Lucky Jim by Kingsley Amis

A review of the comical literary campus novel Lucky Jim by Kingsley Amis.

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Despite winning the Somerset Maugham Award in 1955, there are few books in the pantheon of British contemporary fiction which get overlooked as much as Lucky Jim by Kingsley Amis. The novel tells the story of Jim Dixon, a medieval history lecturer at a red brick university, who finds himself facing up against the phony-minded pretentiousness of his university superior, Professor Welch, whilst at the same time clumsily navigating his way towards a romantic denouement.

The main character, in truth, was partially inspired by Kingsley Amis’ contemporary, the poet Philip Larkin, who today is regarded as one of Britain’s best-ever poets but whose personality seemed rather eccentric and world-weary—in other words, a perfect hero. In Lucky Jim, we see Dixon contend with the manipulative wiles of Margaret Peel, a love interest he attempts to shake-off, who is essentially a gross caricature of the kind of self-absorbed meddler who no doubt peppered the upper social echelons of post-war Britain.

As a work of satire attacking this underlying seam of class conflict and social hypocrisy, Kingsley Amis’ debut into the world of fiction was an attempt to undermine the reader’s faith in the academic establishment and, by extension, the status quo. At the same time, Lucky Jim rejected the literary experimentalism set down by Modernist writers of the previous era—such as the avant-garde approach of the Bloomsbury Group in the 1920s and 1930s—preferring instead to kick back against priggish snobbery and entrenched pretentiousness. Even today, the style and tone of Lucky Jim is refreshingly accessible, with relatable characters and an irreverent humour deemed quite radical for its time.

Obviously, in retrospect, there is much about Lucky Jim which appears outdated, so it may not be everybody’s cup of tea. At times, the story plays out like an old-fashioned, dry-as-a-bone British sitcom, but there are still many moments which remain amusing. These days, sadly, Kingsley Amis’ literary reputation has been usurped somewhat by his cantankerous son, the author Martin Amis, but an argument could always be made that Lucky Jim remains a pivotal moment in post-war fiction which has proved much more influential than any of his offspring’s works.

What makes Lucky Jim more notable here, in my opinion, lies in its humour and its storytelling. At this early stage of his career, Kingsley Amis was an extremely sardonic and witty man, belonging to a school of ‘Angry Young Man’ writers who sprung up in the 1950s—iconoclastic and full of righteous indignation. Unsurprisingly, Amis’ sense of humour is peculiarly English, akin to the wry understatedness of the Ealing comedies of its day—satirical yet subtle, sarcastic yet whimsical and droll yet jocular.

As a matter of fact, Lucky Jim seems to follow in a long-standing tradition of lampooning Britain’s education system, much how Tom Brown’s Schooldays or the St Trinian’s comic strips did, albeit with its jaded eye turned on the perils of the university education system instead. In my opinion, this novel is perhaps best seen as a seminal moment in contemporary literature, a precursor to the satire boom of the 1960s (which, in a similar manner to what Kingsley Amis did, sought to upend conformity and challenge the venality of the British class system).

In short, if you can feel yourself becoming a grumpy old fart the older you get, then you won’t go far wrong with reading Lucky Jim. Trace back the roots of all modern humorous fiction and this is where it points towards, so if you want a palette cleanser after reading the endless slew of nigh-on unreadable, pompous, overblown yet prize-nominated tripe, then look no further than here. It’ll help bring you down to earth. We all need a corrective, and this, my friends, is it.

Humorous fiction writer, poet and novelist. Fond of satire. Interested in comic novels, black comedy and tales of satirical derring-do.

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