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Kingsley Amis's Old-School Charms

"To drive this thought away he opened the cupboard that contained his smoking engines and accessories -- monuments, some of them costly, to economy. As long as he could remember he'd never been able to smoke as much as he wanted to. This armoury of devices had been assembled as each fresh way of seeming to smoke as much as he wanted had come to his notice: the desiccated packet of cheap cigarette-tobacco, the cherry-wood pipe, the red packet of cigarette-papers, the packet of pipe-cleaners, the leather cigarette-machine, the quadripartite pipe-tool, the crumbling packet of cheap pipe-tobacco, the packet of cotton-wool filter-tips (new process), the nickel cigarette-machine, the clay pipe, the briar pipe, the blue packet of cigarette-papers, the packet of herbal smoking-mixture (guaranteed free from nicotine or other harmful substances. Why?), the rusting tin of expensive pipe-tobacco, the packet of chalk pipe-filters. Dixon took a cigarette from the packet in his pocket and lit it."

That paragraph could well serve as a 1950s-vintage catalogue for Alfred Dunhill Ltd., Tobacco Specialist. Amis apparently had begun smoking during the war -- Jacobs says that he "smoked -- heavily, since the Army saw to it that cigarettes cost almost nothing, so entrenching a habit it took him until the 1980s to give up" -- and clearly found almost as much pleasure in that habit as he did in drink. The joy with which he lingers over every item in the catalogue is self-evident, and the final up-yours for the killjoys -- "Why?" -- is what was still called, at the time "Lucky Jim" was written, the Perfect Squelch.

The novel's serious side reminds us that Kingsley Amis, like all good comic novelists, is on hand to do more than just deliver laughs, but laughs were his main business. (Horst Tappe -- Camera Press)

It was a time when the world was far less familiar than it is now with the strange customs and folkways of academia, so Amis seized the opportunity to shed light in dark corners. As the novel opens Jim has completed an article to be submitted for publication in an obscure scholarly journal, publication that he hopes will enhance his curriculum vitae and help ensure another year's employment. He has been urged to write it by Professor Welch ("No other professor in Great Britain, he thought, set such store by being called Professor"), whom an unkind fate has granted "decisive power over his future." Merely contemplating the paper's title causes him to cringe:

"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 threw upon non-problems. Dixon had read, or begun to read, dozens like it, but his own seemed worse than most in its air of being convinced of its own usefulness and significance. 'In considering this strangely neglected topic,' it began. This what neglected topic? This strangely what topic? This strangely neglected what? His thinking all this without having defiled and set fire to the typescript only made him appear to himself as more of a hypocrite and fool. 'Let's see,' he echoed Welch in a pretended effort of memory: 'oh yes; The Economic Influence of the Developments in Shipbuilding Techniques, 1450 to 1485. After all, that's what it's . . .' "

Dixon is "unable to finish his sentence," so appalled is he by his willing complicity in the mindlessness of academia at its worst. Today all of us can cite chapter and verse, mainly just by turning to the program of the annual convention of the Modern Language Association, and indeed some of us -- mea culpa -- cannot resist the temptation to do so. A half-century ago, though, Amis was writing about a little world about which most people knew nothing, and his depiction of it was received with astonishment and hilarity.

Remarkably, "Lucky Jim" is as fresh and surprising today as it was in 1954. It is part of the landscape, and it defines academia in the eyes of much of the world as does no other book, yet if you are coming to it for the first time you will feel, as you glide happily through its pages, that you are traveling in a place where no one else has ever been. If you haven't yet done so, you must.

"Lucky Jim" is available in paperback from Penguin 20th-Century Classics ($13).

Jonathan Yardley's e-mail address isyardleyj@washpost.com.

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