It figures that a novel about hating everything would be loved by everyone.
The editors of the New York Times Book Review voted Lucky Jim the funniest novel of all time. Christopher Hitchens narrowed the scope to 50 years but came to the same conclusion. Lucky Jim is, as the British edition of Esquire put it, “the conventional nomination for greatest comedy since the second world war, because that’s exactly what it is.”
So is the 1954 comic novel by Kingsley Amis really “so wildly funny as to make the book unsuitable for consumption on public transport” and if so, why?
It’s not because it’s a book of its time, though it certainly captures the mood of post-war England in all its shades of brown. Its author was hailed as one of the Angry Young Men, part of the generation called upon to pick up the pieces but unwilling to ignore just how shabby all the pieces were.
And of course it’s a book about academia, a perfect illustration of why no one in the real world builds towers out of ivory. The work that fills Jim Dixon’s days concerns the economic effects of fifteenth-century shipbuilding techniques, a subject so obscure that its own author can’t read his opening sentence without flinching:
‘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.
But the timeless aspect of Lucky Jim, the part of the story that resonates beyond time and place, is the miserable feeling of being absolutely stuck.
Jim Dixon doesn’t want to be an academic, doesn’t care to hear madrigal singing, isn’t interested in the advances of Margaret Peel, and desperately hopes to avoid spending any more time with Professor Welch.
More than ever it was the moment to dart into the street and fail to return. But economic necessity and the call of pity were a strong combination; topped up by fear, as both were, they were invincible.
Alcohol seems like a way out but (spoiler alert) it only makes things worse, resulting in one of the great hangover descriptions:
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.
When sober, all he can do is observe how horrible everyone and everything around him is, a “familiar mixture of predicted boredom with unpredicted boredom.” Knowing that he’s stuck doesn’t help, “any more than unease in the stomach is alleviated by discovery of its technical name.” These mordant observations of the omnishambles earn the book its reputation, each detail another brushstroke on a portrait of a young man in hell. My favourite is this Wodehouse-level glimpse of the odious Professor Welch:
There was a small golden emblem on his tie resembling some heraldic device or other, but proving on closer scrutiny to be congealed egg-yolk. Substantial traces of the same nutritive were to be seen round his mouth, which was now ajar.
Eventually, Jim gets unstuck. He delivers a crapulous keynote, damages some property, says what’s on his mind, and gets the sort of deus ex machina you only get in a comic novel. The moral of the story is his firmly held belief that “there was no end to the ways in which nice things are nicer than nasty ones.” You wouldn’t think this case needed to be made, but Lucky Jim makes it for the ages.
Quick quips; lightning
“A teacher is one who, in his youth, admired teachers.”
— H.L. Mencken
“Let schoolmasters puzzle their brain
With grammar, and nonsense, and learning
Good liquor, I stoutly maintain
Gives genius a better discerning. ”
— Oliver Goldsmith
“Spoonfeeding in the long run teaches us nothing but the shape of the spoon. ”
— E.M. Forster
Get Wit Quick No. 114 is a pleasure to have in class. The above illustration from the 1961 Penguin paperback is of course by Quentin Blake. Here’s Boris Johnson reading the hangover description. Would it be better to be amateurishly beaten up by secret police? Elements of Wit: Mastering The Art of Being Interesting is non-required reading. There is no end to the ways in which tapping the❤️ below is nicer than not tapping the ❤️ below.