Amis & Lucky Jim

Kingsley Amis was born on this day in 1922. Amis’s first novel, Lucky Jim, was an award winner and bestseller when published in 1954, and it is now on many “Best” or “Funniest” lists for twentieth-century novels. Given his aim to hoist academia with its own petard, Amis might wince to discover his book now enshrined by literary historians as “the exemplary Fifties novel” (Malcolm Bradbury, The Modern British Novel) and as the origin of the “campus novel” genre, or that branch of it that satirizes “a dying tradition and a suffocating institution” (Elaine Showalter, Faculty Towers).

Lucky Jim is drawn from Amis’s years as a lecturer in English, though its central character, Junior History Lecturer Jim Dixon, is also inspired by Amis’s friend Philip Larkin. A prototype of the Amis antihero, Jim has a double quest: Get the Girls and Avoid Pompous Twits — the PT, in this case, being Senior Professor Welch, who thinks Jim should cut his academic teeth by way of a departmental lecture on “Merrie England.” This is an idea with which Jim perforce agrees, though he’d rather “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.”

When Jim recalls his own recent and much-rejected paper on “The Economic Influence of the Developments in Shipbuilding Techniques, 1450 to 1485,” he gets the same sort of lavatory urges: “It was a perfect title, in that it crystalized the article’s niggling mindlessness, its funereal parade of yawn-enforcing facts, the pseudo-light it threw upon non-problems.”

In the end, and before a crowd of astonished students and colleagues, Jim delivers his Merrie England talk in drunken, bridge-burning style:

Gradually, but not as gradually as it seemed to some parts of his brain, he began to infuse his tones with a sarcastic, wounding bitterness. Nobody outside a madhouse, he tried to imply, could take seriously a single phrase of this conjectural, nugatory, deluded, tedious rubbish.… He began punctuating his discourse with smothered snorts of derision. He read on, spitting out syllables like curses, leaving mispronunciations, omissions, spoonerisms uncorrected, turning over the pages of his script like a score-reader following a prestomovement, raising his voice higher and higher….

Daybook is contributed by Steve King, who teaches in the English Department of Memorial University in St. John’s, Newfoundland. His literary daybook began as a radio series syndicated nationally in Canada. He can be found online at todayinliterature.com.