The first time I read Kingsley Amis’s classic campus novel, Lucky Jim, I did it to impress a girl.
I was in my early 20s, living in Seattle during my first year after finishing college, and had just started seeing a graduate student in English. Compared to me, she and her friends all seemed intellectual and sophisticated. I listened to Supertramp, they listened to Paul Hindemith, and the first time I saw a recording of Vaughan Williams’s “Five Mystical Songs” at the woman’s apartment, I pronounced the composer’s name “Ralph” and she had to correct me: “You say it ‘Rafe.'”‘
I’d been a voracious reader ever since I’d discovered the Hardy Boys when I was eight or nine but, compared to the woman I was seeing and those in her circle, I was woefully ignorant of literature. I had a degree in communication and, outside of what I’d had to read for school and a short time when I was a boy and my physician father, who’d minored in philosophy as an undergraduate at a Jesuit college, offered me dollar bills to convince me to memorize selections from The Great Books of the Western World, I had read little that was published earlier than the first decade of the twentieth century, and not much that wasn’t by an American writer. In truth, at that point, I had little literary interest beyond science fiction and the Beats. On the other hand, the woman and her friends took courses in Old English and seemed not only to have read Spenser’s entire Faerie Queene but could quote from it.
One day, perhaps to find some intersection between us aside from our being two young people in a strange city two thousand miles from home (I was from Ohio; she, Missouri), she suggested I might enjoy Amis’s book. “It’s funny,” she offered. So I borrowed her paperback copy and read it.
She was right: it was funny but, beyond that, I found I identified in many ways with the novel’s almost hopelessly inept main character, Jim Dixon. True, he was more a contemporary of my parents’ generation than of mine. Amis wrote the novel in the early 1950s (it appeared in the UK in 1954) and, like my parents, Dixon would have come of age during World War II. Putting aside the accident of dates, geography and occupation (Dixon taught college, I was a bank teller), however, I saw much of myself in him.
In the novel, Dixon is in his first year as a junior lecturer in history at an unnamed provincial college somewhere in the English countryside. His principle quality is that he is unsettled without any notion of what he wants to do with his life and seemingly no ability to affect its direction or express directly how he feels. As the novel opens, his primary concern is convincing the head of his department, Ned Welch, not to fire him – but he’s trying to hold onto a job he doesn’t particularly like. At one point, Dixon comments to another character, apropos of his discipline, “Haven’t you noticed how we specialize in what we hate most?”
Even in his personal life for most of the novel, Dixon is incapable of taking charge. Without intending to, he’s caught in a relationship with a woman, Margaret Peel, who’s adept at emotional blackmail; it’s a relationship Amis tells us Dixon was “drawn into” rather than one he pursued and it’s disastrous. Margaret precipitates fights because she craves drama for the sake of drama; she accuses him of slights he doesn’t commit; she either attempts a suicide or claims to (Amis is intentionally ambiguous on this point until nearly the end of the novel) but, in either case, Dixon’s perception of Margaret as fragile binds him to her all the more.
Beyond this, I found Dixon an engaging protagonist because he is clearly a fish out of water. His colleagues, especially Welch, celebrate the past and high culture while Dixon has no use for either, despite his job as a history lecturer. One of the pivotal sections of the novel centers on an “arty weekend” that Dixon attends at Welch’s home (to score points to help him hold onto the job he abhors), where the guests sing madrigals, perform a play by Anouilh in French, and listen to “an amateur violinist” perform Brahms. Dixon prefers jazz to part songs and downing pints at an English pub to the refined repasts at the arty weekend, where Welch “poured Dixon the smallest drink he’d ever been seriously offered.” Dixon, who cannot read music, fakes his way through a tenor part in one of the madrigals. Later, as he stumbles back from the pub he sneaks off to late at night during that weekend, he sings, enthusiastically, an American country ballad, fittingly, given his life, about a train wreck.
Despite Dixon’s bumbling, his behavior that, even against his own better judgment, seems to be sending his life along a track toward sure ruin — he will lose his job; he will never be able to extricate himself from a relationship with Margaret — because it’s largely a comic novel, it’s not ruining a great surprise to say that Amis allows Dixon a triumph at the end: he does lose his job (thanks in large part to an embarrassing public lecture an inebriated Dixon delivers to the entire college community) but at the book’s close it’s clear he’s set for a better life than it appeared he might have when we first encounter him on page one.
Thirty-plus years after reading Lucky Jim for the first time, I don’t remember exactly what I thought of the book, why it struck the chord it did with me, why it would turn out to be one of the most important books in my life.
I could say, perhaps, that the fact that Jim, for all of his bumbling, comes to a good end gave me hope for my own life, but that seems too pat, too much like something someone might write to wrap up, neatly, his relationship to a book he loved in his younger years.
What I do remember distinctly, however, is this:
I was on the bus I took home each day from the bank when I read the last sentence. Dixon is with a woman altogether different from Margaret in every way, the woman that Amis makes plain Dixon’s future lies with. They encounter the Welches on the street as the family is getting into their car and Dixon tries to say something to express his outrage against Ned Welch but cannot find the words. The woman tugs on his arm, and the book ends:
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.
I remember being on the bus, reading that sentence, then reading it again and my eyes filling with tears at how perfect a last sentence it was.
Not long after that, I married the woman who loaned me the book, but we divorced more than a dozen years ago.
As for Lucky Jim, it’s still part of my life. I read it a second time not long after the first. Then I read it again. And again. Eventually, I did find a career — writing and teaching college — and, for most of the past two decades, I have re-read Lucky Jim annually to mark the start of the new academic year.
On a certain level, it’s perhaps an odd thing to read a book perhaps two dozen times and to plan to read it yet again. After all, the primary force that pulls us through a work of fiction is the desire to find out what happens next and after we’ve read to the last page the first time, we know the sequence of events that make up the narrative.
As a writer, I’ve often re-read work that I’ve admired so that I can figure how the author accomplishes whatever he or she does: How does Gustave Flaubert build the structure of Madame Bovary so that Emma’s suicide seems inevitable rather than melodramatic? How does Vladimir Nabokov convince me to feel connected to Humbert Humbert despite his desire for twelve-year-old Lolita? How does Stewart O’Nan make Emily, Alone or Last Night at the Lobster compelling novels despite the fact that little of seeming dramatic consequence occurs in them? How does Margot Livesey make The Flight of Gemma Hardy a fresh story despite its clear echoes of and debt to Jane Eyre?
Certainly, at least some of my trips through Lucky Jim have taught me something about how to build a novel: one of the reasons it succeeds is that Amis uses the comic moments more than merely for a laugh but as integral parts of what is really an extremely tight structure that allows us to accept that the unhappy and largely incompetent protagonist we begin with who is able, in only roughly 250 pages, to become the sort of man who deserves the happy ending he comes to, who deserves the good job and good woman he has by the final line that brought me to tears for its profound rightness that first time.
But two dozen times through? Is there profit in that?
Even beyond that question, I have come to see that it’s perhaps also odd to celebrate the start of another school year by re-reading this particular book since it doesn’t paint the brightest picture of life in academia. Not only does Dixon hate it, several times in the novel Amis has him say some rather bleak things about teaching and scholarship. At one point, for example, another character says to him,, “I’ve a notion you’re not too happy in [the job]. . . . What’s the trouble? In you or in it?”
Dixon responds, “Oh, both, I should say. They waste my time and I waste theirs.”
At another point, thinking about a scholarly article he wrote to try to secure his position, he cringes at his own work’s “niggling mindlessness” and “funereal parade of yawn-enforcing facts, the pseudo-light it threw upon non-problems.”
Lucky Jim is not unusual in this regard, of course, since so many campus novels would not go far as recruiting materials for the profession. Richard Russo’s hilarious Straight Man (in which Russo gives a nod to Amis, as his narrator’s nickname is “Lucky Hank”) is populated by a host of characters unhappy after decades in the professoriate, discovering they’ve settled for mediocrity and petty squabbles. John Williams’s brilliant and under-appreciated Stoner is flat out one of the saddest novels I have ever read. It begins, in part,
William Stoner entered the University of Missouri as a freshman in the year 1910 at the age of nineteen. Eight years later . . . he earned his Doctor of Philosophy degree and accepted an instructorship at the same University, where he taught until his death in 1956. He did not rise above the rank of assistant professor, and few students remembered him with any sharpness. . . . Stoner’s colleagues, who held him in no particular esteem when he was alive, speak of him rarely now . . .
Then, of course, there are even darker visions of life in academia, like James Hynes’s collection of novellas, Publish and Perish, in which his lecturers and junior scholars face not only the tough road to tenure but threats from the occult, or the ubiquitous campus murder mysteries that suggest that those who work in higher education are not good risks on life insurance actuarial tables.
And so, given Lucky Jim’s pessimistic take on the career I’ve pursued and the fact that, after so many times through it, I know the novel better than any other I’ve read, I ask myself:
Why do I keep reading it every autumn? Why did I read it this year?
The answer is complicated.
On one level, Lucky Jim is a well-crafted novel that holds up even nearly sixty years after it first appeared; even after so many re-readings, its comedy still works, especially two long sections that center on misfortunes that Dixon has because of his drinking: The first occurs during the arty weekend, when he falls asleep smoking and causes a minor fire that damages the room he’s staying in at the Welches’, a small disaster he makes worse by one bad decision after another. The second, which serves as the novel’s climax, occurs during Dixon’s unfortunate public lecture in which he succumbs to a catalogue of missteps that makes his performance representative of the fears of so many who have to stand up and talk in front of groups of strangers.
Its merits continue to earn Lucky Jim praise long after books that sold far better the year it came out but which are out of print and nearly out of our universal consciousness. (How many of us, for example, remember Morton Thompson’s Not as a Stranger, which was the top selling work of fiction that year?)
Lucky Jim, on the other hand, continues to show up on list after list of the best novels of the twentieth century or the funniest novels of all time. In 2005, Time included it on its list of “100 Best English Language Novels” since 1923 (the year of the magazine’s first issue). A decade ago, the late Christopher Hitchens described it as the funniest novel of the previous half-century in an essay he wrote for The Atlantic and, in 2008, when the New York Times polled the editors at its Book Review, asking them to name the funniest novel ever, Lucky Jim got the most votes. (It’s interesting that so many of the novels on their list were campus novels: aside from Amis’s, others included David Lodge’s Small World, Russo’s Straight Man, and Michael Chabon’s Wonder Boys.)
The New York Review of Books has even made Lucky Jim its “Classic Book Club selection” for October, saying that it is “regarded by many as the finest, and funniest, comic novel of the twentieth century.” NYRB, which resurrected Stoner for a new generation of readers when it returned the novel to print with a new paperback edition in 2003, is also issuing a new edition of Lucky Jim in October.
But there are many novels on those lists that I’ve read and appreciated, and read more than once and appreciated each time, but I don’t have re-reading any of them on my annual calendar as I do Lucky Jim.
Partly, of course, I re-read it because of the ritual; reading it is my own personal academic convocation that marks a call to another year in the classroom.
Partly, I re-read it because of what Walker Percy calls “repetition” in another of the most important novels in my life, The Moviegoer, another novel about someone trying to figure out how to make his way in the world. “A repetition,” Percy writes, “is the re-enactment of past experience toward the end of isolating the time segment which has lapsed in order that it, the lapsed time, can be savored of itself and without the usual adulteration of events that clog time like peanuts in brittle.”
As I read it, I am the young man on the bus, with no idea of the shape my life will have, hoping I can find something in the book to make the girl I am seeing like me a bit more.
As I read it, I am in my early thirties, walking into my first class as a teacher with little idea of what I am doing, in a fourth-floor room with a scarred wooden floor and beat-up desks in disorganized rows where nine women sit, assuming I will be able to organize some notions I have in a way that might help them become better writers. I’m in my mid-forties when my marriage to the girl who gave me Lucky Jim is ending and, reading Lucky Jim, I wonder if Jim were not fictional how would his life have turned out with the woman that Amis gave him at the end of the novel? This year, reading the novel, it strikes me that my youngest son is the age I was when I first read it, is roughly the age that Jim is in the book, and I think: we are connected by the experience of being young men in our twenties. And I think, where did the years go?
But even beyond its connection to Percy’s concept of repetition, I re-read the book every year because of that last sentence that moved me on the city bus in Seattle decades ago. I still find the sentence beautiful: “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 their own voices.”
The words that make the final sentence work for me, seal up the novel once and for all, are the last three: “their own voices.” In the middle of the crowded, hectic town, Amis has isolated Dixon and the woman he’s with, has made clear that Dixon’s world is now separate from the miserable one he inhabited for nearly the entire novel.
It’s a sentence that closes the book up with a hopefulness that has eluded Dixon for nearly all of the roughly 250 pages that come before it and, every year when I read the novel, I know that the sentence is there, sitting on the last page waiting for me to come to it; its existence colors all of the absurd failures that Dixon endures before it.
Turning the last page, as I come to the sentence, I hold my breath as I read it and then, as I did the first time, I read it again.
It still moves me to tears.