Lucky Jim by Kingsley Amis (1954)

Why couldn’t they leave him alone? Why couldn’t every single one of them without exception whatsoever just go right away from where he was and leave him alone? (p.92)

This is Kingsley Amis’s first novel, published in 1954 when he was 32 (b.1922 south London), the comedy classic which made his name, giving voice to a post-war generation dissatisfied with the pompous provincialism of English life and rebelling against its smug narrowness. It led Amis to be included in the crop of writers labelled with the catch-all journalistic phrase, ‘Angry Young Men’, coined a few years later in light of the fuss around John Osborne’s famous play.

Lucky Jim

James Dixon is a short, round-faced young history lecturer struggling with his first job in an unnamed redbrick college. He is a fraud, having chosen the Medieval module in his history degree at Leicester University simply because it was the easiest course, then finding himself nervously emphasising it in the interview for the current job, then quietly horrified to find himself appointed the Medieval History specialist, all the while knowing nothing and caring even less about the subject.

The novel follows a few weeks in his harassed life, as he struggles to manage relations with just about every other human being in sight – the colleagues who politely despise him, his unbearably vague and high-minded boss, Professor Welch, and Welch’s wife and equally insufferable son, bearded self-satisfied artist Bertrand, not to mention the neurotic mousey young woman, Margaret, he’s somehow found himself lumbered with.

As soon as smug Bertrand enters the room accompanied by a trim, big-bosomed young woman named Christine, I suspected the ‘plot’ would be Jim and her falling in love and sure enough that’s what happens – but not without many ‘madcap’ incidents intervening along the way.

Fakery and philistinism

Dixon is a robust, beer-loving, woman-fancying philistine. His idea of hell is being trapped at his professor’s for a weekend of arty conversation and classical singing, which is exactly what happens in the first major event of the plot. The effete pretentiousness of the arty milieu is signalled by the Welch family fondness for performing madrigals accompanied by the recorder.

On the first evening Dixon manages to sneak away from the music-making to the pub, where he heartily downs 7 or 8 pints before sneaking back into the Welch domicile, taking a swig from a bottle of port for good measure. Unsurprisingly, he passes out on his guest bed with a lighted cigarette in his hand which burns through the blankets and sheets. His frantic efforts next morning to hide the evidence are pretty funny – funny but bring to mind the fact that Amis became an alcoholic in later life.

Similarly, the famous climax of the novel is Dixon delivering the long-threatened public lecture which hangs over him for the whole story, not only to College staff and students but to every important official in the town – completely drunk. It is a tour de force of descriptive writing, conveying the confusion, delirium, fatigue and bewilderment of deep intoxication – but it is also embarrassing and, somehow, humiliating. Dixon’s habit of impersonating everyone he knows, plus various made-up characters, comes back to bite him as he finds himself unable to remember his own voice, instead condemned to deliver the lecture in a series of impressions – of his boss, of the painter Bertrand, finally of a demented Nazi stormtrooper (!), before he passes out on stage. The students up in the gallery cheer and clap wildly; the Mayor and Lady Mayoress look on in stunned silence.

So both the most memorable moments in the novel are about drinking yourself unconscious. Might be funny in your 20s, the stuff of comically exaggerated anecdotes – less so in your 60s.

Anyway, I like medieval polyphony and renaissance music. It is a welcome relief from the boom-boom of our own times. Not only does Dixon not like it but – like the very subject he’s supposed to be teaching students, medieval history – he’s not even interested in it. The pub, smoking fags, reading cheap fiction, going to the flics, are what he really wants to do and what – by implication – he assumes his no-nonsense young rebellious readers want to do, too.

Dixon’s permanent panic at being ‘found out’, at being revealed to know next to nothing about the subject he’s meant to be teaching, underlies his his entire personality, and the novel.

He is afraid of his boss – the vague Professor – uneasy with his students – particularly the genuinely scholarly Michie who keeps asking Dixon for a reading list which the latter keeps failing to prepare, simply because he’s unable to – and the recurrent panic attacks about having to write the fateful end-of-term lecture about ‘Merrie Englande’.

At university in the early 1980s I heard plenty of stories about lecturers hired in the 1950s with only a shaky grasp of their subject, whose students never got a First. Ha ha ha, very funny – but also pitiful and also an indictment.

Hell is other people – alienation in Lucky Jim

It was in the 1950s that French existentialism in the writings of Jean-Paul Sartre became fashionable among bohemians and students. Somewhere I read Amis making a typically dismissive comment about pretentious foreign philosophy, zeroing in on Sartre’s quotable quote that ‘Hell is other people’, saying the chap had simply reversed the obvious fact that ‘other people are hell’.

This quote stuck in my mind as I reread Lucky Jim. It’s most salient feature is the almost incapacitating hyper-self-consciousness of the narrator. He is panic-stricken at almost every interaction with another human being, in a way which is eerily reminiscent of the protagonist of Sartre’s first novel, La Nausée (1938).

Dixon caught her eye, and although it held nothing for him he wanted to cast himself down behind the protective wall of skirts and trousers, or, better, pull the collar of his dinner-jacket over his head and run out into the street. (p.107)

Panic Even mild encounters, eg with colleagues over the breakfast table at his digs, are recorded like barely manageable assaults on his senses. Full-scale social events – like the arty weekend at the Professor’s or the rather feeble Summer Ball – send him into frenzies of anxiety.

Dixon experienced a return of the ill feeling he’d had some minutes before. Then he found his thoughts being blindly swept along by panic. (p.218)

The repeated wish, in numerous scenes, is to run, run far away from these scenes of confrontation and anxiety. A fair amount of the comedy derives from the narrator’s permanent panic about other people, and he panics about them because he can’t read them. He has an almost Asperger’s level inability to relate to or understand other people.

Dixon fell silent again, reflecting, not for the first time, that he knew absolutely nothing whatsoever about other people. (p.123)

Hyper-perception People don’t even have to say anything to give him the heebie-jeebies; he registers just their physical existence with a too-great, a too-detailed intensity:

Dixon looked again at Bertrand’s eyes. They really were extraordinary: it seemed as if a sheet of some patterned material were tacked to the inside of his face, showing only at two arbitrary loopholes. (p.47)

When she spoke again he noticed something else: that the whiteness and regularity of her top teeth gave place to a black gap beyond the canines. He felt uncomfortable again… (p.123)

The body baleful This hyper-awareness extends to his own body: the text features an unremitting record of Dixon’s own sense of the continual changes in mood and feeling within his own body, experienced with a ghostly detachment, as if happening to a stranger:

Dixon felt desire abruptly flooding his entire frame with an immense fatigue, as if he’d been struck by a bullet in some vital spot… Dixon was beginning to do what he’d have described as ‘feeling his age’… How hot it was and how his legs ached… The noise was enormous; every time it rose to a maximum Dixon felt sweat start out on his chest as if it were being physically squeezed out of him… (pp.118-120) … Stage-fright was upon him now; his hands were cold and damp, his legs felt like flaccid rubber tubes filled with fine sand, he had difficulty in controlling his breathing. (p.220)

His body is experienced as an enemy, an antagonist to his trapped, sweating consciousness, conveying to his experiencing mind a relentless assortment of puzzling and unexpected sensations. At high moments of hysteria, his own body becomes a mystery to him and he approaches a Sartrean level of alienation from his own being or what ‘it’ might do next:

How could he stand up there in front of them all and try to talk? What further animal noises would come out of  his mouth if he did? (p.223)

Dixon rose slowly from the bamboo table. What noise could he make to express his frenzy of hilarious awe? (p.234)

Other people Meanwhile, ‘out there’, is a whole world of ‘other people’, all with apparently malevolent designs on Dixon’s life and career. If he worries over brief dialogues, panics over social events, then the notion of ‘relationships’ throws him into ecstasies of convoluted over-rationalisation. He plans, plans again, and re-plans every encounter with another human, trying to anticipate where the attacks and counter-attacks will come from.

Military metaphors A tell-tale indication is the way the text is laced with the inflated language of military conflict – conversations are attacks and routs and counter-attacks, encounters are campaigns and assaults, relationships are subject to strategic planning and logistical planning.

Somehow he must mortar or bayonet Welch out of his prepared positions of reticence, irrelevance, and the long-lived, wondering frown. (p.82)…

Welch’s head lifted slowly, like the muzzle of some obsolete howitzer (p.84)…

The campaign against Bertrand he’d fantasised about at the Welches’ had begun, and with a dazzling tactical success. (p.103)…

Dixon realised he’d been wrong in thinking that the Bertrand-campaign was over and won; the last shot had still to be fired, and he was in the open and unarmed. (p.219)

Fantasies of violence The inability to read other people on a calm, sensible level which gives rise to this panoply of over-reactions, mad faces, lunatic physical gestures, to the over-planning and military metaphors, regularly spills over into fantasies of vindictive violence.

[Welch] was saying ‘Most impressive’, and for a second Dixon felt like picking up the spanner he could see in the dashboard pocket and hitting him on the back of the neck with it. (p.178)

‘Most people would have kicked your arse for you by now.’ (p.204)

One of the things he’d got to do today was to see Johns and abuse, or even assault, him for his latest piece of treachery. (p.229)

Dixon thought he really would have to run downstairs and knife the drivers of both vehicles. (p.245)

And so it is no surprise when the long campaign against the unbearable Bertrand finally erupts into an actual fist fight in Dixon’s digs, quite a serious affray. Dixon hurts Bertrand, knocking him to the floor, and himself receives a prize black eye, which he carries into public display for the big lecture at the comic climax of the story.

The narrative arc

The actual emotional events of the novel – insofar as you can make them out amid the babble of funny voices and the stream of self-conscious worrying – are that it opens with him encumbered with the unattractive and neurotic Margaret after she was unceremoniously dumped by the cad, Catchpole, and tried (in a surprisingly serious thread) to kill herself with an overdose of sleeping pills.

In this fraught context Dixon finds his previous mild flirtations with her suddenly converted into a life-saving love affair from which he is desperate to extricate himself. Thus every conversation, every drink with her down the pub, becomes the pretext for intense internal monologues by the hero analysing the sub-texts of whatever she is saying, feverishly calculating what his response ought to be as against what he actually wants to say, or what she expects him to say, and so on.

Every dialogue is fraught with multiple levels of possibility.

At the same time he finds himself increasingly attracted to Bertrand’s supposed girlfriend and thrown together with her on a couple of notable occasions – they share a taxi home from the summer ball, which leads to kissing. The last 100 pages of the book lead up not only to the famous drunk lecture scene, but to Dixon’s full realisation of how mad Margaret is (it turns out the suicide was attempted with the minimum number of pills, and she had invited at least two suitors to call on her that evening to ‘discover’ and ‘save’ her). And, once Christine conclusively realises what a cad Bertrand is (he is having an affair with another lecturer’s wife, as well as casual flings in London) then the path is clear, in the novel’s last pages, for the young lovers to be very satisfyingly united and sent riding off into the sunset.


Comedy

Lucky Jim contains many funny phrases, aperçus and moments, moments of impeccable comic timing, as well as longer set pieces – I particularly liked the fake letter from an aggrieved boyfriend threatening violence, which Dixon writes and posts to the most obnoxious of his colleagues and lets all the others know about so that they all watch him open the letter at their communal breakfast, stifling their laughter at his suddenly blanched face and hasty demeanour.

And the final frenzied bus journey to the train station to catch his lady-love before she departs on the 1.50 train leaving his life maybe forever, with the bus motoring excruciatingly slowly and stopping on the slightest pretext, thus driving Dixon mad with frustration – this and many other scenes like it are genuinely hilarious.

And the novel is regularly punctuated by a steady flow of comic faces and funny expressions which Dixon puts on at the drop of a hat to match his latest predicament, regularly getting caught by colleagues mid-leer and having to cough his way out of it.

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. Gripping his tongue between his teeth, he made his cheeks expand into little hemispherical balloons; he forced his upper lip downwards into an idiotic pout; he protruded his chin like the blade of a shovel. Throughout, he alternately dilated and crossed his eyes. (p.220)

It is at that exact moment that his future employer walks into the loo and catches Dixon mid-rictus.

Lucky Jim is still, 60 years later, a very funny book. But it is also, ultimately, a little draining to engage with a text which contains such a sense of people-phobic hysteria not far beneath the surface, the unnerving basis of the huge but sometimes uneasy comedy.

Related links

The movie

Lucky Jim was turned into a black-and-white comedy movie in 1958, directed by John Boulting and starring Ian Carmichael, Terry-Thomas and Hugh Griffith. Just a few moments transport you back into the narrow, rationing-and-austerity, decent-but-deadly-dull 1950s against which Amis is inchoately rebelling against.

Kingsley Amis books

1954 Lucky Jim – Jim Dixon is a fraudulent history lecturer at a non-entity college, beset on all sides by problematic relations with his boss, Professor Welch and his unbearable family, a clingy neurotic girlfriend, and amiably contemptuous colleagues at his cheap rooming house. Very funny in a sometimes rather desperate way.
1955 That Uncertain Feeling – Bored, frustrated librarian John Lewis in south Wales finds himself being seduced by the worldly wife of a local industrialist. Some hilarious scenes rather damped down by the wrenching portrayal of the genuinely hurt wife. An intense scene of dissipation, then sex, on a nearby beach, then the mistress’s mad car driving leading to a crash. Lewis eventually rejects the whole monied, corrupt scene and moves to a mining town where he feels more in touch with his Welsh roots.
1958 I Like It Here – Welshman Garnet Bowen, happily scraping a living as a ‘writer’ in London, married to Barbara with three young children, is persuaded by his publisher to go ‘abroad’, to make some money from writing articles and also to check on a long-silent famous author who has resurfaced with a new novel – resulting in an amiable travelogue with comic characters and not much plot.
1960 Take a Girl Like You – the adventures of Jenny Bunn, twenty-year-old northern lass come down south to be an infants school teacher, who is pursued by every man she meets, not to mention the lesbian lodger, and falls into a fraught relationship with public schoolteacher Patrick Standish, who is sometimes unforgivably harsh with her, sleeps with a number of other women, before they both rather reluctantly agree they have to get married.
1962 My Enemy’s Enemy – seven varied and persuasive short stories, including three set in an Army unit which anticipate The Anti-Death League and a seventh which is a short, powerful science fiction tale.
1963 One Fat Englishman – Obese, alcoholic, lecherous English publisher Roger Micheldene drinks, eats, insults and fornicates his way around New England, hideously embarrassing himself, his country, and the reader.
1965 The Egyptologists (with Robert Conquest) – an intermittently hilarious novel about a ‘society’ of Egyptologists with elaborate rules designed to prevent anyone outside the select few attending meetings which turns out to be the front for a group of women-hating adulterers.
1966 The Anti-Death League – A long, convoluted and strikingly unfunny story about an Army Unit somewhere in the countryside which is preparing for an undefined and rather science fiction-y offensive, Operation Apollo, with dire consequences for its officers, in particular dashing James Churchill and his love affair with beautiful sensitive Catharine Casement.
1968 Colonel Sun: a James Bond Adventure (pseud. Robert Markham)
1968 I Want It Now – The adventures of Ronnie Appleyard, an ambitious and predatory TV presenter, who starts off cynically targeting depressed young Mona, daughter of Lord and Lady Baldock, solely for her money and contacts but finds himself falling in love with her and defying both the dragonish Lady B and the forces of the Law, in America and London.
1969 The Green Man – a short, strange and disturbing modern-day ghost story, told by the alcoholic, hypochondriac and lecherous Maurice Allington.
1971 Girl, 20 – Music critic Douglas Yandell gets dragged into the affair elderly composer Sir Roy Vandervane is having with a 17-year-old girl and the damage it’s doing his family and grown-up daughter, the whole sorry mess taken as symbolising the collapse of values in late-60s England.
1973 The Riverside Villas Murder – Detective novel set in suburban Home Counties where the loss of of handsome 14-year-old schoolboy Peter Furneaux’s virginity is combined with the murder of a neighbour both – it turns out – performed by the same good-looking neighbour.
1974 Ending Up – Five old people, relatively poor and thrown together by circumstances into sharing a run-down cottage, are shown getting on each others’ nerves, appalling younger relatives when they visit, plotting and scheming against each other, until the bleakly farcical ending, in which they all die.
1975 The Crime of the Century – detective serial written for the Sunday Times then published as an entertaining novella, Amis’s style stripped to the bone in this yarn of a serial killer of women who succeeds in sowing multiple red herrings and false leads, before his melodramatic attempt on the Prime Minister’s life!
1976 The Alteration – a brilliantly imagined alternative reality in which the Reformation never happened and England is a central part of the ongoing Catholic Hegemony over all Europe, known simply as Christendom, in a novel which explores all aspects of this strange reality through the story of a ten-year-old choirboy who is so talented he is selected to be castrated, and how he tries to escape his fate.
1978 Jake’s Thing – Oxford don Jake Richardson has become impotent and his quest to restore his lost libido is a hilarious journey through the 1970s sex therapy industry although, as always with Amis, the vitriolic abuse and sharp-eyed satire is interspersed with more thoughtful and even sensitive reflections on middle-age, love and marriage.
1980 Russian Hide-and-Seek – Soft science fiction set in an England of the future which has been invaded and conquered by the Russians and in which a hopeless attempt to overthrow the authorities is easily crushed.
1984 Stanley and the Women
1986 The Old Devils
1988 Difficulties with Girls
1990 The Folks That Live on the Hill
1991 We Are All Guilty
1992 The Russian Girl
1994 You Can’t Do Both
1995 The Biographer’s Moustache

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