By Kingsley AmisPenguin USA, 251 pages, $13.00
In That Uncertain Feeling (1955), one of Kingsley Amis's lesser novels, the narrator, John Lewis, is watching some young women play tennis, and decides to examine himself on an important question: "Why did I like women's breasts so much? I was clear on why I liked them, thanks, but why did I like them so much?" It's surprising, in a way, that Amis didn't capitalize those last words, as he was apt to do when he required any savage or emotional emphasis in his correspondence with Philip Larkin. (George Du Maurier's Trilby, for example, "might be a lot worse," he wrote. "AND A LOT BETTER.") But he seldom permitted any such heaviness to pervade his novels, and it is this very delicacy that allows one to answer the sensitive and dangerous question not Why is Lucky Jim funny? (daunting enough as an essay topic) but Why is it so funny?
I happened to be in Sarajevo when Kingsley Amis died, in 1995. I was to have lunch the following day with a very clever but rather solemn Slovenian dissident. She knew that I had known Amis a little, and she expressed the proper condolences as soon as we met. Feeling this to be not quite sufficient, however, she added that the genre of "academic comedy" had enjoyed quite a vogue among Balkan writers. "In our region zere are many such satires. But none I sink so amusing as ze Lucky Jim." This, delivered with perfect gravity in the lugubrious context of the Milosevic war, made me grin with inappropriate delight. How the old buzzard would have gagged, with mingled pride and disdain, at the thought of being so appreciated by a load of Continentals—nay, foreigners. And what the hell can his masterpiece be like when rendered into the Serbo-Croat tongue?
Just try to suggest a more hilarious novel from the past half century. Something by Joseph Heller? Terry Southern? David Lodge or Malcolm Bradbury? Yes, the Americans can be grotesque and noir; and the Englishmen have their mite of irony. (In fact, the academic comedy is now a sub-genre of Anglo-Americanism.) But even so. The late Peter de Vries—much admired by Amis for his Mackerel Plaza—depended too much on the farcical. No, the plain fact is that Amis managed in Lucky Jim (1954) to synthesize the comic achievements of Evelyn Waugh and P. G. Wodehouse. Just as a joke is not really a joke if it has to be clarified, I risk immersion in a bog of embarrassment if I overdo this; but if you can picture Bertie or Jeeves being capable of actual malice, and simultaneously imagine Evelyn Waugh forgetting about original sin, you have the combination of innocence and experience that makes this short romp so imperishable.
"The most powerful card in the hand of the novelist interested in character drawing," Amis once said, cleverly restating the obvious, "is differentiation by mode of speech." Well, we knew that from Dickens, didn't we? But Dickens never managed to convey in a few opening lines the pulverizing tedium and irritation provoked by our first-paragraph encounter with Professor Welch.
"They made a silly mistake, though," the Professor of History said, and his smile, as Dixon watched, gradually sank beneath the surface of his features at the memory. "After the interval we did a little piece by Dowland," he went on; "for recorder and keyboard, you know. I played the recorder, of course, and young Johns ..." He paused, and his trunk grew rigid as he walked; it was as if some entirely different man, some impostor who couldn't copy his voice, had momentarily taken his place; then he went on again ...
Immediately one recognizes the lineaments ("you know," "of course," and "young Johns") of the practiced and uninterruptible bore. The absolute proof is delayed for a page or so, until Welch actually is interrupted—by a respectful and relevant question at that—and "his attention, like a squadron of slow old battleships, began wheeling to face this new phenomenon." At this moment, when our palms are getting slightly damp and our toes beginning to curl, Welch's academic subordinate, the luckless Jim Dixon, has already mobilized his inner resources. He will when next alone "draw his lower lip in under his top teeth and by degrees retract his chin as far as possible, all this while dilating his eyes and nostrils," he promises himself. "By these means he would, he was confident, cause a deep dangerous flush to suffuse his face." Other "faces," denominated rather than described, include the shot-in-the-back face, the consumptive face, the tragic mask face, the mandarin, the crazy peasant, the Martian invader, the Eskimo, the Edith Sitwell, the metaphysical, the lemon-sucking, the mandrill, the lascar, the Evelyn Waugh, and the face that denotes "sex life in ancient Rome." Private faces in public places. All these are still to come, but we realize at once that if Dixon dared to wear an outward label, it would read "Warning: Contents Under Pressure." And as Chekhov stipulated, no gun that is onstage in the first act will be undischarged by the end. In other words, we are swiftly possessed by a sense of anticipation.
Not yet daring to play a subversive Sancho Panza to Welch's prolix Don Quixote, Dixon has also to register embarrassment of the most acute sort when he reflects upon the ghastly Margaret, a colleague to whom "he'd been drawn by a combination of virtues he hadn't known he possessed: politeness, friendly interest, ordinary concern, a good-natured willingness to be imposed upon, a desire for unequivocal friendship." This exposes him to such questions as "Do you like coming to see me?" "Do you think we get on well together?" "Am I the only girl you know in this place?" and—as the horror mounts—"Are we going to go on seeing so much of each other?" Dixon has to light cigarettes he cannot afford at the mere recollection of this. Having already recalled Paul Pennyfeather, in Decline and Fall, tyrannized by the cranky and solipsistic Dr. Fagan, he now puts me very much in mind of Bertie Wooster when confronted by the simpering Madeleine Bassett. Except that Madeleine Bassett was pretty and innocent, whereas Margaret (as Amis deftly conveys to us while keeping it from Dixon) is designing and sinister as well as ugly and frigid. It is only through a chance meeting with another man, Catchpole, that the decent and ingenuous Dixon eventually discovers just how designing and sinister she is. As with the faces, where Amis is confident that the reader will do much of the work in imagining how they might look (and feel), he can reliably convey character in just a few strokes.