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Kingsley Amis's Old-School Charms

By Jonathan Yardley
Thursday, October 2, 2003

An occasional series in which The Post's book critic reconsiders notable and/or neglected books from the past.

By the early 1950s, higher education and its rich comic possibilities had barely been touched by writers of fiction. Mary McCarthy's "The Groves of Academe" was published in 1952, but there was precious little else until 1954, when two books appeared that changed everything. On this side of the Atlantic, the well-known poet and critic Randall Jarrell published "Pictures From an Institution," at which a second look eventually will be taken in this series. Almost simultaneously, in England, the completely unknown Kingsley Amis published "Lucky Jim."

Its initial reception was enthusiastic over there, somewhat less so here. According to Amis's biographer Eric Jacobs, his American publisher "had made a money-back offer -- if readers didn't find 'Lucky Jim' uproariously funny their $3.50 would be refunded," and "copies came back in shoals." That changed. "Lucky Jim" has been translated into 20 languages and has sold millions of copies around the world. It made Amis almost instantly famous and marked the beginning of one of the truly splendid careers in postwar British fiction.

When "Lucky Jim" appeared, Amis was in his early thirties and giving a good impression of going nowhere. He had been at Oxford and known a number of people who eventually played important roles in British literature, most notably his close friend Philip Larkin (to whom "Lucky Jim" is dedicated), but the best he could find by way of employment was a lectureship at the University College of Swansea in Wales, to which he went in 1949 on the exceedingly marginal salary of 300 pounds a year. It was in the senior common room there, though, that this ambitious but frustrated novelist found, at last, his subject. Jacobs describes it, quoting in part from Amis's memoirs:

"Back in that common room, Amis had seen something he had never seen before: 'Professors and lecturers sitting, standing, talking, laughing, reading, drifting in and out, drinking coffee.' And he thought: ' "Christ. Somebody ought to do something about this." Not that it was awful -- well, only a bit, it was strange and sort of developed, a whole mode of existence no one had got on to, like the SS in 1940, say.' He had stumbled on a whole new world of provincial university life which had never been explored or described by an English novelist. Here was a ready-made and virgin scene, ripe for a chronicler."

It found just the man it was looking for. Amis had written one novel, which a publisher had speedily rejected, and "Lucky Jim" didn't come quickly or easily. It went through considerable revision before reaching its final form. Amis relied heavily on Larkin's counsel as he sought, among other things, to reconcile the novel's comic and serious aspects. At the end, though, he came up with a nearly perfect miniature, and he entered the phrase "Lucky Jim" into the English language, a synonym for brains, bitterness, bumbling and bibulousness.

It is entirely appropriate that the Penguin 20th-Century Classics edition of Amis's small masterpiece includes an introduction by David Lodge, for it was Amis who opened the door through which Lodge and others soon passed. "Lucky Jim" was, as Lodge writes, "the first British campus novel," and it "certainly started something. . . . My own novels of university life, and those of Malcolm Bradbury, Howard Jacobson, Andrew Davies et al., are deeply indebted to its example." Though Lodge finds darker strains in "Lucky Jim" than are commonly acknowledged -- he is right to do so -- Amis's comic side was what liberated Lodge to write his own classics in the genre, "Small World" and "Changing Places," and doubtless greatly influenced the best American writer now laboring therein, James Hynes, the author of "Publish and Perish."

The serious aspects of the novel can be found in two parallel developments: Jim Dixon's struggle toward self-definition and his relationships with two women, the neurotic Margaret and the pneumatic Christine. Lodge points out that these matters take place against the background of World War II, which to Amis, Larkin and others of their Oxbridge generation was still a very real presence in the early 1950s. Dixon is marked by the war, as are a student named Michie and a fellow renter at Jim's boardinghouse, Bill Atkinson, an "insurance salesman and ex-Army major" whom Jim "liked and revered . . . for his air of detesting everything that presented itself to his senses, and of not meaning to let this detestation become staled by custom."

Atkinson is one of the novel's many superb secondary characters, and plays an important role as Jim attempts to extricate himself from one unwanted entanglement or another. It is Atkinson who stages an elaborate faint at the climax of Jim's drunken lecture on "Merrie England" before the assembled dignitaries of the new, provincial red-brick university where Jim has obtained -- and is about to lose -- a provisional lectureship in medieval history, and it is Atkinson who helps Jim work his way out of Margaret's frantic clutches and into Christine's warm embrace. Every time this gruff, plain-spoken man appears on the page, the reader immediately brightens.

The novel's serious side reminds us that Amis, like all the best comic novelists, is on hand to do more than just deliver laughs, but laughs were his main business, beginning with "Lucky Jim" and continuing through two dozen works of fiction, several volumes of verse and various volumes of nonfiction, including a memoir published four years before his death (at age 73) in 1995, and two celebrations of drink.

Ah yes, drink. English comic novelists approach the subject with glee, from Evelyn Waugh to William Boyd. Amis was himself a champion as well as unapologetic tippler, and so too is Jim Dixon, who suffers one of the great hangovers in all literature after his sexual advances upon Margaret are rebuffed with sudden, wholly inexplicable, vigor. Already well filled with beer, he takes a great swig from a bottle of port -- "The bottle had been about three-quarters full when he started, and was about three-quarters empty when he stopped" -- and in the morning pays the piper:

"Dixon was alive again. Consciousness was upon him before he could get out of the way; not for him the slow, gracious wandering from the halls of sleep, but a summary, forcible ejection. He lay sprawled, too wicked to move, spewed up like a broken spider-crab on the tarry shingle of the morning. The light did him harm, but not as much as looking at things did; he resolved, having done it once, never to move his eyeballs again. A dusty thudding in his head made the scene before him beat like a pulse. His mouth had been used as a latrine by some small creature of the night, and then as its mausoleum. During the night, too, he'd somehow been on a cross-country run and then been expertly beaten up by secret police. He felt bad."

That paragraph comes as the high moment in a two-page display of pyrotechnics -- "His face was heavy, as if little bags of sand had been painlessly sewn into various parts of it, dragging the features away from the bones, if he still had bones in his face" -- in which Amis draws no doubt upon extensive personal experience. Forty or more years after reading this tour de force for the first time, I read it for a second -- a third? a fourth? -- with undiminished laughter.

Amis's delight in what the world's killjoys insist on regarding as vice was bottomless, and he loved to rub the killjoys' faces in it. Here is another extended quotation, following an especially unpleasant thought about Margaret that, unbidden, crosses Jim's mind:

"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.

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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