Friday, 18 July 2008

Classic Flop?

Openly expressing dislike of what has become something of a classic of ‘British humour’ is possibly a dangerous thing – But … it is quite beyond me why the Cambridge ESOL Examinations Board should have set Kingsley Amis’s ‘Lucky Jim’ as a text for their CAE examinations, and equally beyond me why anyone should say it is funny.

I first read the thing back in the summer 1975 (I can be sure of the date because it was part of my University set reading – I was going ‘up’ to Leicester to study for a B.Sc. and some ‘wit’ had included this on the list of ‘books to study before coming’ as it was supposed to have sketches of people still teaching at the university in it – if it did, I never met them).

I didn’t find it very funny then, and I find it even less so now.

It is in the genre of ‘campus novels’ – a particularly tacky genre – and is claimed to have been ‘seminal’ – for which I shall never forgive it.

For those who don’t know, campus novels are about College and University campuses; are written by people whose whole lives have been blighted by the college experience and consequently feel it incumbent upon themselves to inflict a similar blight on the rest of their and future generations; they usually attempt to be ‘hilarious’ – and fail.

Campus Novels are loved by academics (a sort of S & M experience, I would suggest) and book critics (who tend to be failed academics - and consequently promote them as some sort of revenge taking experience). They pop up far too often on suggested reading lists and the like.

‘Lucky Jim’ supposedly changed the whole post-war generation … with little evidence to support this, I am firmly ‘in denial’.

Jim Dixon is the sort of lout who, because he had nothing better to do and is too lazy to do anything anyway, enters the University lecturing profession dishonestly – claiming interest and expertise where he has none. The book follows this thug’s adventures through a ‘red-brick’ university where he causes drunken destruction and chaos wherever he goes. He exhibits the sort of socialist rhetoric you’d expect and lands a job at the end with a millionaire.

What is clear to me (although not so clear to many at the time of publication, or since) is that Mr Amis does not like Jim – he is an ‘oink’ of the wrong class and only becomes respectable at the end as he moves into the pale blue conservative world. His luck is in escaping the not-really-university ‘red-brick’ institution, whose academic standards and personnel are only a joke.

The so called humour is in fact barely disguised contempt for the genuine changes brought on by a World War that shattered the privilege of education and class (although not so effectively). Educating this sort of person is obviously a dumbing-down in the eyes of Mr Amis.

The excellent introduction to the Penguin Edition, by David Lodge, also points out the attack being made on Graham Greene – especially on ‘The Heart of the Matter’.

There are obvious connections and references – from suicide to doing ‘the right thing’.

All I can say is I re-read, ‘The Heart of the Matter’ recently and was impressed: I re-read this slight book and found it severely wanting.

Fortunately Mr Amis went on to write better things – unfortunately, his politics went even further in the wrong direction.

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