Penguin Group. 1953. 251 pgs with forward by David Lodge.
I decided to run to the top of the Guardian 1000 Comedy titles list for my next read. I knew absolutely nothing about Kingsley Amis, but I figured his “classic” campus novel/comedy would provide some amusement after Schindler’s List. Lucky Jim was touted as a modern classic about life in 1950’s British universities, been translated into many languages and even been made into a movie. How could I go wrong?
After finishing this dreary little volume I have one word: huh? Here’s our plot: Jim Dixon is a probationary lecturer in an second-string British university. His specialty is medieval studies — but he has no real interest in it, or interest in any sort of scholarship. Jim’s main energies are focused on ingratiating himself with his department chairman, Prof. Welch, sorting out his quasi-relationship with a female lecturer, Margaret, carefully rationing his cigarettes and drinking as much liquor as he can. Prof. Welch invites Jim to an arty weekend at the Welch home where Jim meets the Welch’s obnoxious son, Bertrand, and Bertrand’s pretty girlfriend, Christine. Jim figures the weekend is a good opportunity to shine, and cinch his permanent employment with the University. Unfortunately, due to a fair amount of liquor consumption, Jim fails to shine. The book’s climax involves Jim giving a public lecture to a huge campus crowd on the topic of, “Merrie England.” This also turns out to be an incredible disaster, which I guess is supposed to be humorous.
I’ve now done a little bit of reading on Kingsley Amis, to try to understand the context of this novel. Amis was part of the “Angry Young Men” movement in the 1950’s and 1960’s. These writers and playwrights represented a lower class view of English society and expressed disenchantment with traditional British morals and literature. At the time of Lucky Jim’s publication, it was haled as an altogether new kind of writing. It also was the first of the “campus novels” that were further developed by writers like David Lodge. So, ok, historically this was an important and I guess, very unique and special work.
I just didn’t find any thing funny about it, nor did I find the plot particularly engaging. I was also bugged by the book’s strident misogyny. The two principle female figures are troubling: Margaret is a neurotic and an emotional blackmailer. Her worse crime is not being very pretty. Sexy Christine, is hauled around by both Jim and Bertrand and eventually fought over in a Cro-Magnon style encounter between the two men. Last but not least, I couldn’t have cared less whether Jim was lucky or unlucky in the various entanglements he was involved with.
So….that’s it for me on Lucky Jim. Let me go back to the Comedy titles for another try….this one was a bust.