Review: ‘Lucky Jim’ by Kingsley Amis

IMG_3037Lucky Jim by Kinglsey Amis, (St Ives: Penguin, 1963)

“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.

 

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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

(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.

 

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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.

 

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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.

The Selected Letters of Philip Larkin (1940-85)… in Quotes

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The Selected Letters of Phillip Larkin 1940-85, edited by Anthony Thwaite (London: Faber, 1992)

1) To J.B.Sutton – 10 August 1943

“Yesterday I was 21 – thank you again for the ‘El Greco’ card – and it doesn’t interest me. Yesterday, too, I had to go to London for a Civil Service interview, which was a bit flustering. They asked me what I really wanted to do, and I said ‘Be a novelist’. I had to stick to it, too—but if you’d known how presumptuous it sounded… Aaahhss!! (expressing disgust). Particularly as I have been trying to write a proper story all week, and failing miserably. For the present I seem to have lost all touch with the mystery that lies at the bottom of creating art…”

Reading Larkin’s poetry, you would describe the man as being anything other than Romantic. His work draws from the quotidian of his suburban life in Hull – from renting out a room (‘Mr Bleaney’), to train journeys (‘The Whitsun Weddings’, ‘Here’) to going for a walk in a park and getting irritated at everybody (‘Toads Revisited’) – but here Larkin shows signs of being engrossed by the ‘mystery’ of writing and creating art, a very Romantic idea, and something which is incessantly lurking in his thoughts.

2) To Norman Iles – 26 August 1943

“Dear Norman –

Sorry there has been a noticeable hiatus between my receiving your last letter & my writing of this. Time drifts by, & any resemblance to a serious & valuable existence is entirely coincidental.”

In his letters, as in his poetry, Larkin makes clear his obsession/awareness of the passage of time. He was a man who sought to live a ‘meaningful’ existence, but he often demonstrates difficulty in discovering what is ‘meaningful’. He was, on the other hand, an expert on the meaningless in life…

3) To J.B.Sutton – 29 November 1946

“Every now and then a ghostly hand grabs the seat of my trousers and hauls me several feet off the ground, and I hear a ghostly voice say ‘Philip Larkin! You and your sharp sensitivity to words! What have you written since August 1945? Cock all!’ The hand then releases me and I come a terrible bash on the cobbles.”

Written 3 years after the first quote, this demonstrates Larkin’s obsession with the production of literature. I’m no psychoanalyst, but this image of a Christmas Carol-esque ghoul interrogating Larkin is fascinating and, for me, underlines the meaning that the production of literature has for Larkin; to defy this ghoul, to defy death and live on in the world. I also love Larkin’s hilarious description of his recent output:- ‘Cock all!’ This is quite typical of the letters and Larkin is constantly effing and blinding to his hearts content.

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4) To J.B.Sutton – 9 September 1948

“It greatly irritates me that these days are taken away, we are robbed of our lives, by employers & the like.”

Once more Larkin worries about the passage of time and ageing. Neil Corcoran (in English Poetry Since 1940) describes Larkin as ‘pre-eminently a poet of the terror of ageing’ and such quotes makes it clear to see why. In his poetry, he often concerns himself with how we, as human beings, spend the passage of time (see ‘Here’, ‘Toads Revisited’). Yet he often comes to the contradicting conclusion that it doesn’t matter what we do in life as nothing we can do has any meaning (gleeful fellow!). So when he comes to the end of ‘Mr Bleaney’ and announces ‘He warranted no better’ he has to add a sceptical ‘I don’t know’ – who is he to judge?

5) To J.B.Sutton – 15 September 1948

There is “a quarrel between the necessity & beauty of being united with a woman one loves, & the necessity of not being entangled or bullied or victimised or patronised or any of the other concomitants of love & marriage.”

As in his poetry, Larkin frequently denounces marriage in his letters. In this one, where he discusses the treatment of marriage in a DH Lawrence (Larkin is a huge DH Lawrence fan) novel, his language clearly extolls how he feels about marriage. This is something mirrored in poems such as ‘The Whitsun Weddings’ where the significance of the weddings become on a par to

An Odeon [going] past, a cooling tower, And

Someone running up to bowl…

Ouch…

6) To Norman Iles – 30 December 1942

“we only have one fire nowadays & although I can light a gas fire in the dining room if I like, the pressure is so low you have to dangle your balls on it before you feel any heat.”

This is Larkin on the perks of student life. Throughout his letters with his closest friends (especially Norman Iles, Kingsley Amis (Author of Lucky Jim), and J.B.Sutton) Larkin is downright crude and vulgar. When such letters were released Larkin’s reputation took a sudden dive as people became aware of some of his more controversial views. Nevertheless I find such passages as this full of the vibrancy of youth and incredibly funny. As I sat wrapped in several layers to keep warm in my student accommodation, I could certainly connect with Larkin’s pain!

Larkin

7) To J.B.Sutton – 24 March 1949

“My great trouble, as usual, is that I lack desires. Life is to know what you want, & to get it. But I don’t feel I desire anything. I am unconvinced of the worth of literature. I don’t want money or position. I find it easier to abstain from women that sustain the trouble of them & the creakings of my own monastic personality.”

I felt this quote contains a resonant truth, that life ‘is to know what you want and to get it’. Spot on. A truly modern philosophy. But as I near the end of my degree and decide on a career and what I want to do for the next 45 years, something that I will enjoy and will be meaningful and fulfilling(in the Larkinesque context), I empathise with Larkin’s sombre tone here. It is also surprising to have Larkin question the value of literature, something he seemed to strive for and build his life around. I feel it shows his breadth of mind and sceptical nature, although this is often interpreted as being a deep cynicism. This is certainly something to take on board when reading his poetry, which is often accused of criticizing but never offering anything in return.

8) To Kingsley Amis – 20 August 1943

“marriage seems a revolting institution, unless the parties have enough money to keep reasonably distant from each other—imagine sharing a bed with a withered old woman!

No, sir. A lonely bachelorhood interspersed with buggery and strictly-monetary fornication seems to me preferable…”

Aged just 21, Larkin certainly knew what he wanted. And he got it – spending his bachelor life as a librarian in Hull writing poetry in the evenings after doing the dishes, as he writes in Required Writing. His strong disapproval of marriage is once again made explicit here. I don’t think he was ever going to be convinced?

9) To J.B.Sutton – 30 October 1949

“My views are very simple and childish: I think we are born, & grow up, & die.”

For a man who reflected so deeply on life, society, religion, traditions, marriage, children, work, etc, Larkin seems to have perceived life as being quite simple. For me, this quote runs throughout his poetry. He was a man who questioned every pillar that society was built upon, but consequently struggled to find meaning in the world. Even literature, at times, became worthless, as seen above. Such being the case, all that is left to do is to live life. But always be sceptical, and stand toe-to-toe with the truth. Don’t let tradition or fashion or social rules cloud it.

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Illustration by Larkin