Luck, be a gentleman tonight
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.
Once, 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. :-)