Our book today is Kingsley Amis’ 1954 debut novel Lucky Jim, the recent New York Review of Books re-issue of which prompted a literary friend of mine to lament, “Do we really need this? Am I missing something, or is this thing just a boring, overpraised academia-novel that was never that good to begin with?” This literary friend has been known to spot a surprising truth now and again, so of course I hurried back to my old paperback copy (whenever the NYRB re-issues a book I like, I always have an old paperback copy somewhere – they make no money off me, but they should be consoled by the confirmation of their good taste) and tried to read the book with fresh eyes, as if I hadn’t read it half a dozen times since it first appeared, as if it weren’t well on its way in the literary landscape of my mind (and in a good many other literary landscapes, I think) to becoming a flowering perennial. I tried to read it provingly, sternly, forcing it to earn its keep again as it had the first time (amidst some pretty fierce competition, including, if memory serves, The Group, The Art of Eating, and The Fellowship of the Ring).
It was a very comfortable homecoming, as always. The story – that of hapless fledgling university history professor Jim Dixon, the women he lusts after, the horrific colleagues he endures, the general semi-inebriated flailing that constitutes his life during the one disastrous short period in which we see it – is by now familiar even to readers who haven’t read the book, probably by dint of how many pastiches of the book they’ve read. Certainly Dixon himself is familiar, both through his self-defeating mulishness and through his unpredictable bouts of verbosity, as when he suddenly expostulates (to a romantic interest, of course, on a long car ride) on love:
“People get themselves all steamed up about whether they’re in love or not, and can’t work it out, and their decisions go all to pot. It’s happening every day. They ought to realize that they love part’s perfectly easy; the hard part is the working-out, not about love, but about what they’re going to do. The difference is that they can get their brains going on that, instead of taking the sound of the word “love” as a signal for switching them off. They can get somewhere, instead of indulging in a sort of orgy of emotional self-catechising about how you know they’re in love, and what love is anyway, and all the rest of it.”
In what would become a typical move for Kingsley Amis in his subsequent fiction, he hardly ever just leaves such perorations for his readers to sort out – instead, he’s usually the first in with some analysis:
Outside of his lectures, this was the longest speech Dixon had made for what seemed to him years, and, not excluding his lectures, by far the most fluent. How had he managed it? Drink? No: he was dangerously sober. Sexual excitement? No in italic capitals: visitations of that feeling reduced him punctually to silence and, as a rule, petrifaction. Then how? It was a mystery …
Younger readers today will instantly recognize the family knack for zingy, immediate language (in Lucky Jim they’ll also see that language married to actual patient, thoughtful craft – a phenomenon they need not fear encountering in the collected works of Amis fils). That narrative zest was one of the first victims of Kingsley Amis’ titanic drinking, but it’s on every page of this first novel. The world of that novel is rarefied, true (only a small percentage of Amis’ readers will know the frustration of wondering, as Dixon does, when a periodical editor is finally going to print the article he wrote ages ago … but those who have experienced such frustration will find it perfectly captured here), but no more so than the various worlds of P. G. Wodehouse, who’s far more of a literary antecedent to Amis than today’s academic critics are willing to credit (if Dixon’s drunken, rambling speech on “Merrie England” at the book’s climax isn’t an homage to Gussie Fink-Nottle’s equally calamitous speech at the Market Snodsbury Grammar School, I don’t what could be). And like Bertie Wooster’s world, Jim Dixon’s is saturated with alcohol – Amis later went on to write quite a bit about drinking, and this book contains some justly celebrated evocations of both inebriation and the stinging price paid the following morning:
Dixon plunged down the lodging-house stairs at eight-fifteen the next morning, not so much so as to be sure of being there while Johns read his letter as because he wanted, or rather had got, to spend a long morning in writing up his Merrie England lecture. He didn’t like having breakfast so early. There was something about Miss Cutler’s cornflakes, her pallid fried eggs or bright red bacon, her explosive toast, her diuretic coffee which, much better than bearable at nine o’clock, his usual breakfast-time, seemed at eight-fifteen to summon from all the recesses of his frame every lingering vestige of crapulent headache, every relic of past nauseas, every echo of noises in the head. This retrospective vertigo collared him this morning as roughly as always. The three pints of bitter he’d drunk last night with Bill Atkinson and Beesley might, by means of some garbaged alley through the space-time continuum, have been preceded by a bottle of British sherry and followed by half a dozen breakfast-cups of red biddy. Holding his hands over his eyes, he circled the table like one trying to evade the smoke from a bonfire, then sat down heavily and saturated a plate of cornflakes with bluish milk. He was alone in the room.
As in all first-rate literary comedy, the last line is crucial.
No, I finished this latest re-reading of Lucky Jim with my confidence fully restored. The answer to my literary friend’s question is a resounding ‘Yes’ – we really need this. That’s OK, however – even literary oracles are entitled to miss a toss now and then. This same literary friend is equally blind to the glory that is The Legion of Super-Heroes, the poor sot.