Amis, Kingsley: Lucky Jim

“Lucky Jim” was Kingsley Amis’s first published novel. It came out in 1954, when he was in his early thirties. Most of the group had read it before, and retained fond memories of various humorous incidents in the book – such as Jim’s accidental burning of sheets when a house-guest, the ghastly musical evening, the drunken lecture, and the bus ride from hell. There was unanimity between both first-time readers and re-readers that it was a damned fine book.

The introducer said that he had found it a very carefully written novel, and also more serious than he had remembered from previous reading. He pointed out that it had achieved an iconic status as progenitor of a series of comic and satirical novels about British academia by such subsequent writers as David Lodge, Malcolm Bradbury and Tom Sharpe.

Although the book’s style and humour had not dated, there was comment nevertheless by the group on a number of historical specifics. An example was the omnipresence of cigarettes, but perhaps less obvious was the use of military metaphors and the underlying fact that in the post-war decade, adequately qualified and competent academics were hard to come by, and universities were perhaps more eccentric and quirky places than they are today. Certainly more than one member of the book group was reminded of the inadequacies of their own university lecturers (although admittedly speaking of the 1960s and 1970s, not the 1940s and 1950s). Another identified with Jim’s feeling of being out of place as a recently appointed academic, when he recounted how a group of his colleagues got to discussing their different nannies when they had been children. As someone, like Jim, from a less privileged background, he felt himself like a fish out of water.

There was some discussion of Amis’s later work, although most of the group had not read widely amongst his books. It was pointed out that themes that were important in “Lucky Jim” went on to be recurring preoccupations, such as booze and adultery. It was also commented upon by the proposer that a streak of nastiness emerged in some of the later fiction – perhaps the early signs are there in some of Jim’s funny but callous practical jokes.

Turning to the status of the book as a first novel, written by a young writer, one reader pointed out a few unsatisfactory plot elements. Catchpole rather lets Jim off the hook in relation to Margaret, by revealing to him her manipulative nature. In this respect Catchpole is something of a deus ex machina. The failure to develop the promising comic potential of the ripped trousers, and the extremely late introduction of the character of Michel were further minor flaws, and Sir Julius was also identified as a second deus ex machina, rather conveniently enabling Jim’s escape from academia in the same way as Catchpole enables his escape from an unsatisfactory relationship.

In the context of the writer’s relative youth, one reader confessed to more sympathy with the blundering and exasperating Welch than either Jim or the authorial voice exhibited. He wondered if this was to some extent the impatience of the young with the aged. However, others objected that a real Welch would be infuriating to young and old alike.

There was a little debate about the novel’s vocabulary. One reader found the use of some obscure words rather off-putting. The meaning of “pabulum” was debated. No one knew what it was. (For the record, the meaning is ‘food’ or ‘food for thought, especially when bland or dull’, from the Latin ‘pascere’ to feed)

Another reader however had enjoyed the breadth of vocabulary, and quoted admiringly Welch’s ‘preludial blaring sound’ with which he calls for silence at the start of a lecture. All agreed that the extensive vocabulary was an aspect of Amis’s intention to impress with the novel – which he eminently succeeded in doing.

Why was “Lucky Jim” such a funny book, in spite of some serious themes? One reader suggested that it was because we could all identify with Jim’s sense of being out of step with the world around him, and enjoy his sometimes infantile responses to that feeling, such as pulling bizarre faces in secret, and playing practical jokes such as anonymous letters, faked phone calls, and stealing taxis. The proposer demonstrated a memorable face of his own which he was wont to pull when exiting unsatisfactory meetings at work.

A different angle on Jim’s ‘out of step-ness’ was proposed by another reader: that Jim’s sense of difference derives from his own normality relative to the peculiar academic bubble in which he finds himself.

There was some discussion of Amis in relation to last month’s writer, Evelyn Waugh. It was felt that Waugh had produced a more impressive and substantial body of work over his career. However, this was perhaps not to compare like with like. Amis was considered less satirical. Comedy such as Waugh’s, it was suggested, derived from observing with detached amusement, whereas Amis shares the pain of his central character. The view was expressed by one reader that “Lucky Jim” was in fact more of a coming-of-age novel than pure satire or comedy.

Before conversation drifted off onto other topics, a final query was raised as to whether the humour of “Lucky Jim” was very British (or perhaps English) and therefore not likely to be successful in translation. Since we had no data concerning overseas editions or translations, and since a cursory Google search has just failed to elucidate, this must for now remain one of the great unanswered questions of our time, or at least of our book group.