– Letter from Kingsley Amis to his friend and confidante Philip Larkin, on the lecture scene in Lucky Jim
In the essay ‘Why Lucky Jim Turned Right’ Amis disassociated his novel with anger from the ‘Angry Young Men’ movement of the fifties. Jim Dixon, he said, never had a problem with society. Dixon thinks that universities are great and necessary institutions, he just happens to dislike the one he is in. It’s true, Lucky Jim is concerned with individuals and relationships rather than society as a whole. And yet it is a critique – an attack on what Wilde called the ‘sordid necessity of living for others’.
If Kingsley Amis had been born into my generation, he probably would have had a diagnosis of social phobia to add to his predatory zoo of fears and neuroses. Martin Amis’s Experience includes: ‘aerophobia (he flew once, as a child: a five-shilling ‘flip’ at the seaside. That did it), acrophobia (when he took his children to the top floor of the Empire State, in 1959, it was only our presence, he said, that stopped him from screaming), and nyctophobia, or fear of the night.’ According to the biographer Neil Powell, Amis ‘always hated being trapped socially and preferred pubs to dinner parties’. It’s this fear and loathing of others that charged Lucky Jim as a novel; it is perhaps something that informed Amis’s evolution into a boorish, right wing provocateur.
For Jim Dixon, every human interaction is underpinned with rage, anxiety, disgust, self-loathing, boredom, fear. Having drifted into a junior lectureship teaching a subject he hates, Dixon has also got himself involved with Margaret Peel, a self-obsessed colleague who thrives off the tension and ambiguity of a relationship that doesn’t exist in anything but the social sense. Margaret has a laugh like ‘the tinkle of tiny silver bells’ and at parties her remarks have the effect ‘of dumbfounding its audience by the obvious of its intention – namely, the intention of forcing them to talk.’ Margaret is a nightmare type as common today as in the 1950s, someone who dresses as and is taken by others to be an unconventional progressive, but is in fact deeply and proudly conformist.
Dixon is sustained by an escape fantasy of running away to London, which he’s only seen on leave from the war. Early in the book, queuing to buy a drink for Margaret, he’s seized by an impulse to move. I love the following passage, because it doesn’t have the glamour of escape fantasies, yet still seems to possess a magic.
Five minutes would be ample time for a vituperative phone-call to Welch and a short statement of the facts of the case to Margaret. Then he’d go and pack a few clothes and get on the ten-forty for London. As he stood in the badly-lit jakes, he was visited again, and unbearably, by the visual image that had haunted him ever since he took on this job. He seemed to be looking from a darkened room across a deserted back street to where, against a dimly-glowing evening sky, a line of chimney-pots stood out as if carved from tin. A small double cloud moved slowly from left to right. The image wasn’t purely visual, because he had a feeling that some soft indefinable noise was in his ears, and he felt with a dreamer’s baseless conviction that somebody was going to come into the room where he seemed to be, somebody he knew in the image but not in reality. He was certain it was an image of London, and just as certain that it wasn’t of any part of London he’d ever visited. He hadn’t spent more than a dozen evenings there in his life. Then why, he wondered, was his desire to leave the provinces for London sharpened and particularised by this half-glimpsed scene?
The rest of his time is taken up in ludicrous ‘arty week-ends’ with the medieval enthusiast Professor Welch, on whom Dixon depends for his livelihood. I have made Dixon sound bitter and misanthropic, and indeed he comes off that way in the text, with his comic catalogue of contemptuous expressions, and his fantasies of violence. Underneath all this Dixon is a nice guy – he wants only ‘to be of use to somebody’ – but that’s not what has made generations of readers connect with the novel. For who has not had to deal with bores, pseuds and scumbags on a daily basis? Who has not had to defer to the most ridiculous and unpleasant men and women for fear of losing one’s job or one’s place in the scene? ‘Why couldn’t they leave him alone?’ Dixon’s thoughts scream at one point. ‘Why couldn’t every single one of them without any exception whatsoever just go right away from where he was and leave him alone?’ Christopher Hitchens adds that, to Amis and Larkin, ‘the bores of the world were not merely tedious. They were, by their dogma and repetition and righteousness, advertising an evil will to power.’
Yet this struggling drifter has some allies: his fearsome housemate Atkinson, an ex-squaddie who openly displays the rage Dixon only feels towards the world, yet who is always looking out for Dixon and helping him where possible, like a kind of guardian demon. (Atkinson has an opposite number in another housemate Evan Johns, ‘office worker at the college and amateur oboist’ who for equally mysterious reasons never misses an opportunity to do Dixon a shitty turn.) A Welch weekend of amateur madrigals takes a positive turn when he meets Christine, the girlfriend of Welch’s son, the ludicrous philandering artist Bertrand. ‘Everything about her looked severe’ and yet Christine is just as bored and alienated as Dixon, but hides it so much better. Soon they are conspiring together. Her laugh is a ‘cacophony’ of ‘non-silver-bells’; when she laughs, she doesn’t intend to please, or to move the conversation along: she is laughing only for herself.
It’s Dixon’s pursuit of Christine, hovering between recklessness and caution, that drives the plot. Gradually he learns to speak in his own voice. Dixon ended up teaching medieval history because it seemed like an easy option at the time: ‘I never guessed I’d be landed with all the medieval stuff and nothing but medieval stuff.’ Subjected to the half-arts of posturing rebels against modernity (sound familiar?) Dixon concludes that: ‘Those who professed themselves unable to believe in the reality of human progress ought to cheer themselves up…’
by a short study of the Middle Ages. The hydrogen bomb, the South African Government, Chiang Kai-shek, Senator McCarthy himself, would then seem a light price to pay for no longer being in the Middle Ages. Had people ever been as nasty, as self-indulgent, as dull, as miserable, as cocksure, as bad at art, as dismally ludicrous, or as wrong as they’d been in the Middle Age[?]
By the time of his ferocious drunken lecture that represents Dixon’s last chance to save his career, he is ranting: ‘The point about Merrie England is that it was about the most un-Merrie period in our history. It’s only the home-made pottery crowd, the organic husbandry crowd, the recorder-playing crowd, the Esperanto…’ At this point he passes out from a combination of whisky, stress and emotional release.
It’s then that Dixon’s luck turns: it’s when you stop playing the game that you start winning. A contemporary writer would trail off the novel in mediocrity and false pathos, but Kingsley Amis delivers the audacity of the happy ending and hands Dixon the job, the girl and the escape. Life doesn’t work like that, you say. But sometimes it does.