Kingsley Amis, Lucky Jim (1954)
Lucky Jim came up recently as my Classics Club Spin book, and I was glad, because it’s a book I’ve tried to read a few times without success. Still, I was determined to find out why Amis’s debut novel has been hailed as one of the funniest books of all time (it regularly makes top ten lists, such as this one, and this) and hoped that the public challenge would motivate me to make it through.
The experiment was a success, for in hopes of meeting the August deadline I checked the book out and started right away, and a few days later I was finished. It turned out that once I became thoroughly involved in the adventures of hapless history professor James Dixon, I had to keep reading in order to find out what happened to him, and whether he did indeed turn out to be “lucky” in the end.
Was it a funny book, though? There were some screwball-comedy moments, such as when Jim inadvertently burns his bedsheets while staying at his senior professor’s house, and tries to cover up the damage by cutting off the soot marks. He then spends the rest of the book trying to avoid the professor’s shrewish wife, which gives rise to some amusingly Wodehousian situations. The loutish son of this same professor also provides both comedy and conflict, as Jim becomes interested in the girl he’s stringing along and who is clearly much too good for him. This pretentious family drags Jim into their “artsy” activities, forcing him to read French plays aloud and sing part-songs — he opens and closes his mouth and hopes that nobody will notice, which succeeds until his fellow tenor is diverted to another part. And there’s a famous scene in which Jim has to give a dreaded speech on the topic of “Merrie England” and ends up sabotaging his own career with drunken caricatures of his university superiors. . .
So I did chuckle quite a bit, but the comedy had a strong undercurrent of misery underneath. Jim is trapped in a horrible job that he hates but is terrified of losing, he’s stuck in a relationship with a woman he doesn’t love but can’t leave, and he lacks the will to do anything about either. His strange habit of making grotesque faces to which he gives special names indicates an almost pathological self-alienation. That we somehow find him likeable rather than merely pathetic is in large part due to the fact that most of the other characters are even more unpleasant. There’s nobody else to relate to, and Jim does at least have some human qualities.
“Woman trouble” is supposed to be one of the more relatable comic themes in the novel, and that might work for readers to whom women remain a category of creatures primarily defined by their attractiveness to men, for they’re not given much purpose or identity otherwise. This may be meant as a comment on Jim’s limited understanding and experience, but it still gave an off-taste to the humor for me. There’s a bitter, mean quality to Amis’s treatment of women; even the most sympathetic among them just happens to be “pretty” and “nice” and thus has the good fortune to be desired by Jim. Oh, hooray.
However, I’m aware that many would find such concerns irrelevant to this kind of novel. It’s a satire, and not a bright and sparkling one — bitterness and meanness come with the territory. I am glad that I finally read it, though I can’t say I wholeheartedly enjoyed it, and I wouldn’t put it on my personal top ten list of funny books. Brilliantly, savagely humorous it was, but not in a way that left me with a smile on my face.