lucky jim“‘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.”

Siiiigh. If I will keep insisting on reading the “classics”, I’m sure I will keep disappointing myself. It’s also a stark reminder of how difficult it is to find books that are genuinely funny, as those that claim loudly that they are, invariably are not. Lucky Jim, for example, is always billed as one of the funniest books – if not the funniest book – of the last century, so with a hopeful expression, I burrowed in and once again, as with The Metamorphosis, found myself at the mercy of a friend with more knowledge, in this case Iryce, a lecturer in literature at the University of Illinois.

So this is the story of Jim Dixon, a history lecturer at an unimpressive university somewhere in the Midlands. He has come from a lower-class background and is now struggling to keep up with the upper classes who dominate this place. He is irritated by everyone, from Professor Welch, the man he has to impress to keep his job to Welch’s artist son Bertram, and the men he shares his digs with. He also has to deal with a sexless relationship with Margaret, his girlfriend who doesn’t let him sleep with her, but he stays with anyway because he feels guilty about leaving her as she is recovering from a failed suicide attempt.

Now burdened with the task of writing a lecture on Merrie England by Welch, a topic he has little interest in, Dixon feels worse than ever, and these feelings are compounded further by a disastrous party at the Welches house in which he sneaks off to the pub to get drunk, then somehow burns holes in the bedsheets that night, and he also meets Bertram’s beautiful girlfriend Christine, a girl that Dixon knows is far out of his league. Struggling to keep his composure, Dixon must keep his nose clean, get his lecture finished, and make sure that he can keep his job.

Iryce, however, informs me that this is a story about the class war, and she should know as she’s taught the book a lot. She said, “He’s oppressed by the burgeoning bourgeois upper middle class trying to mirror the heydey of the pre-War Tories [who] are not going to give him any autonomy if they don’t have to.” True, parts of this are displayed obviously, such as the fact that the bedroom Dixon is given at Professor Welch’s house is only accessible through a bathroom. He’s almost viewed as no better than a servant.

Generally I found Dixon rather a pathetic protagonist, somewhat like the hero of a bad sitcom from the 60s or 70s, for whom nothing ever goes right. When that happens to Basil Fawlty, I laugh, but here, I couldn’t bring myself to care enough. Dixon doesn’t deserve the things that happen to him, not really, but he allows himself to be a doormat. It’s refreshing when he does later start to challenge everybody and starts standing up for himself, eventually doing battle with Bertram for the sake of Christine, discovering the truth about Margaret from an ex-partner of hers, and dismissing the Welch family themselves, who he finds ridiculous. I expected it to have a tragic ending, with Dixon no closer to happiness than he was at the start, but it was pleasing to find that the “lucky” of the title rings true, at least. This is a story where the geek gets the girl.

Dixon’s rally against the upper classes wins through, and some of their pomp is punctured by this silly northern man who has tired of playing their games. Whether it will stick or not, we don’t know, but it takes so long for him to finally fight back that I’d lost a lot of interest.

My biggest issue though remains that it somehow isn’t funny. I can see where it should be funny, and Amis has a great way with words, but at no point did I laugh to any real degree. It’s outdated, I think, and while the class war rages on still, it’s been done so much better in other mediums; see Fawlty Towers, The Good Life and Keeping Up Appearances for perhaps the three ultimate tales of class battles.

So, well done Jim, you got the happy ending, but I was fundamentally underwhelmed by your story. Shame, really.