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On reflection, better not to have not reread this book
on 31 October 2015
At the very end of the 1960s, I studied at University of Wales, University College, Swansea, where the author lectured in English between 1949-61. First published in 1954, ‘Lucky Jim’ was the author’s first novel and quickly established itself as one of the great British comic novels alongside the works of Dickens, P. G. Wodehouse, Evelyn Waugh, Jerome K. Jerome’s ‘Three Men in a Boat’ and so on.
Returning to this book after many years, it has clearly aged rather ungracefully.
However, whilst this certainly reduced my overall enjoyment, this was balanced by meeting again so many ghastly and hapless characters. The [very] provincial setting allows the author to attack academic inertia, bourgeois convention and artistic pretension within a small History Department. Its hero, Jim Dixon, is a northerner who is on two years’ probation and is increasingly worried whether his position will be renewed. Not that he is working flat out, rather he is editing his boss’s work, taking on minor lecturing duties and has chosen to specialise in medievalism because this seemed to be the easiest option. His coursework is designed to entice women students who, obviously, ‘were not up to rigorous intellectual challenge’.
His personal life is similarly bleak, his ‘girlfriend’ Margaret, pathetic and monstrous in equal part, is recovering from a suicide attempt after the breakup of an earlier relationship. Amis’ characteristic spleen against whatever he loathed – the affectation of the Common Room and weekend soirees, assertive women and insufficient income to cover his need for beer and cigarettes Is already evidential, though it is refreshing that all this is offered without the cursing and swearing that mark his later books.
As a character Dixon does not develop, continuing to make gibberish faces [‘all his faces were designed to express rage or loathing. Now that something had happened which really deserved a face, he had none to celebrate it with. As a kind of token, he made his S** L*** in Ancient Rome face.’], howl and grind his teeth whilst continuing to prove fickle and untrustworthy [nowhere more stark than in his treatment of Margaret].
He is fearful of everything and everyone and disinclined to address any of life’s difficulties [‘How wrong people always were when they said: 'It's better to know the worst than go on not knowing either way.' No; they had it exactly the wrong way round. Tell me the truth, doctor, I'd sooner know. But only if the truth is what I want to hear.’], averse to hard work and who rapidly creates in the reader feeling of sympathy for his students who are seeking an education in order to better themselves. One, an ex-service student ‘who had commanded a tank troop at Anzio whilst Dixon was an RAF corporal in western Scotland’ is seen by Dixon, and perhaps Amis, as someone who is passionate about his studies and is therefore worth ridicule.
The dedication is to Philip Larkin who, apparently, stimulated the idea for the story. There are some wonderfully comic scenes, not least Dixon’s typically unprepared lecture to his senior academics. However, there is nothing against which to judge this privileged class. The Britain of the mid-1950s was one where most men had to put up with arduous working conditions and where education was seen as a way of self-improvement.
Although Margaret is the most complex and interesting character her story is described with a coldness that tells the reader more about the writer than his character. Her fate seems to be a result of her inadequacies, mental, physical and social. The fact that being surrounded by so many selfish male characters might have contributed to her problems is not even considered, she is to blame: ‘What a pity it was, [Dixon] thought, that she wasn’t better-looking, that she didn’t read articles in the three-halfpenny press that told you what lipstick went with what natural colouring. With twenty per cent more of what she lacked in these ways, she’d never have run into any of her appalling difficulties: the vices and morbidities bred of loneliness would have remained safely dormant until old age.’ Sadly only 3/5.