Thursday, May 12, 2011

Lucky Jim

When someone in the Imaginary Friends Book Club proposed reading Lucky Jim, by Kingsley Amis, I went downstairs to find my copy, and came back up having found only Lord Jim, by Joseph Conrad. The paperback I was remembering must have been from my college-professor-parents' house.  So on a subsequent visit to a used book store whose shelves struck me as an oddly exact recreation of my parents', I picked up a copy of Lucky Jim, a spoof of British academic life in the 1950s.

I read the whole thing because it was mildly funny in a low-key, David Lodge kind of way.  But I have to wonder about the point of digging this one up. Didn't we get over the 1950's already?  Wasn't all of Jim's sort of fumbling about with women addressed by the "summer of love"?  And if he didn't want to be a history professor, then surely the lesson of the hippies was that he didn't have to be.  So why reread this book?

It's very British; I was continually irritated by the reiterations of Jim's feeling that "nice things are nicer than nasty things."  Duh!  Only the British eat seed cake when there's gateaux to be had.

Jim, whose last name is Dixon, is very irritating. He rarely does anything nice for anyone; in fact, he specializes in making other peoples' lives more difficult.  That can be funny, but at--what is, for me at least--a very low level, as in this passage:
"when publicly disagreeing with her husband for example, she was the only living being capable of making Dixon sympathize with him. It was rather annoying to hear how kind she'd been; it entailed putting tiresome qualifications on his dislike for her."

When another character finally asks Jim why he wants to teach medieval history in a college, he reveals himself to be the 1950's version of a slacker, one who had some choices but didn't care enough to make them:
"the reason why I'm a medievalist, as you call it, is that the medieval papers were a soft option in the Leicester course, so I specialized in them. Then when I applied for the job here, I naturally made a big point of that, because it looked better to seem interested in something specific. It's why I got the job instead of that clever boy from Oxford who mucked himself up at the interview by chewing the fat about modern theories of interpretation. But I never guessed I'd be landed with all the medieval stuff and nothing but medieval stuff."

Amis' comic genius, if you think he has any, lies in his ability to capture the small details of conversation that can make it so awkward and wearing, like when someone says a word wrong because he's thinking of another word and you start thinking about that instead of what he's said:
"'And I happen to like the arts, you sam.'
The last word, a version of 'see', was Bertrand's own coinage. It arose as follows: the vowel sound became distorted into a short 'a', as if he were going to say 'sat'. This brought his lips some way apart, and the effect of their rapid closure was to end the syllable with a light but audible 'm'. After working this out, Dixon could think of little to say, and contented himself with 'You do', which he tried to make knowing and sceptical."

Every time Jim said something awkward in a conversation, I was torn between laughing at him and identifying with him, which disturbed me because I didn't like him!  And yet I often say things like he does out of nervousness when I'm at an academic gathering:
"'Well, it's an unexpected pleasure to be drinking pints at a do like this.'
'You're in luck, Dixon,' Gore-Urquhart said sharply, handing around cigarettes.
Dixon felt himself blushing slightly, and resolved to say no more for a time. None the less he was pleased that Gore-Urquhart had caught his name."

At one point when they're sitting at a table and Jim Dixon is observing a conversation, his thoughts are petty and mean in almost the exact same way mine would be in a similar situation, which made me grin and cringe at the same time:
"Gore-Urquhart had tilted his large dark head over towards Bertrand; his face, half-averted, eyes on the ground, wore a small intent frown, as if he were hard of hearing and couldn't bear to miss a word. Dixon couldn't bear not missing any more of it--Bertrand was now using the phrase 'contrapuntal tone-values'--and switched to his right, where for some moments he'd been half-conscious of a silence."

The high point of the novel is when Jim finally says to his annoying and manipulative friend Margaret what readers have been longing for him to say for pages and pages:
"Don't be fantastic, Margaret. Come off the stage for a moment, do."
And then she has a page and a half of hysterics, ending with having her face slapped and being given a glass of whiskey, which she takes and "with eerie predictability she choked and coughed, swallowed some, coughed again, swallowed some more." 
If there's any satisfaction in the ending, it's that Margaret is revealed as a fraud and Jim gets free of her.

Overall, though, I'd take rereading Lodge's Nice Work over plowing through this old-fashioned relic, if I felt the need for British academic humor.  The uncomfortable pleasure of reading the quite awkward bits of conversation is the only reason this particular novel should still be read at all.  Have you ever had a conversation at an academic gathering that made you feel you had just said something monumentally stupid?  And did you cringe for days afterwords?


Hugh said...

I have been unable to get this novel via ILL. After making people read "Water" I feel guilty, but promise to make up for it next time.


FreshHell said...

Yes, every single time which is why I rarely go to functions. Colleges usually like to keep their researchers in dark holes which is much preferable than the glaring spot lights of an "event."

Lemming - worry not. I think the number of people who read this are in the minority. There are some folks who may opt not to participate at all. We shall carry on, nonetheless.

Alison said...

I've not read this, although I did see the 1957 film many years ago, and had rather the same reaction. Although, I admit, the constant references to "Merrie England" drove home pretty well where the countercultural movements of the 60s and 70s were coming from.

bermudaonion said...

This doesn't sound like one I'd enjoy, so I'll skip it.

Karen K. said...

Oh, dear. This has been on the to-read list forever, but it actually looks like it would be quite disappointing. I was hoping it would end up being delightfully funny somehow, like Decline and Fall by Evelyn Waugh or Three Men in a Boat. Well, I'll leave it on the list but I won't rush out to go get it.

FreshHell said...

Did I comment on this before it blew up? I can't remember. I think we chatted about it somewhere. I think this would have been funnier if I'd read it back in the day. Now it just....isn't. I hate Jim Dixon and feel no sympathy for his pathetic plight.

Anonymous said...

Okay, you guys are not making me want to read this. Can I just read something by David Lodge instead? (I've always felt I ought to read LJ, though. Maybe I'll just read the first and last chapter.)

Jeanne said...

Karen K, I never enjoyed Three Men and a Boat until I had it read out loud to me. I wonder if this would be funnier as an audiobook?

FreshHell, your comment was eaten in the Blogger meltdown. We talked about not liking Jim. I don't think you are as horrified by similarities as I am, though!

ReadersGuide you could read Nice Work. I get an earworm I get every time I mention the title (Nice work if you can get it...and you can get it if you try)--oh, the irony