15 December, 2006Issue 6.1EssaysEuropeFictionLiteratureWriters

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Inside Lucky Jim

Peter Snow

Literature has often been compared to the world of fashion. A closer parallel might be the stock market. The beginnings of literary production are similar to a small private enterprise. As it expands, it becomes a public company in which shares are traded, and authors become ‘buys’ or ‘sells’ on the reputational exchange. These fluctuations are largely independent of intrinsic literary merit and increasingly relate to the personal and political acceptability of the author.

Nowhere is this clearer than in the case of Kingsley Amis, the subject of a new authorised biography to be published this autumn by Professor Zachary Leader. Amis got off to flying start in 1954 with Lucky Jim, joining other young writers as part of a new wave of ‘Angry Young Men’. This co-branding may initially have added impetus to his career, but to Amis it was a serious piece of mislabelling from which he had to fight to free himself. This he successfully did over the next twenty years, establishing a reputation not just as a comic novelist but a social satirist and an ingenious manipulator of popular genres. It was at this point that his literary shares hit their mid-career peak.

Even then the taint of politically unacceptability hung over him—all those ‘fascist lunches’ at Bertorellis and his vehement endorsement of Western intervention in Vietnam. Over time the image of reactionary clubman hardened around Amis like a crusty carapace. With the publication of Stanley & the Women in 1984 misogyny was additionally built into the Amis brand—so much so that the novel had great difficulty in finding a US publisher. Eric Jacobs’s 1995 biography and the subsequent publication of Amis’s Letters, with their cringe-inducing private language and jokes with which Amis and Larkin unbuttoned their mutual obsessions and prejudices, did little to halt the slump. Hopefully Professor Leader’s new biography will bring about a more balanced reassessment of Amis’s achievement.

There is, though, a double obstacle: not only the current ‘stock market’ rating of Amis’s reputation but his own characterisation of his work. Amis was always at pains to describe himself as a moral satirist who focused on the enduring body of human failings, a writer who, although he always accurately described contemporary social settings, never saw himself as a social critic, and a literary traditionalist who damned modernism and anything that smacked of European or American pretension. ‘What I think I am doing,’ he once stated, ‘is writing novels within the main English-language tradition; that is, trying to tell interesting believable stories about understandable characters in a reasonably straightforward style: no tricks, no experimental foolery.’

But the reality is that, behind Amis’s Little Englander persona, he was as obsessed with meaninglessness, arbitrariness and indeterminacy as any twentieth-century absurdist. Amis is in fact a modernist in traditional dress. Indeed in certain areas such as the representation of dialogue and his ability to conjure up what we might call ‘ambient strangeness’ he was also an extremely successful innovator.

Take Amis’s first novel, the one that shot him to fame, Lucky Jim. The novel was hailed on a variety of grounds: as an entertaining academic farce or a bleat from below against the stultifying narrowness of British academic life and indeed of 1950s British provincial life in general. David Lodge, himself a young lecturer and writer at the time, found it ‘a magic book’ for his generation in that it ‘established the linguistic register we needed to articulate our sense of social identity, a precarious balance of independence and self-doubt, irony and hope.’

It is also a wonderful and thoroughly modern comedy of the absurd. It is about misunderstandings, mismatches and manipulations. Throughout the novel the characters strive in different ways to construe or control one other. Jim’s appalling superior Professor Welch and Jim’s neurotic colleague, Margaret, exploit Jim. Welch’s son, Bertrand, tries to exploit his girlfriend Christine, as he does the wife of a colleague, Carol Goldsmith, with whom he had been simultaneously conducting another affair. Jim himself plays games of procrastination and favouritism with his students and completely misreads Julius’s intentions. Even Jim and Christine seem largely to be mysteries to one another.

The novel’s opening line is a put-down by Welch of a newspaper report of a concert in which he had been involved: ‘They made a silly mistake, though.’ Thereafter mistakes come thick and fast. Reality never matches appearance or reactions their stimuli. An example is Jim’s reaction to the first appearance of the delectable Christine—not delight or even lust but appalled outrage, the sense of ‘an irresistible attack on his own habits, standards and ambitions: something designed to put him in his place for good.’ Telephone calls—bungled deliberately or accidentally—are a recurrent motif. (There is a thesis waiting to be written—possibly already penned—on the telephone as a device in the novels of Kingsley Amis.)

Similarly the humour in Lucky Jim, which is almost exclusively verbal, results from mismatches and clashes of register, exemplified in the description of Jim’s response to finding a pub open late:

A dreamy smile stretched his face in the darkness as he savoured again in retrospect that wonderful moment at ten o’clock. It had been like a first authentic experience of art or human goodness, astern, rapt, almost devotional exaltation.

But the role of linguistic register in the novel goes beyond the mere achievement of humorous effects. In a quite different sense to that of David Lodge, Lucky Jim is all about finding a voice. As Richard Bradford has pointed out, there are three main voices in the novel: Jim’s internal voice of defiance, Amis’s own authorial voice (the two are closely related) and the outer voices of assumed deference and hostile mimicry that Jim adopts in his struggles with the external world. Jim is unable at first to articulate or express his own voice, and the whole movement of the novel is towards bringing these three voices into alignment.

Initially Jim is trapped within his own exquisitely enraged perceptions. He consoles himself with the thought that ‘the one indispensable answer to an environment bristling with people and things one thought were bad was to go on finding new ways in which one could think they were bad.’ The sentence’s circularity itself perfectly mirrors the larger loop in which Jim is caught. The turning point for Jim is, as Lodge points out, his fight with Bertrand, oddly not so much in the release of violence but in Jim’s gaining the ability to say what he has bottled up inside.

The novel’s climax comes in the lecture on ‘Merrie England’ that Welch imposes on Jim. Drunk, he finds himself literally possessed by the voices of his oppressors and tormentors before, in a final cathartic purgation, he blurts out what he really thinks:

Sweating and flushing, he struggled on a little further, hearing Welch’s intonation clinging round his voice, powerless for the moment to strip it away …He seemed to have forgotten how to speak ordinarily … While he spoke one sentence, sadness at the thought of Christine seemed to be trying to grip his tongue at the root and reduce him to an elegiac silence; while he spoke another, cries of irritated horror fumbled for admission at his larynx so as to make known what he felt about the Margaret situation; while he spoke the next, anger and fear threatened to twist his mouth, tongue and lips into the right position for a hysterical denunciation of Bertrand, Mrs Welch, the Principal, the Registrar, the College Council, the College.

The novel ends with Jim and Christine walking away hand-in-hand leaving the Welches frozen in a tableau of terminal unreality:

The whinnying and clanging of Welch’s self-starter began behind them, growing fainter and fainter as they walked on until it was altogether overlaid by the other noises of the town and by their own voices.

External reality (‘the other noises of the town’) and the personal reality of finding ‘their own voices’ have triumphed.

Jim is able to make his getaway thanks not only to the cathartic experience of the lecture but also his new-found talent for self-assertion—for recognising his luck and acting on it. But the availability of luck, as Jim is the first to admit, is arbitrary. Jim himself has been lucky enough to escape from the trap of his circumstances, but the novel’s epigraph (‘O Lucky Jim How I envy him’) reminds the reader that his escape is not to be easily replicated. And just how free is the new Jim? His new role as action man is still a role, another loop, as the circularity of the sentence structure again suggests:

More than ever he felt secure: here he was, quite able to fulfil his role, and, as with other roles, the longer you played it the better chance you had of playing it again. Doing what you wanted to do was the only training, and the only preliminary, needed for doing more of what you wanted to do.

Amis’s whole oeuvre is about struggling with an unreadable reality, an unfathomable self, communication that is a series of language games, and a society that throughout all its sub-units and cells is repressive and inimical to the individual. Throughout it the tone and landscape progressively darken, and escape and love are options that are increasingly blocked off. None of which is to deny that Amis is also very funny. But so too is Samuel Beckett.

Peter Snow is associate fellow at Templeton College. A writer and journalist, he is the author of Oxford Observed.