Posted by: Keir Graff
Between naps (mine) and diapers (his), I read Kingsley Amis’s Lucky Jim (1953)-obviously not to review it. When I really want to relax, character, setting, and plot come in second, third, and fourth to a more important consideration: language. I especially love the language of mid- and early-twentieth-century British writers and the dry, wry humor they often have.
An avocational mixologist, my love of spirits and sprightly prose led me long ago to Amis’s drinks books (On Drink, 1972; Every Day Drinking, 1983; etc.), though I’d never read his novels. (I’ve read his son’s, but that’s a different cocktail.) Now I don’t want to read another one in case I’m disappointed. His comedy is as dry and potent as a 7-to-1 martini, and that’s two too many booze metaphors.
But though this sendup of provincial university life in post-World War II England makes some points that are very specific to its time, the story itself is timeless because of Jim Dixon-”Lucky Jim.” He’s grasping desperately for a position (lecturer) that he doesn’t really want, in a subject (medieval history) he doesn’t really care about. His fate is in the hands of the hilariously unfit Professor Welch, a man who makes David Brent look like an enlightened boss. The closest Dixon comes to self-defense, aside from prank calls and letters, is his habit of making grotesque faces when no one is looking-usually. He’s utterly unique and yet utterly recognizeable.
You could put Jim anywhere, but he does seem to fit better in academia. Why is that? It strikes me that there is a small but worthy genre in academic satire. (On my desk I have an unread copy of Bill James’s Making Stuff Up (2006)-and didn’t Robertson Davies work in this vein?) But what is the audience for these books? Insiders, mostly, because the nuances of battles for tenure are probably lost on those who chose not to climb the ivied walls. But if so, what’s their purpose-are they sanctioned roasts whose purpose is to prove that the ivory tower has a sense of humor? Or are they created by and for those who have legitimate gripes at the absurdities of academia? Or is it just professors writing what they know?
I don’t know how many people are reading this blog yet, but if anyone has any favorite academic satires-or theories on the above-please let me know.