The aim of this blog is to serve as a meeting point to those who study or have studied English philology and, more broadly, to all those who love literature and language.

1 Sep 2008

LUCKY JIM


I wanted to but I was not able to read Lucky Jim by Kingsley Amis when preparing the first term exam of LITERATURA INGLESA III, so I put it off for the summer. I expected it to be a funny book and, to some extent, I cannot deny that some scenes can make readers laugh or, in case of not being too expressive, at least, smile. I also expected bitter criticism of the university system of the period or social hypocrisy in general and I admit that both issues are present although not exactly in the way I imagined. Some other topics turned out more unexpectantly.
All in all, I’d say that the story supports some conventional values although it does it through a contradictory character, difficult to define. I’ll try to comment on some aspects from my point of view:


HUMOUR.
I could not help recalling Mr Bean when reading about Jim Dixon’s reactions to deal with embarrassing situations such as the cigarette burning of bedclothes, the way to get a taxi some other people had called for, or the final delivery of a lecture about Merrie England under the pressure of stage freight and the effects of too much drinking. It is often a kind of humour based on disclosing petty manifestations of dishonesty (mainly lying or pretending not to have done something) which request some wit or originality on the part of the performer.

Other strategies to produce humour include the labelled facial expressions that Jim adopts on varied occasions and contribute to portray his state of mind in a caricaturesque way (“Dixon huddled himself further into the periodical he was reading and unobtrusively made his Martian-invader face”, ch.9) or other funny physical reactions that help Dixon give vent to his inner struggles, as the following excerpt from Chapter 20 shows:

(Dixon is finishing his notes for his lecture)
“… in that way we shall be saying a word, however small in its individual effect, for our native tradition, for our common heritage, in short, for what we once had and may, some day, have again – Merrie England’
With a long, jabbering belch, Dixon got up from the chair where he’d been writing this and did his ape imitation all round the room. With one arm bent at the elbow so that the fingers brushed the armpit, the other crooked in the air so that the inside of the forearm lay across the top of his head, he wove with bent knees and hunched, rocking shoulders across to the bed, upon which he jumped up and down a few times, gibbering to himself.”

LOVE.
Throughout the novel Jim Dixon was torn between a somehow forced relationship with Margaret, a plain and emotionally unbalanced university teacher, and Christine, the good-looking and more self-assured city girl. In both cases dialogues and thoughts reflect the hesitations and a certain immaturity of the involved characters, probably due to their age (Christine is nineteen; the rest, in their twenties). A reference to how love is lived at that age is uttered by Carol, the married woman who’s having a love affair with Bertrand, Christine’s boyfriend.
“Another thing you’ll find is that the years of illusion aren’t those of adolescence, as the grown-ups try to tell us; they’re the ones immediately after it, say the middle twenties, the false maturity if you like, when you first get thoroughly embroiled in things and lose your head.” (ch.12)
Jim is attracted by the self-assuredness he sees in Christine but, in some way, he feels unworthy of her and sticks to Margaret, moved by pity rather than love. Maybe it is that sense of security, opposed to Margaret’s outbursts of hysterics and his own unexpected behaviour, what Jim is looking for.
“I mean it’s not your appearance that makes you seem older and more experienced and all that. It’s the way you behave and talk (…..) It’s… you seem to… keep getting on to your high horse all the time (……) you have got a habit, every now and then, of talking and behaving like a governess” (ch.13)

UNIVERSITY.
A critical eye on provincial universities is projected throughout the whole novel: old fashioned points on academic matters, professors who pass dull work onto their junior colleagues, scholars who sign articles they have ‘snatched’ from aspirants to being published… are reflected in this story. Overt criticism on the massive access to higher education is also stated:
“It’s the same everywhere you look; not only this place, but all the provincial universities are going the same way. Not London, I suppose, and not the Scottish ones. But my God, go to most places and try and get someone turfed out merely because he’s too stupid to pass his exams -- it’d be easier to sack a prof,”
’We want two hundred teachers this year and we mean to have them,’ All right, we’ll lower the pass mark to twenty per cent and give you the quantity you want, but for God’s sake don’t start complaining in two years’ time that your schools ar full of teachers who couldn’t pass the General Certificate themselves, let alone teach anyone else to pass it (ch.17)”

LUCK.
The title of the novel is directly related to the closure of the story. After pages of embarrassment, hesitation, pretension, fear of being sacked from college teaching and having to work as a school teacher… James Dixon is doubly stricken by luck as he gets a good job out of the blue and is on the track of starting a promising relationship with Christine. A typical and conventional happy ending for an atypical character. It is curious to see what a good job can be in this context.
“Good. I’ve got a job for you. Five hundred a year (……) Sort of private secretarial work. Not much correspondence, though; a young woman does most of that. It’ll be mainly meeting people or telling people I can’t meet them” (ch.23)

PHONE CALLS, ALCOHOL AND TOBACCO.
Even if we did not know about the time of publication of Lucky Jim, we would certainly guess that it is not the 21st century. The absence of mobile phones and the quantity of cigarettes smoked anywhere (bedrooms, buses…) prove that. Drinking alcohol is another constant feature but it does not sound outdated.

2 comments:

  1. I enjoyed Lucky Jim myself... Kingsley Amis is an entertaing writer and a good humourist although he's riddled with quite a number of complexes and personal contradictions. You get quite an illuminating angle on the character if your read Martin Amis's autobiography "Experience".
    It's good to find a blog like this: assuming you all like Poe, let me suggest this entry on Poe in my own blog:
    http://garciala.blogia.com/2007/091701-doppelgangers-and-half-brothers.php

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  2. Thanks Jose Angel, I´ll try to get a copy of Amis´s autobiography as I am studying Amis this year.

    Maite, wonderful exposition. I haven´t read the book yet but I hope to write my own impression once I finish it.

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