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Lucky Jim by Kingsley Amis

Lucky Jim (1953)

by Kingsley Amis

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Title:Lucky Jim
Authors:Kingsley Amis
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Lucky Jim by Kingsley Amis (1953)

  1. 40
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Jim Dixon's reflection on old man Welch, the chair of the History Department at the provincial college where the novel is set: "How had he become Professor of History, even at a place like this? By published works? No. By extra good teaching? No, in italics."
― Kingsley Amis, Lucky Jim

British literary critic and novelist David Lodge notes how those of his generation who came of age in England in the 1950s, men and women mostly from lower-middle income families having their first real taste of educational and professional opportunity, felt more than a little unease with the attitudes and values of the prevailing cultural and social establishment. Novels like Lucky Jim really spoke to them: young Jim Dixon enters the world of academia and polite society and detests all the airs, posturing, snootiness, arrogance and pretense. Judging from the reviews and essays penned by British readers in the last few years, this Kingsley Amis novel continues to speak with power.

As an American, the novel also spoke to me with power; however, the power (and also the humor) is signature British – subtle and understated. For examples we need only turn to the first pages. The opening scene has Dixon strolling the campus with Professor Welch, chair of the history department, the man who will approve or disapprove Dixon’s continuing within the department beyond the current term. Welsh is fussing over a local reporter’s write up of a concert where he, Welsh, played the recorder accompanied by piano. The newspaper said “flute and piano.” Welch pedantically details the difference between a flute and a recorder as if he is David Munrow, as if his recorder playing and the concert amounted to a historical event in the world of twentieth century performance. Hey, Welch – nobody gives a fig! And a recorder is a fipple flute, so the reporter’s mistake is hardly a monumental blunder.

Dixon and Welch continue walking together across the lawn in front of a college building, “To look at, but not only to look at, they resembled some kind of variety act: Welch tall and weedy, with limp whitening hair, Dixon on the short side, fair and round-faced, with an unusual breadth of shoulder that had never been accompanied by any special physical strength or skill.” In addition to providing the reader with telling physical detail, likening the two men to a variety act initiates a recurrent theme carried throughout the novel: very much in keeping with English society, nearly everyone moves and speaks as if they are acting on a stage; in other words, acculturated to play a prescribed, set role. Incidentally, I’ve heard more than once how the British are such natural actors and actresses since they are trained to act beginning as children. And this play acting really heightens the humor, especially as Jim Dixon seethes with rage as he follows the script and, fueled by alcohol, seethes with even more rage as he rebels against the whole stage production. Very British; very funny.

Ah, rebellion! Jim Dixon is a rebel with a cause, his cause being life free of hypocrisy and stupidity. But, alas, much of his rebellion is a silent rebellion. We are treated to Jim’s running commentary of what he would like to say and like to do, as in, after listening to more of Welch’s prattle: “He pretended to himself that he’d pick up his professor round the waist, squeeze the furry grey-blue waistcoat against him to expel the breath, run heavily with him up the steps, along the corridor to the Staff Cloakroom, and plunge the too-small feet in their capless shoes into a lavatory basin, pulling the plug once, twice and again, stuffing the mouth with toilet-paper.”

Again a bit later Jim hops in the car next to Welch as the professor drives home from the college and Welch presses him on the prospects of his history article being published. Dixon’s reply is cut short when Welch nearly causes a multi-vehicle crash: “Dixon, thought on the whole glad at this escape, felt at the same time that the conversation would have been appropriately rounded off by Welch’s death.” And this is only for starters – many are the zinger launched at the world of academe. No wonder Amis received a rather cool reception by the English faculty at Cambridge in the years following the publication of Lucky Jim!

The humor escalates as Jim Dixon finds himself in a number of increasingly farcical and compromising situations, usually brought on, in part, by his own prankster antics and drinking, at such events as a stay, including obligatory singing, at the home of the Welches, a college sponsored dance and, finally, delivering a required public history lecture to a full house. Actually, the events prior to and during Jim’s grand finale lecture are the stuff of Monty Python. All told, the exquisite timing of Amis’ language and the string of outrageous quagmires Jim must face make for one comic novel.

However, it must be noted, the humor cuts deeper than the comic British novels of writers like P. G. Wodehouse. A prime example is Jim’s skirmish with Welch’s son Bertrand, a self-styled amateur artist. Events and emotions move apace until Dixon has developed his own relationship with Bertrand’s girlfriend Christine. Bertrand becomes progressively more infuriated at this unwanted development and at one point snarls into Dixon’s face: “Just get this straight in your so-called mind. When I see something I want, I go for it. I don’t allow people of your sort to stand in my way. That’s what you’re leaving out of account. I’m having Christine because it’s my right. Do you understand that? If I’m after something I don’t care what I do to make sure that I get it.” Oh, my goodness, a member of the wealthy, privileged class portrayed as a viscous, condescending, power-hungry scum.

Lastly, what would a novel by Kingsley Amis be without young ladies? Lucky Jim features two such ladies: Margaret and the above mentioned Christine. Margaret teaches history at the college, is rather plain and uses emotional blackmail to tighten her grip on menfolk; Christine is both attractive and connected to an uncle in high places. To find out just how far Margaret will go with her blackmail and how lucky Jim Dixon will be with Christine and her uncle, you will have to read this comic jewel for yourself.

Kingsley Amis in 1954, age 32, year of publication of Lucky Jim
Jim upon waking up with a hangover. Would anyone doubt Kingsley Amis mined his own first-hand experience? - "Dixon was alive again. Consciousness was upon him before he could get out of the way; not for him the slow, gracious wandering from the halls of sleep, but a summary, forcible ejection. He lay sprawled, too wicked to move, spewed up like a broken spider-crab on the tarry shingle of morning. The light did him harm, but not as much as looking at things did; he resolved, having done it once, never to move his eyeballs again. A dusty thudding in his head made the scene before him beat like a pulse. His mouth had been used as a latrine by some small creature of the night, and then as its mausoleum. During the night, too, he'd somehow been on a cross-country run and then been expertly beaten up by secret police. He felt bad.” ( )
  GlennRussell | Feb 16, 2017 |
Mwah, funny at times, boring at others as well as a bit annoying. College humour for the upper classes, presenting the weird theory that a girl's beauty determines her character, making the not so attractive Margaret a hysteric and beautiful Christine posess a balanced character ... Rather disgustingly deterministic I would think, and sexist btw. ( )
  stef7sa | Jan 5, 2017 |
Jim Dixon hates his tedious job as a junior professor of medieval studies, mocks his bumbling superior (professor Welch) while having to attend his banal social functions, and is engaged in back and forth sabotage with one of his housemates. He’s also interested in a little bit of the old “slap and tickle” with the girlfriend of his Welch’s obnoxious son. He does the minimum possible as a teacher, expressing cynicism all the way, makes a variety of silly faces in response to his frustrations, and loves to sneak off for a pint or six down at the pub (or an “octuple whiskey” for that matter).

The opening chapter is hilarious and the book has many memorable scenes, all greatly enhanced by Amis’s precision with words. Some examples: in slowly getting a point across to the dimwitted Welch, he is “at first pleased to see this evidence that Welch’s mind could still be reached from the outside”. In considering the title for an article he’s published, he observes “It was a perfect title, in that it crystallized the article’s niggling mindlessness, its funereal parade of yawn-enforcing facts, the pseudo-light it through on non-problems”. In getting locked out of the bathroom, he “stood well back, straddling, and raised his hands like a conductor on the brink of some thunderous overture or tone-poem; then, half-conductor, half-boxer, went into a brief manic flurry of obscene gestures”. And on and on. I wasn’t wild about one of the female characters going into “hysterics” and needing to be slapped out of it, but the rest of the novel is pitch perfect.

This is a post-war book with sardonic and playful humor in the vein of Joseph Heller, and Keith Gessen does a great job in the introduction to provide context for it. Amis was expressing anger at an England in which “the wrong people were in charge, had the money, had to be listened to and treated with respect”, and dedicated the novel to his close friend and young writer Philip Larkin, who was a kindred spirit. The novel captures their hatred of authority and irritability with nearly everything around them, but it’s the hatred of smart young men, and I found myself smiling and empathizing even as Dixon commits acts of minor vandalism and shirks his duties. Instantly popular when published, it would change Amis’s life – he would now become a part of the literary establishment – and his time of being the cynical outsider would soon close. Humor in books or film sometimes doesn’t hold up over the years, but it does in this one, and it’s recommended.

On love:
“Your attitude measures up to the two requirements of love. You want to go to bed with her but can’t, and you don’t know her very well. Ignorance of the other person topped up with deprivation, Jim. You fit the formula all right, and what’s more you want to go on fitting it. The old hopeless passion, isn’t it?”

On progress:
“Those who professed themselves unable to believe in the reality of human progress ought to cheer themselves up, as the students under examination had conceivably been cheered up, by a short study of the Middle Ages. The hydrogen bomb, the South African governments, Chiang Kai-shek, Senator McCarthy himself, would then seem a light price to pay for no longer being in the Middle Ages. Had people ever been as nasty, as self-indulgent, as dull, as miserable, as cocksure, as bad at art, as dismally ludicrous, or as wrong as they’d been in the Middle Age[s]?” ( )
1 vote gbill | Dec 1, 2016 |
Jim Dixon is a lecturer the history department of a university. This is despite the fact that he is not terribly interested in history and is particularly indifferent to what is supposed to be his special area of interest, medieval history. He is still on probation and therefore is obliged to be helpful and obsequious to the head of history, Mr Welch, a man he hates. He is romantically involved (in an on-again, off-again sort of way) with another lecturer called Margaret, who is recovering after a suicide attempt, after she was dumped by a boyfriend.

Jim is invited to a cultural weekend at the Welches' house, where he meets Christine, who is going out with Bertrand, Mr Welch's son. While there, Jim gets very drunk and wakes to find that he has burned (with cigarettes), his bedsheets, blankets, rug and bedside table. Christine helps him do away with the evidence.

This was very entertaining, although Jim's relentless self-destructive conduct does get a bit much at times. The final set-piece bus journey to the station is excellent and I enjoyed Bill's timed faint during the lecture Jim gives on Merrie England. I found the Margaret relationship puzzling. Her hold over Jim was just not convincing to me. Still, otherwise enjoyable. ( )
  pgchuis | Sep 2, 2016 |
I read this book back in, I think it was 2012, originally.

I enjoyed it, I thought it was a solid read. Kingsley Amis writes the protagonist, Jim, well. He's a misanthropic man who's just done with the world and society and everything. I found some scenes really readable and quick to get to, but others I felt really dragged on a bit.

The action seemed to slow in parts because so much of this book is part of Jim's internal dialogue, so after his long, sprawling inner rants, the narrator sort of zooms out, and you're in the exact same place as where you left off? I have no idea how else to describe it.

I found it readable at the time but I feel like my tastes have changed quite a bit, and I'm not in such a rush to pick up Amis' books. That said, I really did like the wry, witty, derisive sense of humour that Amis has and I remember parts of this book fondly. c:

3.5 stars from me~. ( )
  lydia1879 | Aug 31, 2016 |
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"Lucky Jim, Kingsley Amis's comic masterpiece, may be the funniest book of the past half century "

» Add other authors (23 possible)

Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Kingsley Amisprimary authorall editionscalculated
Blake, QuentinCover artistsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
David LodgeIntroductionsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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"Oh, lucky Jim, how I envy him. Oh, lucky Jim, how I envy him." - Old Song
To Philip Larkin
First words
"They made a silly mistake, though," the Professor of History said, and his smile, as Dixon watched, gradually sank beneath the surface of his features at the memory.
Christine was still prettier and nicer than Margaret, and all the deductions that could be drawn from that fact should be drawn: there was no end to the ways in which nice things are nicer than nasty ones.
"I am sorry to hear of your difficulties, Mr Dickinson, but I'm afraid things are too difficult here for me to be very seriously concerned about your difficulties..."
There was no end to the ways in which nice things are nicer than nasty ones.
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(Click to show. Warning: May contain spoilers.)
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Amazon.com Amazon.com Review (ISBN 0140186301, Paperback)

Although Kingsley Amis's acid satire of postwar British academic life has lost some of its bite in the four decades since it was published, it's still a rewarding read. And there's no denying how big an impact it had back then--Lucky Jim could be considered the first shot in the Oxbridge salvo that brought us Beyond the Fringe, That Was the Week That Was, and so much more.

In Lucky Jim, Amis introduces us to Jim Dixon, a junior lecturer at a British college who spends his days fending off the legions of malevolent twits that populate the school. His job is in constant danger, often for good reason. Lucky Jim hits the heights whenever Dixon tries to keep a preposterous situation from spinning out of control, which is every three pages or so. The final example of this--a lecture spewed by a hideously pickled Dixon--is a chapter's worth of comic nirvana. The book is not politically correct (Amis wasn't either), but take it for what it is, and you won't be disappointed.

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:15:23 -0400)

(see all 7 descriptions)

Jim has fallen into a job at one of the new red brick universities. A moderately successful future beckons as long as Jim can survive a madrigal-singing weekend, deliver a lecture on "merrie England" and resist Christine, the girlfriend of Professor Welch's son, Bertrand..… (more)

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Penguin Australia

3 editions of this book were published by Penguin Australia.

Editions: 0141182598, 0141399414, 0241956846

NYRB Classics

2 editions of this book were published by NYRB Classics.

Editions: 1590175751, 1590175913

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