‘Lucky Jim’ by Kingsley Amis tells the story of James Dixon, (a character supposedly inspired by Philip Larkin, as Wikipedia reliably informs me) who has stumbled into a job as a medieval history lecturer at a redbrick university in the Midlands mostly by accident. Due to his northern, non-elitist background, he frequently finds himself out of place in academic circles and the story recounts the often farcical episodes of his early career. At the beginning of the story, Dixon is worried that he will not be reappointed at the end of his probationary year but ends up making a series of gaffes in his efforts to keep his job as well as trying to deal with his on-off girlfriend, Margaret.
‘Lucky Jim’ is a comic novel but perhaps not the sort that will make you laugh out loud. The humour is subtly satirical and was probably quite radical at the time it was published in 1954. This is an observation rather than a criticism but for me, as a reader in the twenty-first century, ‘Lucky Jim’ seemed rather quaint. I was also very conscious of the fact that ‘Lucky Jim’ is about a very specific era in that the book could only have been written at the time that it was. While my mother’s home background was similar to that of Dixon, her experience of university in the early 1970s bears pretty much no relation to the story described here (she didn’t become an academic though). It just struck me that the world changed a lot in a very short space of time after the war and universities even more so. Pretentiousness does still exist but not as it does here.
The plot does amble a bit and the humour ran patchily throughout the story. The strength of the book lies more with the characters as you would probably expect in a comic novel. Dixon is very memorable as a character and although the setting may now seem dated, there are some general observations about human nature that will still resonate with future generations, hence why ‘Lucky Jim’ is now deemed by many to be a classic. I do still wonder what people will make of this book in a hundred years time though.