Kingsley Amis’s Lucky Jim is one of my favorite academic satires. In academia, people seem to have lost their sense of humor these days, either from job insecurity or psychological insecurity, and perhaps Amis is not in fashion. The critic Patricia C. Spacks lambasted Lucky Jim as unfunny when she reread it for her book, On Rereading. Well, she is a professor emerita, and perhaps didn’t care for the caricatures.
Not being an academic, I have no problem with the ridicule of university life (which I loved, but still, it is funny). I always identify with a good anti-hero, and find the bumbling Jim Dixon endearing and goofy: I think of him as the adult counterpart of Holden Caulfield, only with much more common sense.
Jim teaches medieval history at a provincial university and despises academic scholarship, especially the article he is trying to write, “The economic influence of the developments in shipbuilding techniques, 1450 to 1485.” And so he alienates a lot of people (accidentally). But this all turns out much better than you would think!
I somehow didn’t get around to Amis’s other books until recently, except for the Booker Prize-winning novel, The Old Devils, which is a dark comedy about a group of old (and I mean very old) friends who are retired in Wales. But last week I decided to catch up with some of the Amis books on my shelf. Ending up is by far (so far) the most impressive. But let me interject that I did not understand where this was going for the first fifty pages or so.
I thought this was a charming Barbara Pym-ish comedy about a group of old people who decide to share a cheap house in the country. How practical, I thought, and how sweet. And it is true that there a sweetness about the conscientious, unlovable Adela, who spends much of her time running errands for housemates and organizing occasions like Christmas.
The other characters are decidedly less sweet. Her raging brother Bernard is a former drunk who has liver problems and a penchant for vicious practical jokes His former boyfriend, Shorty, with whom he hasn’t had sex in 30 or 40 years, is more or less a servant, and resents Adela and their self-absorbed housemate, Marigold, who spends most of her time writing letters. The most neglected is their bedridden friend George, a former history professor who had a stroke and nowhere else to go. With the exception of Marigold, who has children and grandchildren, the inhabitants of Tuppeny-hapenny Cottage are on their own.
Whether or not you like this kind of dark comedy, Amis is a superb writer. Every sentence is gorgeous, graceful, and buoyant to the point of bounciness. He really delves the depths of these not on-the-surface very complicated people. In the following passage that describes the very ordinary but heartbreaking life of Adela, who has never had a friend.
Her career in hospital catering, taken up after she had been told, without further explanation, that she was not the right type to become a nurse, had brought her into contact with thousands of people until her retirement in 1961. None of them had become her friend, in the sense that none had agreed to go to a theatre or a coffee-shop or a sale with her more than a couple of times, and so she had lived alone throughout her working life. Now, after Bernard had made his astonishing offer, that she could housekeep for him and Shorty, she was among people and, with all the difficulties this seemed inevitably to bring, happier than at any time since her childhood. Her only fear was of falling helplessly ill and having nobody to leave in charge…
Very sad… and but for the grace of God… This grim comedy is a masterpiece, with a shocking and sudden ending.