“Mr Amis is the rarest of writers, one who can make us laugh. His dialogue is brilliant, his timing of comic situations could hardly be bettered. He can write about things like a car running down a slope, or coal being broken up under the stairs, in such a way that they seem uproariously funny. Yet by intention he is a seriously comic writer, one who apparently means to say something about society.” Julian Gustave Symons in the TLS, September 1955.
Published for the first time in 1954, Kingsley Ami’s Lucky Jim was an instant hit and remains alongside Robert Conquest’s anthology New Lines and the poetry of Larkin, Donald Davie, Thom Gunn et al as one of the defining texts of the Movement. A tour de force celebration of British humour, conveyed in snippets from the farcical life of Mr James Dixon, this quintessential campus novel of the 1950s is charmingly funny yet, as noted by Symons, Ami’s satire can bite and offers some unfavourable elitist characters such as the intolerable Bertrand Welch. A novel definitely worth a read, and manageable for everyone in its sparing 250 pages.
(Lucky Jim has also been lucky enough to have some excellent cover designs)
The narrative focuses around protagonist Dixon who has recently (rather miraculously, so it seems) acquired a job as a lecturer in a nondescript northern, and thus second-rate, university. His first year is nearing its end, and after an unsatisfactory start Dixon worries that he may be on the brink of unemployment, which isn’t an option with his strong appetite for a pint of lager which has nihilistically drained his bank account to the point of non-existence. With this in mind, Dixon reluctantly agrees to deliver the annual end-of-year speech to the college on the subject of “Merrie England”. As the novel proceeds, we see his preparation for this speech interrupted by a series of episodes revealing Dixon as a fumbling, heedless yet straightforwardly honest character who often gets himself into a sticky situation due to a tendancy to escape upper-class work-related functions by slipping off to the pub and polishing off one (or three) too many pints.
Gorgeous cover design by Penguin Essentials, be sure to check out their other designs too!
An ‘angry young man’ novel would not be complete without a complicated lurve-life and Amis doesn’t fail to deliver. Dixon’s quaint relationship with colleague Margaret teeters on the brink of, and at two points falls into, collapse which is also spiced up by Dixon’s bonding with Christine, supposed girlfriend of the wretched Bertrand. Having recently attempted suicide, Margaret is a volatile character over-reliant on Dixon and I found myself quite apathetic to her melodramatic episodes, something which Amis clearly has in mind.
Amis gift in this novel, for me, lies in its characters, all of whom are well developed and subjects of humour, except perhaps Gore-Urquhart. There does however seem to be a divide in characters, with one half—characters like Bertrand, Margaret, Mrs Welch—being satirised for their truculent, lying, deceitful natures, and the other half—Dixon, Christine—being satirised as farcical and careless but being good in nature. This boundary between these characters seems to be their honesty and openness, something which Philip Larkin, college-friend of Amis who helped to edit the book, inspired episodes within it and to whom the book was thus dedicated, also concerns himself in his poetry.
This concern with honesty and falsity, I think, is one of the themes at the heart of Amis satire. Although self-evidently being a comical novel, it also satirises the elitist university campus extant in the 1950s. Larkin and Amis both received their education through scholarships and graduated together from Oxford in the 1940s and found themselves entangled in the elitist web that was university life. Amis novel suggests that this web is an inclusive one which is fought for by the people within it. The college community of characters such as Mr Welch struggle to uphold the academic status quo and characters like Jim appear not to fit in to this community. Despite this, by the denouement of the novel the readers feels that this is a community better left being out of and it is Dixon who comes out on top as ‘Lucky Jim’.
Thanks for reading! Liam.