Oh, lucky Jim, how I envy him

This Sunday I had a little essay published in the Philadelphia Inquirer on Kingsley Amis, one of my favorite authors, and the recent American re-release of two of his best novels. His son, Martin Amis, is much better known in the states, although I don’t like his work nearly as much. (To be fair, I haven’t read Money or London Fields, which are supposed to be his best.)

The New York Review of Books Classics imprint is responsible for Amis’ re-introduction to America. They will be releasing eight more of his books in the coming years including, next spring, The Alteration (an alternative history novel, like Man in the High Castle without all the mystical mumbojumbo) and The Green Man, a drunkard’s ghost story, which is a personal favorite of mine. Later offerings will include One Fat Englishman, Girl, 20, Ending Up, another novel TK, a collection of poetry, and his complete short stories. Amis didn’t favor the latter medium, and he wrote about as many short stories as he did novels. But I picked up a collection when I was in London and they are superb, particularly his depictions of WWII-era army life after the fighting, but right before Labour’s sweeping victory in the 1945 elections. (Which led to single-payer health care along with a bunch of other good stuff.)

An excerpt from the Inquirer essay is below, but click the link for the whole thing.

Literary dynasties are rare, and the only parent-sibling pairing I can name, that of Kingsley Amis and his son Martin, is underappreciated in the United States. If pressed, most Americans would readily admit that Martin Amis likely had a father, although few would venture much beyond that.

Of course, Martin has an advantage in that he is still alive and indeed has just published a new novel, Lionel Asbo: State of England. But his father has, at least on this side of the Atlantic, sunk into obscurity. All of Kingsley Amis’ novels, poems, essays, and short stories are out of print in America, and (in my experience) his works aren’t readily available even in university-adjacent used bookstores.

Which is a real shame: The elder Amis’ novels are hilariously quotable, compulsively readable, and never dull. They are all admirably svelte, an underappreciated quality in the era of the mammoth best seller. (Ahem, Jonathan Franzen.) Thankfully, the New York Review of Books Classics has just republished (on Oct. 2) two of Amis’ best novels, Lucky Jim, his first, and The Old Devils, one of his last and winner of the Man Booker Prize.

Both are well worth reading, although Lucky Jim (his most famous work) is the place to begin. It is the story of Jim Dixon, a put-upon professor, on a two-year contract, at a provisional university in postwar Britain. He is faced with pompous and dull superiors, entitled trust fund artists, and remorseless competitors jockeying for his job.

The setting is 1940s (or early ’50s) austerity Britain, where rationing is still in effect and pocket money is scarce. Dixon lives in a group house, does not drive, owns only three pairs of pants, and strictly rations his cigarette intake for the health of his wallet, not his lungs. The experience of professional penury was familiar to Amis, himself an ill-paid lecturer at a provincial university. When he started writing Lucky Jim, baby Martin slept in a drawer.

Dixon’s forcibly thrifty lifestyle will probably be distressingly familiar to many of his contemporary counterparts in the creative professions – academia, law, publishing, or, say, journalism – who graduated into the worst recession since the 1930s. There are many adjunct professors and grad students today who can relate to this dreary task: “Before [working on a lecture] he must review his financial position, see if he could somehow restore it from complete impossibility to its usual level of merely imminent disaster.”

Lucky Jim is a hugely enjoyable novel of life’s beginnings: Finding love, work, and enough to drink. Perhaps its most notorious passage is one describing Dixon’s state after a night of excessive revelry. (“His mouth had been used as a latrine by some small creature of the night, and then as its mausoleum.”) It is, without a doubt, the funniest description of a hangover in English literature.

The Old Devils, a novel about life’s end, is just as excellent, and technically stronger. Although set in the economically depressed Wales of the 1980s (the region was basically the British equivalent of the rust belt), the characters in The Old Devils are insulated from all that. They’ve made it financially, like Amis himself when he wrote the book.

While poor Dixon’s drink choices are limited – “Come on, Jim: beer or beer?” – the old devils drink in a bar “which thoughtfully offered seventeen different kinds of Scotch whisky.” (Drinking is a perennial theme of Amis’ work: It was not for nothing that Martin referred to his father as “the laureate of the hangover.”)

The old devils are about my parents’ age, although they, and Amis himself, are really of my grandparent’s generation. One of the novel’s great themes is the relations between married couples of that era and the stultifying norms that have sapped many of their companionships of any warmth they once had. The female characters in Lucky Jim are often undeveloped, and there is plenty of casual pre-second wave feminism sexism to be found, but, in The Old Devils, the women are fully fleshed out human beings. (Although their menfolk are fun and interesting, too, and just as given to rote sexism as, well, many men of their generation, including Amis himself.) But the women are given an equal, and better articulated say.

Amis shows Rhiannon, the main female character, dealing with every kind of exasperating and offensive male behavior, from starry-eyed idealization (which ignores who she actually is) to habitual infidelity. She is one of the more interesting characters in all of Amis’ work, and much better emotionally realized than any of the characters in, say, Lucky Jim.

NYRB Classics will be republishing six more of Amis’ novels, and collections of poems and short stories, in the coming years. All of them will be worth reading, but these two are the best and an excellent way to get introduced to the elder half of the Amis dynasty.

This entry was posted in book reviews, British Literature and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s