Surprisingly long at 317 pages in the Penguin paperback edition, ie this novel has the same weight and heft as a modern literary classic, as Lawrence or Conrad or Foster, but its subject matter is unclassically slender. Twenty-year-old Jenny Bunn comes from ‘up North’ to work as an infants school teacher in a town just outside London. She finds a rented room in a house owned by an older man, auctioneer Dick Thompson and his wife, Martha, sharing along with the other boarder, the podgy French girl, Anna le Page.
Jenny’s curse is that she is very attractive, in a dark Italian sort of way, and thus finds herself ogled by almost every man who sees her and, more often than not, the subject of jealous whispering among their womenfolk. In the voice of Patrick, who emerges as her main suitor:
Oh lordy lordy lordy, how lovely she was, with all that thick inky-black hair and the slightly hollow cheeks and the faint blue veins at the temples and the very definite natural line surrounding the lips and the lips themselves and and and and and and. (p.152)
Continuous narrative The narrative is continuous (no flashbacks – well, only one or two small ones) starting as she arrives at the boarding house and then covering all the relevant events in a flat, chronological order. It is an Amis characteristic to have a new chapter starting immediately where the previous one left off, sometimes in mid-conversation. In sum: it tells the story straight through with few if any flashy effects.
Realism It is very realistic, paying close attention to descriptions of a room’s fixtures and fittings, to the pens protruding from a man’s sports jacket, to people’s mannerisms and habits of speech, and so on. Nothing improbable or unnatural happens.
Free indirect speech Amis relies heavily on the use of free indirect speech: in the chapters concerning her, the narrative takes on the tone and perceptions of Jenny’s experience, letting us enter her mind as far as possible without actually switching to a first-person narrator. Same for the chapters which follow her lead suitor, the raffish public schoolteacher, Patrick Standish, as in the quote above.
Questions But – Can a man ever get inside a woman’s head to this extent? Can a nearly-40-year-old, Oxford-educated, southern, rather sexist man’s man like Amis realistically enter into the mind of 20-year-old, relatively uneducated and rather naive northern woman? Can the reader suspend their disbelief long enough to give him the chance?
- Jenny Bunn – the central figure of the novel, through whose eyes we see all the other characters – all the men (Patrick, Graham, Dick, Julian) making passes at her, her landlady (Martha) jealous of her, her fellow lodger (Ann the lesbian) chatting her up.
- Patrick Standish – the male lead, a debauched, have-a-go public school teacher, we spend half the time in his company seeing the world from his perspective. He knows Martha fancies him, had been having a desultory relationship with Anna, has also got into passionate clinches with the 17-year-old daughter of his headmaster (Sheila) and, given half a chance, has a snog with a woman called Wendy who his friend Julian Ormerod brings along to one of his country house weekends. He’s a wrong ‘un, who uneasily knows it.
- Graham McClintoch – Scottish friend of Standish’s, fellow teacher at the public school on the hill, with more character (when a gun is fired over their heads on a country walk, Standish plunges to the muddy ground while McClintoch marches straight towards the offender to reprimand him), like all the men bewitched by Jenny, asks her out on a date, clumsily kisses her, good cricketer, wordy, earnest.
- Julian Ormerod – phenomenally posh friend of Patrick and Graham’s with a big house and money from undefined business sources – a font of amusing upper-class slang, he frequently bumps into the chaps in various pubs and – in chapter 17 – takes Patrick, on successive evenings, on a tour of strip clubs in Soho, out with two complaisant girls, and to dinner with a Lord and Lady at their vast country house.
- Dick Thompson – landlord who Jenny can tell straightaway harbours a simmering pash for her, which emerges late one drunk night when he leans over her as she’s sitting in a chair, she pushes him off, he tumbles to the floor and his glasses go flying just as his wife enters the kitchen, oops.
- Martha Thompson – wife of the above, dumpy, frustrated, fancies Patrick (who knows it, though nothing has ever come of it), bitchily jealous of Jenny and the way all the men (including her husband) fancy her. Eventually walks out on her husband in the last pages.
- Anna le Page – tubby young French woman rooming in the same house as Jenny, who slyly and slowly attempts to seduce her; takes naive Jenny a long time to realise her attentions are sexual rather than just unconventionally French. At the very end we find out she isn’t in fact French, it is all an elaborate charade she has now got tired of maintaining.
In this sort of ‘light realist’ novel, I’m not sure it’s correct to talk about a plot, it’s more a sequence of events loosely strung on a fairly simple narrative arc: boy meets girl; boy loses girl; boy gets girl back again, sort of.
Jenny moves into the boarding house and starts working at her school; immediately she finds herself entangled in various ways with Patrick, Graham and Dick and the receiver of unwanted advances from the lesbian Anna; she knows she probably wants some kind of relationship but can only see it in terms of marriage ie she lets them all kiss her and grope her a little but draws a definite line and pushes them all away when that line is reached (touching one breast is allowed, nothing more). She has a funny and typically Amis way of categorising her suitors into ‘stooges’, ‘smashers’, ‘duds’ and so on.
We also see things from Patrick’s perspective, sexually frustrated and entangled in murky relationships with the headmaster’s precocious (and ugly) daughter, Sheila, with the lesbian Anna, with the mutely-pining-for-him Martha. Jenny catches him snogging Wendy, a guest at Ormerod’s country place, which sets their relationship back, and then he makes a really bad hash of an evening out which ends with him virtually assaulting her. To my surprise, after he has apologised profusely on the phone and in person, and promised to behave better, she takes him back, and he does behave better. Politely, respectfully, with kissing, but not the grabby sort, and always ceasing around the first boob.
But, inside, all this restraint is driving Patrick absolutely nuts with frustration and so he says yes to Ormerod’s invitation to drive him in the old jalopy down to the jolly old Smoke for a weekend of debauchery – a tour of Soho strip joints on Friday night, followed by drinks, a restaurant and bang-bang with a couple of smashers on Saturday. This is all described in great detail, some of the social relationships puzzling in their combination of formality and informality, some of it of social-historical interest, and some hilariously funny. On the third night Ormerod takes him for dinner at the very grand country home of Lord Edgerstoune, a sustained piece of Amis satire about the very upper classes, which reminded me that Amis – like Bradbury, like Waterhouse and like Lodge – is lower-middle-class enough to feel outside all the Establishments which ran Britain in 1960. Like those authors, half his punch comes from his continual reminders of the fact.
In a peculiar way, Patrick has let himself be persuaded along on the weekend with Ormerod because he wants to test his devotion to Jenny. On a narrow view, it is not a success, as he sleeps with one of the pretty spoilt divorcées Ormerod took them to see – Joan – twice, despite her rudeness. On one hand it does get rid of his crippling sexual frustration. On the other hand, it lets him remember how relatively trivial and easy sex is with someone who, simply, does it, instead of insisting – like Jenny – that you meet her parents, announce a full engagement, plan the wedding, plan the fixtures, fittings and trimmings of the dream home you’re going to move into and begin picking out the colour for the first baby’s nursery – before you’re allowed to do it. While all the time Patrick is stuck at first boob. If that.
Patrick gives Jenny a deadline: lose your virginity to me this Saturday, my place, 2pm, or it’s all over. In a very funny sequence Patrick then has to bend over backwards to concoct an elaborate scheme to get his flatmate, Graham, out of the way before the Big Seduction, persuading him much against his will that he wants to drive to London to watch a cricket Test Match.
Relieved to be rid of him, Patrick has a g&t while he fixes the bed, a swift snort while he freshens up, and then another drink to calm his nerves. 2pm becomes 2.30 and he plays a jazz record, has another drink, checks his watch, has another drink, plays an LP. By the time there’s a knock at the door, he is pretty drunk, goes downstairs, flings the door wide to find…. Sheila, the head’s 17-year-old daughter, who invites herself upstairs and says – ‘You can do with me anything you like!’ He looks at his watch, finishes his drink — and, what the hell! Hmm. And then… doesn’t feel so proud of himself…
The whole thing climaxes at a long, wild party at Ormerod’s house where:
- Patrick is furious with Jenny for not turning up that afternoon and tells her it’s all over, deliberately flirting with other women.
- Very amusingly, he mixes the strongest cocktail in the world for Dick, who he hates – leading to Dick spending most of the evening throwing up in the garden.
- Jenny also drinks too much, has a drunken heart-to-heart with some other very drunk women, before being carried up to bed, very much the worse for wear.
- Which is where Patrick finds her, gets into bed with her and – despite her feeble attempts to repulse him – has sex with her and takes her virginity. It is tantamount to rape.
The morning after, like all the guests, she is sick and hungover, throws up, bathes, throws up again, Ormerod (the nicest character in the book, along with the decent Graham) kindly makes her breakfast and then Patrick turns up to drive her back to Dick’s. In the car she makes it quite clear he is a bastard and she never wants to see him again. Gets out, slams the car door, stalks into the Thompsons’ house.
To discover Martha walking out on her husband. A sub-plot of the novel had been that Dick all along was a bit of a crook and a conman who claimed to be an auctioneer. He was going to fleece that nice Lord and Lady Edgerstoune out of lots of money by crookedly selling off their house and possessions, until Ormerod stepped in. Stymied, Dick is now in a bad place financially and Martha has had enough of scrimping and saving.
Upset, Jenny goes up to her room to discover, to her horror, her headmistress, another teacher and a parent waiting. It’s not her fault but one of her little boys was hurt on Saturday and wanted to see ‘Miss’ and so they phoned her here, were given the number of the party and rang there, in the middle of all the appalling drunken mayhem. Now, as she surveys Jenny, with her bird’s nest hair, smudged face and wine stains down her dress, the headmistress decides they won’t invite her to go and visit the poor little boy at home. She walks out snootily.
Jenny collapses on her bed and weeps. Her world is in tatters. She hears a car draw up outside and knows it is Patrick’s. She recognises his steps on the stairs and nerves herself to send him packing. He enters the room and she finds herself running into his arms in floods of tears and telling him everything. For his part he apologises (again), this time for, well, raping her. In the last few pages they accept they are going to get married and spend the rest of their lives together. Jenny (and the reader) has a shrewd idea Patrick is never going to change and that their future together will not at all be the life she had dreamed of.
Titles Lucky Jim has become a cardinal title, a cultural reference point, the name of a classic novel, up there with other eponymous titles like Tom Jones or David Copperfield. This prevented me from realising for a few novels that it and all his subsequent titles are deliberately casual and throwaway. I Like It Here, Take A Girl Like You would soon be joined by Girl, 20, One Fat Englishman and so on – titles which have a deliberate not-arty feel, they are everyday phrases, or nearly, not weighty or symbolic, just like life, sort of.
And that reflects the way the plots, also, are not arty: they ramble and shag off in odd directions. They are not carefully contrived narrative arcs, freighted with symbolism and meaning. Stuff just happens: Patrick tries it on with Jenny and she slaps him – cooling off period – then he tries again, coming across as all recondite and apologetic – and, since this fits in with her woman’s magazine worldview of the Strong Man Tamed By Love, she accepts him and revels in, for example, the colour and classiness of cricket day at his jolly nice public school. Soon her dreams will come true. But Patrick – although he has come to really like her – is a man and can’t handle her systematic rejection of sex, her suppression of the sexual side of their natures. The rejections, the getting back together, the climactic party scene: it has the disorderliness of life.
The most obvious ramble is the way the novel sets out being about Jenny and ends up being more about Patrick. Well, there you go.
As you’d expect, in the Standish chapters the text adopts rather more of the typical Amis attitude ie highly observant of the foibles, odd mannerisms, funny speech patterns, and general peculiarity of the life around him.
Lucky Jim was stuffed to the gills with comic similes, riffs and routines. By this, Amis’s fourth novel, things have calmed down. Nonetheless, underlying the whole text is a reliably humorous attitude and an entertaining ability to conjure up details of contemporary 1960s life. For example, Amis has a habit of comparing people frozen in scenes or scenarios to scenes in popular TV dramas or B movies. Jenny and Anna are talking and Anna surprises the former by telling her her mother is dead – and that she’s glad she’s dead:
[Jenny sensed dimly] that she and Anna, but especially Anna, seemed as if they were taking part in a TV play (the sort where the announcer said beforehand that he and his friends did not consider it suitable for children) going on in some hot dry place on the Continent, with wine and goats. If Anna had so much as added ‘Yes, glad, do you hear?’ to her last statement, it would have been a devil of a job not to expect a man with thin lips and tight trousers to come strolling in, starting to play a guitar with ribbons on it. (p.95)
Wine and goats. With ribbons on it. There’s lots of this and it’s the precision of the detail along with the hokiness of the references, which makes them so funny. But the point is also that the similes and comparisons are all towards popular culture and ordinary life. There are few if any artistic or literary references. If art does intrude into the narrative, it receives a blast of full-on Amis scorn. In this scene Patrick is entering a building on his public school premises known as the Masters’ Lodge:
The hall and passage-way were certainly [like his parents’ house] in seeming to contain no object that could ever have been new. Somebody, either the caretaker or some âme damnée among the household staff, had managed to impose on the place an Edwardian hopelessness that contradicted the rather cheery vulgarity, as of a hugely swollen suburban villa, which it must once have had and which was now only to be seen upon its tile-encrusted, pebble-dashed, bow-windowed exterior. What was that bloody barrel-shaped vase, a cloudy and uneven purple in colour, doing on the fat newel-post at the foot of the stairs? Who the hell was that mutton-chopped bastard photographed in the act of delivering a warning about self-abuse… (p.138)
And so, very entertainingly, on. But not just short perceptions – entire scenes are masterpieces of comic contrivance. The prolonged business of persuading his flatmate to go to the Test Match to get him out the flat for Jenny’s deflowering is hilarious. To the extent that Patrick spends an hour and a half late at night testing every element of their beaten-up old banger, cleaning the spark plugs and topping up the battery, so it won’t break down as it carries Graham as far as possible from the scene of battle. The tense build-up to the arrival of young Jenny, the drinking, the ratcheting up of the pressure, and then — it all climaxes in the bathetic appearance of the jailbait 17-year-old, who quickly makes it plain she is his for the having, and which Amis conveys so humorously.
She was looking at him. More than that, she was looking at him with the look she used to indicate availability, which given her history was rather like an executioner with mask, tights and axe wearing a placard round his neck that said I KILL PEOPLE. (p.274)
It is a comedy. It is humorous most of the time and often very, very funny. But it also has these sort of serious moments when Jenny or Patrick reflect on their lives. And it has this act of drunken deflowering (or would it now be called plain rape?) at the centre (well, towards the very end) of the text which significantly darkens the mood.
It doesn’t make it a deeper or more profound novel, I don’t think Amis believes in profundity or depth – all the energy in his books is devoted to proving the opposite, the tremendous shallowness and obviousness of life. But in among all the very funny comic scenes and humorous phrasing there are more serious ruminations and bitter moments. None of his characters can quite really control their lives and it is their unfolding self-misrule which is laid out in sometimes grisly detail in these novels for our appalled entertainment.
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
PS LS Caton
On page 140 the L.S Caton who swindled Lucky Jim Dixon out of publishing the academic essay he hoped would save his career, then absconded to South America, pops up in a letter offering to deliver a lecture at Standish’s school.