Friday, February 14, 2014

All hung over with Kingsley Amis

Lucky Jim has been recommended to me several times, usually by people who couldn't believe I hadn't already read it. It is well-known as a scorching comic novel of academic life at a provincial university in post-war England. I read the New York Review Books edition in their classics series, which all serious readers should check out. They offer some really interesting, and slightly off-the-beaten track titles, many of which had gone out of print. They also include good introductions by contemporary writers and cool cover art.

I have to admit, it took me awhile to get in the spirit of the novel and start appreciating the humor. It is unremittingly mean-spirited. Once I got over trying to like Jim or anyone else, it was better. Jim is a composite, according to Keith Gessen's introduction, of Amis and his pal Philip Larkin, the poet. (I'm pretty sure I would not want to share a pint with either). Jim is a junior lecturer in Medieval History, a subject he finds short of inspirational:
Those who professed themselves unable to believe in the reality of human progress ought to cheer themselves a short study of the Middle Ages. The hydrogen bomb, the South African government, Chiang Kai-shek, Senator McCarthy himself, would then seem a light price to pay for no longer being in the Middle Ages. Had people ever been as nasty, as self-indulgent, as dull, as miserable, as cocksure, as bad at art, as dismally ludicrous, or as wrong as they'd been in the Middle Age...? (p. 87) 
That quote alone makes the novel worth reading, and there are numerous smaller gems such as one character's face looking "more than ever like Genghis Khan meditating a purge of his captains." And, of course, one of the most deservedly famous descriptions of a hangover in literature:
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. A dusty thudding in his head made the scene before him beat like a pulse. His mouth has been used as a latrine by some small creature of the night, and then as its mausoleum. During the night, too, he’d somehow been on a cross-country run and then been expertly beaten up by a secret police. He felt bad. (p. 60)