When Lucky Jim was published, Britain was in a tricky situation. The Second World War had been won, but the country was declining as a world power. The empire – or what was left of it – was disintegrating and it was obvious that whatever happened in the escalating Cold War, it would be the United States, not the United Kingdom, that made the important decisions.
change will come
Culturally, England was still years away from the momentous changes of the sixties, but perhaps there was something in the air, an intimation of loosening social customs that would characterise the following decade. Into this society of simultaneous decay and rebirth comes Jim Dixon, a man too young to have fought in the war, but who will be a little too old to enjoy the libertinism of the sexual revolution.
drink away frustration
Dixon has managed to get a job as a lecturer in medieval history at a university; the only problems being that the university is third-rate and Dixon is almost as bored by the subject as his students. He has a girlfriend of sorts, Margaret, but she is eccentric, occasionally suicidal and uninterested in having sex with him. To cope with his frustration and combat his irritation with life, Dixon turns to a very traditional habit: alcohol. His efforts to get enough of it, to pay for it and find congenial surroundings in which to drink it, form the central struggle of his existence. Unfortunately, there are times when he is successful.
“The local pubs, unlike the city pubs […] stayed open till ten-thirty in the summer […] His gratitude had been inexpressible in words; only further calls at the bar could repay the happy debt. As a result he'd spent more than he could afford and drunk more than he ought, and yet he felt nothing but satisfaction and peace.”
“[…] i pub locali, a differenza di quelli cittadini, rimanevano aperti fino alle dieci e trenta durante l’estate […]. La sua gratitudine non si poteva esprimere a parole; soltanto una serie di ulteriori visite al banco potevano saldare quel felice debito. Di conseguenza aveva finito per spendere più di quanto avrebbe potuto permettersi e bevuto più di quanto avrebbe dovuto, e tuttavia non provava altro che soddisfazione e pace”.
a sadistic weekend
One of the most painful collisions between Dixon’s ambitions – both amorous and in his career – and his taste for booze comes at a weekend of musical recitals in the country house of a fellow Professor Welch. If a sadist had wanted to invent a torture specifically designed to extract the maximum amount of boredom and discomfort from Jim Dixon, he could not have done better than a weekend of musical recitals at the country house of the ghastly colleague. But Dixon’s job depends on attending. Yet the plan doesn’t work out. His alcohol intake ensures a weekend of, among other things, acute personal embarrassment. Kingsley Amis had many talents as a novelist, and one of them receives an exemplary outing here: the description of a hangover.
“Dixon was alive again. Consciousness was upon him before he could get out of the way; not for him the slow, gracious wandering from the halls of sleep, but a summary, forcible ejection. He lay sprawled, too wicked to move, spewed up like a broken spider-crab on the tarry shingle of the morning. The light did him harm, but not as much as looking at things did; he resolved, having done it once, never to move his eyeballs again.”
“Dixon era nuovamente vivo. La coscienza lo raggiunse prima che potesse cercare di sfuggirgli. Non gli venne riservata la lenta, dolce dipartita dai palazzi del sonno, ma una sbrigativa, violenta espulsione. Giaceva lungo disteso, troppo vizioso per muoversi, come un granchio rotto vomitato sui ciottoli catramosi del mattino. La luce gli faceva male, ma non tanto quanto gliene procurasse guardare le cose; decise, avendolo fatto una volta, i non muovere più gli occhi”.
a beautiful sight
Dixon has to endure much that is unpleasant during his weekend in the country, nothing more so than making the acquaintance of Professor Welch’s son, Bertrand. Bertrand is an artist of questionable talent, but bottomless self-regard. He does, however, have a girlfriend. Her name is Christine and while she is far too beautiful for Dixon, he feels that he must be better for her than the odious Bertrand. Dixon’s first sight of Christine, at a party, makes quite an impression:
“Her manner to him so far that evening had been not even cold; it had been simply non-existent, had made him feel that, contrary to the evidence of his senses, he wasn’t really there at all. But, worse than this, she was looking her best this evening […] Dixon caught her eye, and although it held nothing for him, he wanted to cast himself down behind the protective wall of skirts and trousers, or, better, pull the collar of his dinner-jacket over his head and run out into the street.”
“Il comportamento da lei tenuto nei suoi confronti, fino a quel momento della serata non si poteva nemmeno definire freddo; era stato semplicemente inesistente. Tanto che, contrariamente a quanto dettato dai sensi, aveva l’impressione di non trovarsi neppure lì. Ma, ancora peggio, lei era al meglio quella sera. […] Dixon incontrò lo sguardo di lei e, sebbene questo non avesse niente in serbo per lui, avrebbe voluto gettarsi a terra dietro il muro di protezione di gonne e pantaloni oppure, meglio, tirare il colletto dello smoking fin sopra la testa e correre in strada”.
a love story
The book continues through many more drink-sodden adventures, to chart the unlikely pursuit of Christine by Dixon. For all the satire on post-war England, the cast of grotesque characters and the rivers of booze, it turns out that Dixon’s story is a love story. What makes Lucky Jim such a great British novel is that through some of the sharpest comedy in the English language, Jim Dixon, of all people, emerges as a romantic hero.