Lucky Jim by Kingsley Amis | Classics corner

Kingsley Amis's acerbic debut is a tour de force – but don't read it on the bus, warns Olivia Laing

Has there even been a writer so choked with bile as Kingsley Amis? None of his novels look particularly kindly upon his fellow man, but Lucky Jim, his first, is driven by a particularly epic disdain for the idiocies, pedantries, mindless rules and unpleasant personal habits with which humanity is cursed. The titular Jim Dixon is an academic of a pretty poor sort, a medievalist who only picked the period because it looked like a soft option. Having clawed his way into a second-rate university he manages to cram the occasional desultory lecture around the more urgent business of persuading pretty girls to take his classes. Despite this non-specific lust, he does have a girlfriend of sorts: the grotesque Margaret, whose "tinkle of tiny silver bells" laugh will freeze the heart of any would-be coquette.

Remarkable for its relentless skewering of artifice and pretension, Lucky Jim also contains some of the finest comic set pieces in the language. One of the more brilliant concerns a weekend at the home of a ghastly senior professor. After an afternoon of enforced madrigals, Jim becomes so horribly drunk that he inadvertently destroys his host's spare room. His attempts to make good the damage while labouring under a painfully accurately described hangover is so wildly funny as to make the book unsuitable for consumption on public transport.

Jim is more appealing than some of Amis's later heroes; his hatreds – expressed viscerally through a vast repertoire of grotesque faces – are infectious, while his increasingly elaborate attempts to dig himself out of trouble rarely have the desired effect. The result is a novel in the grand tradition of English satire, in which irritants large and small – rude waiters, manipulative women, cliches, affectation and the price of beer – conspire to create a comic howl of hatred of ear-splitting volume and force.


Olivia Laing

The GuardianTramp

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