All you need to know about the books you meant to read: Lucky Jim (1954) by Kingsley Amis

Plot: Jim Dixon lectures in history incompetently at a provincial university. He needs to secure tenure by placating Professor Welch, an arts and crafts fan. Dixon's loose entanglement with his grimly insistent colleague Margaret is tightened by her recent suicide attempt. The Welches invite Dixon for a weekend of recorder blowing and cod-medievalism. Dixon crosses Bertrand, Welch's son. Bertrand's companion, Christine, proves a compulsive attraction. Bertrand uses Christine to promote himself with her rich uncle Gore-Urqhart. Now mutually attracted, Dixon and Christine are enmeshed with pseudo-responsibilities for others. Dixon's public lecture on "Merrie England" forms the climax of the book. In front of an audience seething with dignitaries, he rubbishes Welch, the Principal and the tawdry ideal of "Merrie England". Gore-Urqhart offers Dixon a well paid job. Dixon discovers Margaret's attempted suicide was fraudulent. Christine realises Bertrand is a liar and opts for Jim. Dixon mutates into Lucky Jim.

Theme: The individual's search for "mental and emotional integrity". Amis won't accept that morality means pity and self-sacrifice. The world is godless and unfair.

Style: The prose aims for the truth rather than beauty. The deliberately clumsy hesitations and back-tracking suggest the effort required to be honest.

Chief Strengths: Dodges Victorian solemnity and harks back to the serious farces of Fielding and Smollett. Amis's prescient vision of England and its cultural pretension retains its sharpness. The best hangover in literature: "His mouth had been used as a latrine by some small creature of the night and then as its mausoleum."

Chief Weakness: Amis needs a "dead" central character to propel the story. Christine is too nice, too beautiful, too innocent to be true.

What they thought of it then: Eventually a bestseller, chucking Amis into the role of Angry Young Man.

What we think of it now: Amis's death harvested a dearth of intelligent comment. Patronised as a purveyor of right-wing absurdities, Amis's high seriousness was ignored. He is certain to emerge as the leading post-war British novelist.

Responsible for: The creation of the campus novel, as opposed to the Brideshead version of university life with its punting and plovers' eggs.

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