Lucky Jim by Kingsley Amis
published 1954 chapters 1 and 2
[Jim Dixon, a young university lecturer, is thinking about his girlfriend, a more senior colleague]
Dixon felt apprehension lunging at his stomach as he thought of seeing Margaret, whom he was to take out that evening for the first time since she’d cracked up…He’d been drawn into the Margaret business by a combination of virtues he hadn’t known he possessed: politeness, friendly interest, ordinary concern, a good-natured willingness to be imposed upon, a desire for unequivocal friendship…
Although he wasn’t allowed to smoke another cigarette until five o’clock, Dixon lit one now… What would she be wearing this evening? He could just about to bring himself to praise anything but the green paisley frock in combination with the low-heeled, quasi-velvet shoes…
[later that day, they meet up] Margaret Peel, small thin and bespectacled with bright make-up, glanced at Dixon with a half-smile. She leaned sideways on her bar-stool… her hands clasped round one knee, the quasi-velvet shoe falling away from her heel… She pulled her cardigan up over the shoulders of the green paisley frock…
While he was securing the barmaid’s attention and getting the drinks, Dixon wondered first how many more rounds of blue-label he might be expected to pay for, and then why Margaret with her full lecturer’s salary so rarely volunteered to stand him a drink.
This is Kingsley Amis’s first book, the other end of his writing life from his previous appearance in Clothes in Books. Lucky Jim is a work of art that is endlessly, eternally funny: a series of hilarious setpieces strung together by a thin plot. Male readers tend to enjoy the descriptions of drinking, drunkenness and hangovers. Female readers recognize only too well the reality of Margaret, a passive-aggressive nightmare. KA was fairly misogynist, but he was also just a very clear-eyed observer of humanity, and his portrait of Margaret is squirm-inducingly convincing. She was based on Monica Jones (full name Margaret Monica Beale Jones), the long-term lover of KA’s great friend, the poet Philip Larkin. Margaret Beale was the original name of the KA character. What Ms Jones, or indeed Larkin, made of all this is not known. The book is dedicated to Philip Larkin, for goodness sake.
Among the joys: the madrigal singing incident, Jim Dixon’s faces ( ‘he made his imbecile peasant face’ ‘his shot-in-the-back face’), his song about his boss – ‘You ignorant clod, you stupid old sod, you havering slavering get…’ – and the fire in the guest bedroom: ‘I didn’t light it purposely, I lit it with a cigarette. It caught fire on its own.’
Blue label is a kind of beer. In 1954 Dixon would have been rationing his cigarettes solely on financial – not health – grounds.
The picture is from the Library of Congress and is featured on Flickr.