1954 - Lucky Jim

Lucky Jim by Kingsley Amis, Gollancz, 12s. 6d. Reviewed

A new hero has risen among us. Is he the intellectual tough, or the tough intellectual? He is consciously, even conscientiously, graceless. His face, when not dead-pan, is set in a snarl of exasperation. He has one skin too few, but his is not the sensitiveness of the young man in earlier twentieth-century fiction: it is the phoney to which his nerve-ends are tremblingly exposed, and at the least suspicion of the phoney he goes tough. He is at odds with his conventional university education, though he comes generally from a famous university: he has seen through the academic racket as he sees through all the others. A racket is phoneyness organised, and in contact with phoneyness he turns red just as litmus paper does in contact with an acid. In life he has been among us for some little time. One may speculate whence he derives. The Services, certainly, helped to make him; but George Orwell, Dr Leavis and the Logical Positivists - or, rather, the attitudes these represent - all contributed to his genesis. In fiction I think he first arrived last year, as the central character of Mr John Wain's novel Hurry On Down. He turns up again in Mr Amis's Lucky Jim.

Mr Wain's character was the picaresque hero, and the picaresque has commonly been a vehicle for satire. Mr Amis isn't writing picaresque or even satire. He comes at times very close to farce, yet not farce as we normally think of it. His hero, Jim Dixon, is in his first term as an assistant lecturer in history in a provincial university. Everything goes wrong for him. He has the gift of precipitating the most impossible situations, situations which cannot be explained away. Thus, on his first appearance in the university, he appears to have gratuitously assaulted the Professor of English. He goes for an arty weekend at the home of the Professor of History, quarrels with the Professor's son, gets drunk and sets his bed on fire with a forgotten cigarette. Towards the end of the term, when he has to deliver the public lecture which may reinstate him in the eyes of the Faculty and save him his job, he finds himself involuntarily parodying the manner first of the principal and then of his professor, and finally embarked on a wild burlesque of all such popular lectures on his theme - "Merry England" - which he is supposed to praise.

This may suggest that he is, as it were, a Chaplin-figure, the naif who, from his very innocence, exposes the sham. Jim Dixon is far from that: he is, in his anxious way, playing the racket. If he were less anxious, he would play it better: the impossible situations arise from the fact he can never wholly kid himself that the racket is worth playing. He is not the dumb ox with the heart of gold at all; his attitude, even as he compromises, is much more that of Mr Lewis's Soldier of Humour.

Lucky Jim is an extremely interesting first novel, and parts of it are very funny indeed: the episodes of the bed-burning and Jim's public lecture, for instance, mount to the complexity and tension of certain passages in the Marx Brothers' films or in the paper-hanging act one still sees from time to time in pantomime. And Mr Amis has an unwaveringly merciless eye for the bogus: some aspects of provincial culture - the madrigals and recorders of Professor Welch, for instance - are pinned down as accurately as they have ever been; and he has, too, an eye for character - the female lecturer Margaret, who battens neurotically on Jim's pity, is quite horribly well done. Mr Amis is a novelist of formidable and uncomfortable talent.