Home > 1950, 20th Century, Amis Kingsley, Book Club, British Literature, Novel > Luck, be a gentleman tonight

Luck, be a gentleman tonight

January 30, 2014 Leave a comment Go to comments

Lucky Jim by Kingsley Amis. 1954 French title: Jim la Chance. (awful title in French)

For once in his life Dixon resolved to bet on his luck. What luck had come his way in the past he’d distrusted, stingily held on to until the chance of losing his initial gain was safely past. It was time to stop doing that.

 Lucky Jim by Kingsley Amis is our Book Club choice for January. Lucky Jim and lucky us. That was fun.

Jim is James Dixon. He’s a young teacher in a provincial university. He teaches medieval history and he’s under the supervision of Professor Welch. Jim is also sort of involved with Margaret, who is just recovering from attempted suicide at the Welches. He doesn’t know how to behave around her anymore. When the book opens, the term is almost over; Jim is still on probation and he’s dying to know if he is going to be fired or not. Dixon is a reluctant medievalist and since his most private thoughts about the Middle Ages would be more like this…

As he approached the Common Room he thought briefly about the Middle Ages. Those who professed themselves unable to believe in the reality of human progress ought to cheer themselves up, as the students under examination had conceivably been cheered up, by a short study of the Middle Ages. The hydrogen bomb, the South African Government, Chiang Kaishek, Senator McCarthy himself, would then seem a light price to pay for no longer being in the Middle Ages.

…it is hard to imagine that he manages to keep his feelings for himself. He doesn’t exactly sound passionate about his work, does he? He hasn’t published an article yet and that weighs against him. He hasn’t made the best impression on Welch either. The older man has probably caught up with Jim’s refrained yawns whenever he talks to him. Welch is the epitome of the pompous and boring teacher who is oblivious to anything but himself. The Professor has a dragon wife and two grownup sons named Bertrand and Michel. He has Dixon at his beck and call and he quietly uses the power he has over the young man’s future. At least, that’s how Dixon feels.

amis_kingsley_jimOnce, Dixon is invited by Welch to spend the weekend at his house where he’s hosting a party in the honour of Bertrand, the painter-to-be. There, Jim feels like a fish out of the water. He doesn’t belong to that crowd, he’s bored, he doesn’t know the right codes and he takes an instant dislike at Bertrand. After he accidentally burns the sheets and covers in his guest bedroom, he’s looking for a way to hide it from Mrs Welch and gets help from Christine, Bertrand’s girlfriend. This moment will create a bond between the two. However, by the end of the weekend, he has managed to alienate every Welch present at the house.

We see Jim struggling with academic rules. He really has a hard time adjusting to this life and the atmosphere of the university, of his boarding house. He’s bored by medieval history; he makes enemies among students and colleagues; he doesn’t know how to behave around Welch. Jim lacks a precious skill in his new world: he’s not good at small talk. Margaret comes at his rescue sometimes, mending with perfectly rounded sentences the hole that Jim’s bluntness has drilled in his credibility.

We see the university and the events through Jim’s eyes. It’s his perception. Mine was that he had a rather low opinion of himself, that it wasn’t all deserved and that it made him clumsy. I thought he was considerate to Margaret, he worked dutifully on the conference Welch asked him to write. He lacks confidence; he finds the article he has written of poor quality when it doesn’t seem that bad.

More than confidence, Jim lacks a strong belief in what he’s doing. Contrary to his peers, he’s not convinced by his own importance. He doesn’t take himself seriously and has a hard time considering academic life as worth it. Sometimes I wondered why he didn’t simply quit in order to do something else. Anything sounded better for him that this life. Welch seems to be spreading obstacles along the road to see how high Jim will jump. In appearance, he’s trying to make up his mind about the renewal of Jim’s contract. In reality, his mind is set but he enjoys power, like here, when he’s asked Jim to prepare a new class for the Fall:

The getting together of the syllabus had been, of course, Welch’s idea; on receipt of it, the candidates for Honours in History were to ‘see whether they were interested’ in studying this new special subject, in preference to the old special subjects taught by the other members of the Department and examined in one of the eight papers required for B.A. Clearly, the more students, within reason, Dixon could get ‘interested’ in his subject, the better for him; equally clearly, too large a number of ‘interested’ students would mean that the number studying Welch’s own special subject would fall to a degree that Welch might be expected to resent.

Isn’t it a minefield? Whatever Jim does, he displeases Welch.

I have a hard time making up my mind about Jim. James, Jim, Dixon, Dickinson, who is he really? Sometimes I pitied him as he was so obviously outside of his comfort zone and Welch did seem like a bore. At other times, he did such silly things as getting drunk at the worst moment. I couldn’t help thinking he was bringing it all to himself. I could understand why he got on other people’s nerves but also why Margaret and Christine are so fond of him.

Kingsley Amis depicts the academic world as a society with pedantic scholars who try to mix with artists more for the style than for the art. When I first read about the French names of Welch’s children I wondered where he got the idea to pick such names for his sons. Thanks to a previous discussion, I already knew that Michel sounded effeminate. (It’s like Laurence for me, I never think of a man when I see that name.) But Bertrand! That must be one of the most difficult French names to say in English. Two Rs and a “an”. It reminds me of the poor French kids named Brian or Ethan; it can never be said properly. Well, we learn later that Mrs Welch has a thing for everything Gallic.

The university is a world of sharks where one needs to publish articles to be accepted and where rules may be bent to have a promotion. I’ve never been to university, I don’t have a clear idea of how it is organised in France. However, novels by David Lodge, Alison Lurie, Philip Roth and now Kingsley Amis all draw the same picture. The temples of culture are not always civilised place to live in. This is an atmosphere you expect in the corporate world but not among scholars who are intelligent and supposedly above that kind of petty details such as advancement or competition.

I’ve had a lot of fun reading Lucky Jim. Amis is extremely funny and has a great sense of style. Here’s Jim coming back to the Welches after a long moment at the local pub:

He broke off, panting; it was hard work walking up the dry sandy track to the Welches’ house, especially with so much beer distributed about his frame.

And now Jim the morning after:

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.

I felt bad for him, poor thing. Dixon’s head is a funny one to be in. His imagination runs wild as in a cartoon.

As he left the bar with Christine at his side, Dixon felt like a special agent, a picaroon, a Chicago war-lord, a hidalgo, an oil baron, a mohock. He kept careful control over his features to stop them doing what they wanted to do and breaking out into an imbecile smirk of excitement and pride.

Jim has a great sense of humour, self-deprecating sometimes but also often at the expense of other people. But lots of it remains safely tucked in a corner of his brain and that’s the reader’s privilege to know what runs through his head. In lots of ways, he’s childish and he shies away from conflicts. During this journey of uncertainty, Jim also learns to accept confrontation as a positive outcome to clear the air, he learns to fight for what he wants and to live under pressure.

For the anecdote, I also loved the stylistic onslaught of Britishness in sentences as this: ‘Upon consideration I feel it incumbent upon me to doubt it. I have miscellaneous concerns in London that need my guiding hand.’ Isn’t that a solid brick of politeness? Ever tried to sneak around a wall of English politeness built out of these verbal bricks and have a British admit that he won’t be doing the job you want him to do? It took me half an hour of rephrasing sentences just this afternoon.

Lucky Jim is a very agreeable read and I sided with Jim all along the book. With his humble background, he doesn’t have the keys to open the doors of academia without a struggle. What he’s facing would have been a nightmare to me. The depressing topics to study, the obligation to lick your boss’s boots to achieve anything, the undermining done by colleagues and the smug students, I would have left running.

For more information about this novel, read Guy’s review here.

PS: Here’s a little challenge to end this post. Read this sentence I expect you know his book on medieval Cwmrhydyceirw and please tell me how to pronounce the last word. :-)

  1. January 30, 2014 at 1:05 am

    I think you make a good point about Jim–he’s hard to peg because he hasn’t quite decided what he wants and who he wants to be. On one side, he can kiss up and crawl his way up through academia, but part of him rebels. It’s that part of Jim I liked the best.

    • January 30, 2014 at 9:13 pm

      He was in the army during the war. Perhaps it changed him and gave him this idea that what he’s living in the academia isn’t real life.
      He doesn’t know what he wants or more precisely, he’s starting to realise he’s not cut out for the career he once thought he should pursue.
      I liked him and Christine. The chapter in which he reads his lecture is hilarious.

      • February 1, 2014 at 7:03 pm

        All jobs demand a level of conformity–dress code etc, and Academia is no exception. The problem is that it’s so stratified and once you’re locked into one particular institution and department, you have to play the game and pretend that the complete morons with more seniority are competent when, as in Jim’s case, they’re not. It’s a matter of assuming the mask of an actor and poor Jim’s keeps slipping. It’s not as easy to switch jobs as it might be in some other careers

        • February 2, 2014 at 10:32 pm

          I’m not sure it’s about the level of conformity here. It’s more about not belonging to the right social class at the beginning and making mistakes when he socialises because it isn’t natural to him.

          I really enjoyed his comic view on situations.

  2. January 30, 2014 at 1:40 am

    Oh, shoot, I recall that I wanted to read this when you did. Give me a few days.

    • January 30, 2014 at 9:14 pm

      I’ll be glad to discuss it when you’ve read it. Bonne lecture!

  3. January 30, 2014 at 1:07 pm

    For some reason, I always thought Kingsley Amis was American and not for me (I really don’t know why I had this idea) but this book is now on my to-be-read-one-day(-hopefully-soon) list. By some coincidence I read an obituary of Elizabeth Jane Howard recently, an English writer I’d never heard of but who is now one spot ahead of Amis on that list. It mentioned she’d been married to Kingsley Amis for almost two decades. Funny how suddenly a part of the literary world I didn’t know at all becomes that little bit more familiar.

    • January 30, 2014 at 9:16 pm

      If I’m not mistaken, he’s Martin’s father.
      That happens sometimes. Several things collide and you discover something or someone from different sources at the same time.

  4. January 30, 2014 at 2:39 pm

    I suspect he chose that word precisely because almost nobody will have the faintest clue how to pronounce it. It’s another joke.

    Naturally I’ve heard of this – it’s very famous. I’ll probably read the ghost story he wrote as my first Amis, though this would probably be the best one to start with. You do make it sound fun.

    I have read a non-fiction book by Amis. He was a massive SF fan and wrote a very good guide to SF (as it was back in the 1950s when he wrote the book) called New Maps of Hell. It’s very well written, and it’s clear he genuinely was a fan. it’s just not what he wrote.

    • January 30, 2014 at 9:22 pm

      I thought so too. Still, maybe someone will drop by and know?
      It really a fun, light and well-written read. It’s a treat.
      I didn’t know he likes SF, it must be a bit frustrating for a writer to like a genre so much and not be able to write a book in that genre.
      Have you seen the French film “On connait la chanson”? It’s a film by Jaoui and Bacri where Jaoui plays the role of a depressed history student. She’s just finished writing her thesis about the knights of Paladru in 1000 and she realises that no-one but herself and a tiny number of specialists care about these knights. Dixon is a bit in this frame of mind. But he’s got a wonderful sense of humour.

  5. January 30, 2014 at 9:54 pm

    Oh, he did write science fiction. His novel The Alteration, an alternate history kind of thing, is pretty good. The Green Man, the ghost story, is good, too. Amis wrote lots of different things. He wrote a James Bond novel!

    • January 30, 2014 at 9:56 pm

      Thanks for this. I’ll make sure to avoid the SF ones in the future. Most of my attempts at reading SF were a failure.

  6. January 30, 2014 at 10:40 pm

    The Alteration is SF (The Green Man I’d argue is horror), but it’s not the kind of classic SF he most loved. He had talent as a mainstream literary novelist. I imagine that must have been fairly rewarding. Perhaps if he’d written more SF he’d have enjoyed reading it less, swapping his leisure activity with his work…

    Besides, I imagine he was pretty well read generally. Somehow it just surprised me when I learned he was a pretty good scholar of SF.

    I’ve never heard of On connait la chanson. Sounds interesting, though this sounds funnier.

  7. January 31, 2014 at 11:22 am

    I’ll definitely read this, maybe even very soon. I’m in the mood for something funny and I have it on my shelves. Your review convinced me that I’ll like it.
    Interesting what you write about Jim. I never thought he’d be that complex.
    To be honest, I always found Bertrand much more British than French. Bertrand Russell.

    • February 1, 2014 at 1:18 pm

      You’ll probably like it. When comic books or films are excellent, they are often deeper than they seem to be.
      I didn’t think of Bertrand Russell, you’re right. That said, in Amis mind, it was French. I tend to hear names that exist both in French and English with a French pronouncing. Like “Guy” for example.

  8. leroyhunter
    January 31, 2014 at 4:24 pm

    I agree with Max about the word, and as a joke it also fits into a seeming pattern of the Amis boys taking swipes at Wales and Welsh literary / cultural pretensions.

    • February 1, 2014 at 1:20 pm

      I had caught the joke.

      What I suspect is that you’re both taking the joke way out to avoid the challenge. :-)

      • leroyhunter
        February 3, 2014 at 1:33 pm

        Damn! Caught.

  9. February 1, 2014 at 7:09 pm

    I’ve no idea how to pronounce the last word but when I was a child, we sometimes holidayed in Wales and that was a time when activists painted over the signs in English with Welsh which made for a lot of confusion if you were a tourist. Not that I blame them.

    Llanfairpwllgwyngyllgogerychwyrndrobwllllantysiliogogogoch

    Is the name of a village in Anglesey, and I remember jokes about that too.

    • February 2, 2014 at 10:34 pm

      I’ve spent time with a Welsh family and I remember mostly the sheep and the weird names.

  10. acommonreaderuk
    February 3, 2014 at 9:51 am

    I am sure you know that this book had a huge impact when it came out in 1954 – it seemed to be so disrespectful of academic life and the manners of 1950s British society. I was a young boy during the 1950 and my older brother used to shock my parents with modern social attitudes which seemed to go against everything they held dear. By the 1960s the old ways had passed away forever leading to our open society where “anything goes”.

    • February 3, 2014 at 10:09 pm

      I wasn’t aware that it was such a scandal when it was published. I was born after the 1960s and I think that for us, it is hard to imagine how rigid the society could be then.

  11. February 4, 2014 at 4:52 pm

    Okay, I’m caught up. I read this over the weekend and have now read your lovely post about it. I may write one myself, but you’ve already quoted that terrific description of a hangover, maybe the best I’ve ever found (heck, I may quote it too – it’s good enough to be quoted twice, right?). I thought this was a great little book – and quite a change from the one other Amis work I’ve read, his James Bond novel. Just in sharing my enthusiasm about Lucky Jim with a friend I managed to inspire him to select it for his book club. It’s a book club made up of grad school alumni from a major U.S. university, so I predict the choice will go over well.

    The joke about the Welsh word coincides with a line I just read in Richard Harris Barham:

    “…the vowels made use of in Welsh are so few
    That the A and the E, the I, O, and the U,
    Have really but little or nothing to do.”

    • February 5, 2014 at 12:36 am

      I’m glad you liked it too. Let me know if you write a post about it. This quote about his hangover is marvellous and it can be quoted several times, I think. That’s funny how like-minded bloggers pick the same quotes in books.

      Does your friend have a blog? I’d be interested in this book club’s thoughts about this novel. As I said in the billet, I haven’t been to university and this is a totally strange world to me. It’s not easy to maka a career there. It wasn’t easier in the 1950s.

      I think this joke about the Welsh word also refers to Welsh himself as his speeches often make no sense to Dixon. What do you think?

      • February 5, 2014 at 5:43 am

        Emma – I don’t know if the “academic” book club will take the book up, but it’ll be proposed to them. I’d be curious too to hear what they’d make of it, and will let you know if it all comes to pass.

        One barrier to my understanding the nuances of Lucky Jim is the degree of its Britishness. I have a vague sense of the kind of position Welsh and Wales has in the eyes of many Brits, but I don’t know enough of either culture to guess at the extent to which Amis is toying with that attitude or may be using “Welch” as a stand-in for it. But the sentence is so preposterous – exactly the kind of thing that sends people screaming away from academia. It’s like something worthy of winning the journal Philosophy and Literature‘s (now sadly defunct) Bad Writing Contest.

        • February 5, 2014 at 10:34 pm

          It’s very British. I had trouble reading the beginning of the book, I needed to get used to the language. We all thought (we=book club) that it was difficult.

          Like Tom says in a previous comment, it was a huge scandal when it went out. I don’t think I understand exactly how irreverent and bold it was at the time.

  12. February 5, 2014 at 12:48 pm

    Nice review, Emma! I loved this sentence from your review – “The temples of culture are not always civilised place to live in.” I also liked very much what you said about the onslaught of Britishness in some of the sentences. ‘Cwmrhydyceirw’ – that is a real tongue-twister! And it has just two vowels – very interesting!

    • February 5, 2014 at 10:43 pm

      Thanks Vishy. It’s a great book.
      I couldn’t write this billet without mentionning these polite sentences. For me it’s like verbal lacework.

  13. Brian Joseph
    February 5, 2014 at 3:53 pm

    Great commentary Emma!

    I find it believable that someone would stay in a career situation where they are miserable even though they might be able to find their way out. I do see this fairly commonly in the real world. Thus the situation sounds realistic to me.

    • February 5, 2014 at 11:02 pm

      Thanks Brian.
      It’s hard to imagine staying in a miserable job but not everybody has the opportunity to pick a job they enjoy. Fun or not fun, you need to pay the bills. Yes it happens quite often.

  14. February 6, 2014 at 5:46 am

    Despite having a middle Welsh name, I can’t pronounce it! Am not even sure how to pronounce my rather simple one! I haven’t read any Kingsley Amis, but you’ve intrigued me. A fun read is not to be sneezed at.

    • February 6, 2014 at 8:25 pm

      Definitely a fun read. I think you’ll like it.

  1. April 4, 2014 at 11:38 pm

I love to hear your thoughts, thanks for commenting

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: