refers to him, is an untenured lecturer in the history department – untenured being key. He is a man of mediocre talent and ambition, even by his own estimation. Several gaffes in his early career leave his position at the university in question, and in the hands of the department head, Professor Welch. Welch is pedantic, aloof, and easily befuddled. Worried about his future Dixon is humble and gracious towards Welch, while he secretly holds him in contempt and fantasizes about smashing him in the face. Truthfully, Dixon holds most of his acquaintances, including his sort-of girlfriend Margaret, in contempt and is equally two-faced. But if Dixon despises Welch, it is nothing compared to the hatred he has for Welch’s son Bertrand. Bertrand is a pretentious artist, of no significance, convinced of his own genius.

For a moment he [Dixon] felt like devoting the next ten years to working his way to a position as art critic on purpose to review Bertrand’s work unfavourably.

Dixon’s life seems to take on three callings: to secure his future at the university, to defeat and deflate Bertrand, and to win the heart of Bertrand’s girl, Christine. The last of course is conveniently complementary to Bertrand’s demise, but both seem to work at cross purposes to his career. Bertrand is Prof Welch’s son remember.

Somehow, the reader begins to discern, (perhaps by seeing how few pages are left), that all three will turn on the merits of a lecture Dixon is set to give on “Merrie England”.  To steel his nerves, Dixon gets slowly drunk before the lecture – But Dixon is Lucky Jim after all, and the disaster of the lecture…

No spoilers.

I liked this novel quite a bit. I was torn between 3 1/2 and 4 stars, but I just don’t quite see it in company with my 4 star novels, so it’s 3 1/2 with apologies to Mr. Amis. He somehow managed to make Dixon likeable, probably by making the other characters even worse human beings. They were all rather funny though – and I’ve known every one of them at some point in my life.


Dixon’s efforts on behalf of his special subject, apart from thinking how much he hated it, had been confined to aiming to secure for it the three prettiest girls in the class…

Narrative describing Dixon’s hangover: 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 spidercrab 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 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.

Dixon’s method of getting over a hangover: He got up and began a skipping-with-arms-raising exercise he’d learnt all about in the R.A.F. Five hundred skips and raising of the arms had helped to clear his head before. After a hundred and eighty an unclear head seemed much preferable to more skips.

Those who professed themselves unable to believe in the reality of human progress ought to cheer themselves up, as the students under examination had conceivably been cheered up, by a short study of the Middle Ages. The hydrogen bomb, the South African Government, Chiang Kai-shek, Senator McCarthy himself, would then seem a light price to pay for no longer being in the Middle Ages.

While he was using the lavatory, he began making his Evelyn Waugh face, then abandoned it in favour of one more savage than any he normally used.

Dixon felt a slight stab of conscience at having rather let Welch down over the lecture, and a less slight one at having spent so much of his time and energy in hating Welch.

It’s not that you’ve got the qualifications, for this or any other work, but there are plenty who have. You haven’t got the disqualifications, though, and that’s much rarer.


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