DID THEY ENVY HIM?
It’s sixty years since the publication of Lucky Jim: its thirty-two year old author never equalled or surpassed his terrific first novel. I read it at university in 1960, and rereading it now, so many years later, I still find it acutely funny, a cruelly accurate picture of that drab and dismal 1950s Britain I remember from my own adolescence. Humorous writing can often date rapidly: Lucky Jim holds up remarkably well, thanks to the pitiless and painful satire and the quality of the prose.
It’s dedicated to Amis’s best friend Philip Larkin, and Larkin’s advice and input appear to have been considerable. Larkin himself (ultimately, in comparison to Amis, il miglior fabbro) possessed, according to his friend, “a jovial astringency”. Is Lucky Jim jovial? Far from it, yet it’s certainly astringent. The satire gets quite nasty at times – even, or especially, in the characterisation of ‘Margaret Peel’, ie. a play on the middle names of Monica Jones, Larkin’s longterm inamorata. The two chums seem to have collaborated in the harsh (and clearly recognisable) portrait of her and some lesser female characters, but misogyny then was not what’s now labelled ‘an issue’; this was all long before the days of PC, and one almost winces encountering such admittedly hilarious bitchiness.
What did Amis intend to achieve or express? Answering an American academic – perhaps not the earnest sort that he and Larkin would pillory in later years – Amis writes: “[Jim] Dixon is supposed to be the son of a clerk, an office worker (like myself). One is meant to feel that he did well enough in his student academic career to make it natural for him to become a history lecturer, which he did without much thought. Though he finds the academic world decreasingly to his taste, he sticks at it because he does think university teaching an important job, and also because he is afraid of venturing out on his own.” However, it’s also a kind of malicious study in provincial stagnation, a satire on the ossified British class attitudes prevalent after and despite WW2; for Jim its protagonist, it becomes a farcical Bildungsroman that often borders on slapstick. There are some priceless and enduring set-pieces: the madrigals at the home of the dreadful jobsworth Professor Welch; the razoring of the bedclothes; the ghastly details of hangovers; the inebriated lecture on ‘Merrie England’, and the climactic, excruciatingly prolonged, but brilliantly described bus ride to the railway station. The misfortunes and misdemeanours of Jim Dixon certainly retain their ability to make you chuckle and occasionally laugh out loud.
Amis, the youthful University teacher and ‘lefty’ malcontent stranded in Swansea, may thereafter have turned into a drink-sodden, xenophobic, right-wing Thatcherite old fart, but the sourly disgruntled depiction of thwarted lives and academic ambitions still strikes a relevant chord today. If the book created a rather dubious and by now almost clichéd genre, spawning as it did a host of middlebrow ‘academic-comic’ novels from Bradbury, Lodge, Sharpe and co., it’s hardly the original old fart’s fault. Admittedly Amis became almost too successful and prolific for his own good, yet if the book’s a bit too long and somewhat indulgent here and there (e.g. too much Dixonian face-pulling, and excessively fanciful approximation – as with Welch’s son Bertrand – of posh or arty speech), it does achieve at times a sort of devastating precision of phrase. Which reminds one that Kingsley Amis was a distinctive and distinctly underrated poet.
In fact I returned to his Collected Poems (1944-79) and found once again that many poems made me laugh – and in a far shorter space of time, of course. It’s a very enjoyable, witty and worthwhile book. There are equally provocative satirical pieces, but some descriptive, lyrical and poignant poems too. It made me regret that in later years the poetry, like the laughter, seems to have dwindled and dried up, while the booze and bigotry prevailed.