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In which Netty has a not-so-lucky encounter with Lucky Jim …

March 29, 2013

ImageI’ve recently embarked on a bit of a physical cull of my abode – an autumn clean, if you will – involving clearing, decluttering and getting rid of the things that I don’t want, don’t need, that take up too much space, etc. It is mostly inspired by a lack of space, but rammed home by a quote I came across recently, from William Morris: “Have nothing in your houses that you do not know to be useful, or believe to be beautiful”.  I’ve personally never been a fan of tossing out books, but with six packed-to-the-brim cases, the time is high nigh.

And a few of these have been titles from previous years’ Reading Challenges – books that I downright despised (Updike’s Rabbit Run, Marquez’s Memories of Melancholy Whores), books that were downright disappointing (Malouf’s Johnno) or just plain and simply ‘meh’ (Litt’s I Play The Drums In A Band Called Okay, Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Down).  And the latest inclusion on the pile? Why, none other than Kingsley Amis’s Lucky Jim.

It doesn’t fall into the despised category – instead it’s stationed somewhere between disappointing and meh. I didn’t go into it with high expectations, a la Malouf, but as a long-time fan of the work of Kingsley’s son Martin, if I’d thought about it at any length beforehand, I certainly would have expected more. To be honest, if I didn’t HAVE to have finished this book, I would have probably tossed it aside around about page 100, never to return – and not particularly caring, either (and while I know plenty of peeps who will happily close a book if it’s not doing it for them, I hardly ever do so myself). I think it also speaks volumes that Lucky Jim was our February book, and here I am posting about it at the end of March (dodgy home PC issues aside). Indeed, it took me a long time to get around to actually finishing it – hell, one day I even cleaned my shower in preference to continuing the plough through its pages, and I HATE cleaning the shower.

So why was it such a chore, and such a slog? Well, mostly because I had zero attachment to any of the characters, or the plot. I felt Amis suffered a bit from the same thing I noticed reading The Black Prince by Iris Murdoch (same country of origin, same demographic, same era) in a Reading Challenge of yesteryear – the book could have benefitted from having great swathes of unnecessary detail cut from its pages. (And I enjoyed The Black Prince; to wit, it is still happily nestled on my bookshelf, where it is perfectly safe in the knowledge that it will remain). Problem is, if you cut great swathes from Lucky Jim’s 265 pages, you’d be left with, well, not much at all …

This is my first foray into Kingsley’s Amis’s output. Lucky Jim was Amis’s third novel, first published in 1954; this very distinguished English man of letters (that’s Sir Kingsley, CBE) went on to author 20-odd novels, a memoir, several volumes of poetry, short stories, TV and radio scripts and literary criticism. He is considered one of the finest English writers ever. But sometimes – like Malouf, Updike and Marquez – it takes just one bad egg to spoil the entire omelet. Will I ever dip into Amis’s oeuvre again? Quite frankly, I can’t see it happening. There might be – I’m sure there are – gems aplenty to be found in it, but at the end of the day, well, life is just too short and there are too many books, and authors, out there, who warrant my attention. That’s just the way the cookie crumbles …

So, what’s it all about, then? Well, I’ll try and describe it without falling into a bored stupor or nodding off mid-sentence. It’s the very early 1950s. We’re in a university in the English midlands. There’s this medieval history lecturer, James (Jim) Dixon, who desperately wants to secure tenure at said uni, even though he can’t stand it, or his department head Professor Welch (there is a mildly amusing passage, during one of the Professor’s monologues, where he imagines stuffing Welch into a toilet bowl in the staff restrooms), some of his colleagues and most of his students. His colleague and sort-of-girlfriend Margaret (whose “green paisley frock” and “quasi-velvet shoes” he despises) is recovering from a suicide attempt after a knock-back from another suitor (this is actually much funnier than it reads here).  His attempts to prepare for his “special” subject for the following academic year (“Merrie England”) – and thus ensure his continuing employment – are thwarted by his own procrastination, not to mention his love for a pint or seven.

After a trip to stay with Professor Welch and his wife, he becomes embroiled in a bizarre threeway-of-sorts with the couple’s pompous would-be painter son Bertrand and his young, blonde, pretty girlfriend Christine (she seems to have no other redeeming features than her looks, if we are to believe the author – who generally doesn’t appear to have a high opinion of women throughout these pages). And then … seriously, if this had been a DVD, I would have fast-forwarded the rest of the way through. In fact, I only made myself finish the book because if I hadn’t, Andy would have hunted me down and dug out my eyeballs with red-hot pokers. Um, that’s a metaphor of sorts, obves …

Speaking of which, if you’ve read my blogging partner-in-crime’s dissection (see below if you haven’t), it may appear to you that we have read two completely different books. In fact, in the sixth year of Reading Challenge I don’t recall a book that we have been this poles apart on. I will stress, again, however, that I didn’t loathe it; I just found it completely and utterly surplus to my literary requirements. As well as taking away a few hours of my life that I will never get back.

Off to the Salvos with you, then, Lucky Jim …

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