The Man of Feeling

Lucky Jim, Kingsley Amis's comic masterpiece, may be the funniest book of the past half century

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.

Without overdrawing his picture of powerlessness and entrapment, Amis awards Dixon a mediocre physique ("on the short side, fair and round-faced, with an unusual breadth of shoulder that had never been accompanied by any special strength or skill"). He further gifts him with shabby clothes, a lack of funds, provincial manners, and a cramped room in a dismal boardinghouse. Expert in the uses of humiliation, Amis takes only a sentence to introduce Michie, the most intimidating student in Dixon's sorely neglected class, who had "commanded a tank troop at Anzio while Dixon was an RAF corporal in western Scotland."

And how immediately one is ready to detest and abominate Bertrand, the pseudo-aesthete and bully who is the spoiled son of the vapid Professor Welch and his hard-boiled wife. Not only does he have a bad beard and an affectedly metropolitan manner, but this gargoyle pronounces the word "see" as "sam." The extremely trying noise comes out like this:

The vowel sound became distorted into a short "a," as if he were going to say "sat." This brought his lips some way apart, and the effect of their rapid closure was to end the syllable with a light but audible "m."

I pause to note two things. The first is that this invention owes much to Amis's gift for poetry, and to his superlative qualities as a mimic. The second is that having coined it, he pushes it no further than it ought to be pushed. At evenly spaced intervals we and Jim Dixon hear Bertrand say "you sam," "hostelram," "got mam?," "this is just how I expected things to bam," and (most tellingly, in my view) "obviouslam." Again we feel a warm thrill of anticipation, realizing that someday Bertrand will say "you sam" once too often.

Metaphors and details are inserted so deftly that one scarcely notices how they push the action along. "Fury flared up in his mind like forgotten toast under a grill." A fellow lodger of Dixon's is described as employing a new pipe around which to train his personality "like a creeper up a trellis." A bellowing bandleader sounds like "an ogre at the onset of aphasia." The hideous Welches, at a musical recital, serve "coffee and cakes, intended to replace an evening meal." By these and further hints we build up a picture of Amis's attitude at the time, his genius for provincial and small-scale subversion.

Like the burned sheets and scorched but nonetheless "valuable-looking" rug that confront Jim in his nadir of hung-over disgrace at the Welches', the threadbare phrase "Angry Young Man" doesn't quite cover it. Dixon's rebellion arises from two simple elements of the servile condition: "real, over-mastering, orgiastic boredom, and its companion, real hatred." There are one or two political hints. Margaret turns out to sing for a local Conservative club, and Jim's first quarrel with Bertrand concerns the non-virtues of the rich. Thinking about his laughable scholarly project on medieval shipbuilding techniques, he reflects,

Those who professed themselves unable to believe in the reality of human progress ought to cheer themselves up, as the students under examination had conceivably been cheered up, by a short study of the Middle Ages. The hydrogen bomb, the South African Government, Chiang Kai-Shek, Senator McCarthy himself, would then seem a light price to pay for no longer being in the Middle Ages.

And Mrs. Welch is represented as hostile to the welfare state. It's odd, and useful, to remember that when he was writing Lucky Jim, Amis was not yet completely through with the Communist Party. Yet one sees also the first symptoms of his famous turn toward the conservative world view. He shows a fine disdain for the new college system, where, as one of his more sympathetic characters puts it, "All right, we'll lower the pass mark to twenty percent and give you the quantity you want, but for God's sake don't start complaining in two years' time that your schools are full of teachers who couldn't pass the General Certificate themselves, let alone teach anyone else to pass it."

From Atlantic Unbound:

Interviews: "Fast Times at King William's High" (March 27, 2002)
A talk with Jonathan Coe, the author of The Rotters' Club, a darkly humorous story of coming-of-age in 1970s Birmingham, England.

I claim to be the first reader to notice that there are a number of suggestive correlations between Lucky Jim and George Orwell's Keep the Aspidistra Flying. Jim Dixon and Gordon Comstock both have jobs they hate, and authorities to whom they must truckle. They are both oppressed by sterile and burdensome chunks of "work in progress." They both measure the days in cigarettes, often smoking one reserved for sometime next week. They both attack alcohol without compunction when given the chance, or the spare change, and both register penitential hangovers. They both live in grim furnished lodgings for bachelors. They both suffer from difficulties, or lucklessness, with women. Each has a rich patron capable of acting as a deus ex machina. Moreover, the prettiest girl in Dixon's class (she is of course the partner of the self-assured Michie) is named Eileen O'Shaughnessy, as was Orwell's first wife. So it is perhaps possible to "locate" Lucky Jim in a tradition of English underdog writing, just as it was later plausible to "situate" it along with the work of John Osborne, John Wain, and other authors of postwar England. The difference, it is scarcely necessary to emphasize, is that Lucky Jim is wildly and anarchically funny, and that Dixon, so far from lapsing into anomie, is capable of seizing opportunity when it comes and making, literally, the best of it.

In October of 1954 an influential review in The Spectator announced the arrival of a "Movement," composed of Amis, Wain, Elizabeth Jennings, Thom Gunn, D. J. Enright, and Iris Murdoch, among others. The article's author, J. D. Scott, summarized the putative membership as "bored by the despair of the Forties, not much interested in suffering, and extremely impatient of poetic sensibility, especially poetic sensibility about 'the writer and society'."

So it's goodbye to all those rather sad little discussions about "how the writer ought to live", and it's goodbye to the Little Magazine and "experimental writing". The Movement, as well as being anti-phoney, is anti-wet; sceptical, robust, ironic, prepared to be as comfortable as possible.

Amis's immediate reaction was to write to Philip Larkin and say, "Well, what a load of bullshit all that was in the Spr about the new movt. etc." And Evelyn Waugh wrote a rather grand letter of rebuke to the magazine the following week, concluding, "Please let the young people of today get on with their work alone and be treated to the courtesy of individual attention. They are the less, not the more, interesting, if they are treated as a 'Movement'." But it seems that critics need aggregates, and prefer to deal with writers in packs. They also appear to require some form of semiotics. Robert Conquest—the actual founder of "The Movement" as a poetic phenomenon—later wrote an essay for Critical Quarterly titled "Christian Symbolism in Lucky Jim," which was an obvious spoof from the first page, citing "The Phallus Theme in Early Amis" and other learned articles. The magazine received so many serious and literal-minded letters, disputing some of the hermeneutic points, that the editors felt compelled to publish a disclaimer in the next issue, thus anticipating the Social Text hoax by some decades. Humor, as I was trying to say earlier, becomes distinctly less hysterical the more it has to be explained.

There is one element in the creation of Lucky Jim that has received insufficient attention and might (I suppose) gratify some of those critics who believe in collective or collaborative authorship. The novel was, quite evidently, co-written with Philip Larkin. At the onset of their Oxford friendship it was Larkin who wanted to be, and was, a novelist, and Amis who hoped to be, and was, a poet. One of the many charms of The Letters of Kingsley Amis (2000), which has been edited in masterly fashion by Zachary Leader, is the way in which the collection demonstrates the slow transformation of this symbiotic relationship, whereby each man took on some of the qualities of the other and mutated rather nicely into a counterpart rather than an opposite. Larkin's early novel Jill was a satire on low-level academic miseries, and he was the dedicatee of Lucky Jim at a time when he was too little known to be included in the roundup of The Movement.

We know, because Amis tells us in his memoirs (1991), that the idea for the novel came from a visit to Larkin's roost at University College, Leicester, where he lived on Dixon Drive. From the same pages we learn:

In 1950 or so I sent him my sprawling first draft and got back what amounted to a synopsis of the first third of the structure and other things besides. He decimated the characters that, in carried-away style, I had poured into the tale without care for the plot: local magnate Sir George Wettling, cricket-loving Philip Orchard, vivacious American visitor Teddy Wilson ...

(Thank Christ for that, one hears oneself murmuring, even though Amis would have reproved the incorrect use of the word "decimate" by anyone else.) Larkin also prohibited the novel from being titled Dixon and Christine. But the debt is much deeper and more subtle, as the Letters gradually discloses. Writing to the man he loved (there's no question about it), Amis describes the terrible imposition of his father-in-law (model for Welch) and says, "Whenever his face was turned away from mine, I screwed my own into a dazzle-pattern of hatred and fury." A month later he confides,

If the style of this epistle becomes a little stiff and ungainly, or even incoherent, that will not be, I am sorry to say, because I am drunk, but because I mustn't light another cigarette until 11.30 a.m., and it is now 11.2 a.m., and I want to light a cigarette now, but I mustn't do that, because I have so little money to spend, and if I light a cigarette now, the packet that must last me for two days won't. You might tell me, by the way, what was good in my postscript.

The postscript, like the cigarette rationing, turns out to be part of the scheme for Lucky Jim. In a subsequent letter, dated September 8, 1952, Amis rehearses almost every facet of the novel in accordance with Larkin's instructions. The paragraphing is the result of a meticulous collaboration, with sequence headings ("the library," "the lecture," "the job," "Bertrand's pass," "Mediaevalism") that addicts will easily recognize as the eventual core ingredients. In all instances Amis was happy and grateful for trenchant advice. Then there is an appeal based on pure friendship and trust.

Would it be asking too much to ask you to skim quickly through the typescript, making marginal indications of anything that displeases you? ("Bad style", "damp squib", bad bit of dialogue & so on, to prevent me using them again.)

Two months later he was promising Larkin to restart the novel—by this time titled The Man of Feeling—from scratch. By March of 1953 he was more or less finished, altering only a few curlicues ("I have changed 'his Indian beggar face' to 'his Evelyn Waugh face'").

This is not only a very moving acknowledgment—Amis freely donated these letters to posterity—of the invaluable influence of a fellow author. It is also, unless I am quite deluded, the clue to an underappreciated aspect of the novel. Extensive tracts of Lucky Jim are not humorous at all—deliberately not humorous, if you follow me. Bleakness obtrudes, especially in the many discussions and depictions of unhappiness, mediocrity, failure, and even suicide. Most of Dixon's inoffensive friends (he's always called Dixon) are as much doomed to disappointment and indigence as he at first seems to be. And his disasters and triumphs are rendered in such a way as to put us in mind of manic-depressive mood swings. (At one point he feels like a man who while fighting a policeman sees another policeman approaching on a horse; later he feels like a man being awarded a medal who is simultaneously told of a large win in the lottery.) The crowning, triumphant tautology—the limitless way in which nice things are nicer than nasty things—is no comfort to the afflicted. It is more of a stoic cliché, of the sort in which Larkin later specialized. Dixon also has a persistent, almost Chekhovian yearning to quit the provinces and move to the capital city, of which he has an idealized impression. Larkin stayed with the provinces: Leicester, Belfast, and eventually Hull, whereas Amis moved to London when he became a success. This partial estrangement between the two was what underlay their subsequent lifelong correspondence.

Both men thought of boredom as a form of tyranny and also (more important) as a symptom of it. To them, the bores of the world were not merely tedious. They were, by their dogma and repetition and righteousness, advertising an evil will to power. Dixon's eventual explosion of drunken defiance is something more than an enjoyable fiasco or—ancient Rome again—saturnalia. It gives expression to a term that seems incongruous when one first reads it: "active hatred." This is the only possible riposte to "orgiastic boredom." No one familiar with Larkin's caustic, understated poetic contempt can fail to recognize the kinship here.

Evelyn Waugh punished an Oxford don who had bored him—a Dr. Cruttwell—by using his name for purposes of ridicule in at least four novels. Amis took revenge against an editor named Caton by using his name for hateful or shifty parts in his first five books and then killing him off in The Anti-Death League (1966). It is Caton who plagiarizes the deadly essay—The Economic Influence of the Developments of Shipbuilding Techniques, 1450 to 1485—with which Dixon has been killing himself (with boredom). The self-hatred that can also arise from boredom is hilariously caught when Dixon mordantly reviews his own opening sentence.

"In considering this strangely neglected topic," it began. This what neglected topic? This strangely what topic? This strangely neglected what? His thinking all this without having defiled and set fire to the typescript only made him appear to himself as more of a hypocrite and fool.

Hilarious but somewhat sobering. Dixon's later self-manumission needs to be seen in this light, as part of the declaration of Amis's protracted war against hypocrisy and phoniness of all kinds, a war in which Larkin was to be his long-term ally. The ensuing novels, at their best, all contain elements first tested in Lucky Jim. The brilliant indirect line about the mock-threatening letter ("There seemed no point in not posting it") recurs in Girl, 20 (1971), in which another valuable rug is destroyed—this time to the narrator's displeasure. In that same novel the hero has to run hard for a bus, and discovers that a young woman is making sinister use of pills. He also has to go on a date in surroundings of musical chaos even more raucous than those Dixon endures at "the ball." Roger Micheldene, in One Fat Englishman (1963), is confronted with every type of pretentious academic tomfoolery; and he finds, as Dixon did with Christine, that girls threaten to leave when men start fighting over them. One Fat Englishman, Amis's only novel set in the United States, also begins in the middle of a dialogue. The asexual and ambitious woman is a recurrent theme for which Amis got himself accused of misogyny; but every objective person of either sex will admit to having met the terrifying Margaret in his or her time. Her "anterior bad luck of being sexually unattractive," a misfortune that is given full play in Ending Up (1974), is one of those facts of life from which Amis never spared his male characters either. (Actually, Lucky Jim is notable for the near complete absence of any explicit carnality—a considerable sacrifice for either a comic or a "serious" writer.)

It's not absolutely clear how the novel eventually came to be baptized, after its hideous first two tryout titles. But toward the end (and after he has nearly wrecked himself to catch the crucial bus) Jim does reflect on luck. As happens so often, fortune is coterminous with a lady.

To write things down as luck wasn't the same as writing them off as non-existent or in some way beneath consideration. Christine was nicer and prettier than Margaret, and all the deductions that could be drawn from that fact should be drawn: there was no end to the ways in which nice things are nicer than nasty ones. It had been luck, too, that had freed him from pity's adhesive plaster: if Catchpole had been a different sort of man, he, Dixon, would still be wrapped up as firmly as ever. And now he badly needed another dose of luck. If it came, he might yet prove to be of use to somebody.

The italics are mine. The statement, and the thought, are profoundly moral. Beware what you wish for, unless you have the grace to hope that your luck can be shared. Lucky Jim illustrates a crucial human difference between the little guy and the small man. And Dixon, like his creator, was no clown but a man of feeling after all.