56. Lucky Jim, Kingsley Amis (1954)

I’ve realised, while compiling this list, that mid-20th-century English fiction is probably my favourite thing. I love the Victorians and the Edwardians, but there’s something about that period from the mid 30s to, say, 1960 that will always appeal to me. Partly its to do with the casting-off of restraints, and no novel casts them off as gleefully as Lucky Jim. Say what you like about Kingsley Amis – and by all accounts he was a nightmare – he could write comic prose like nobody else. Lucky Jim was his first novel, and what a debut. It skewers the snobbery and pretensions of middle class Middle England with a kind of affectionate savagery, and it’s particularly good on the tortuous world of Academia, in which it’s set. Jim Dixon’s relationship with his dismal girlfriend Margaret is hilarious, and the comic set-pieces (culminating in Jim’s drunken lecture on ‘Merrie England’) are technical marvels. One thing I really love about this book is that Amis has no silly notions about one class being ‘better’ than another: while his targets here are largely middle-class, he’s got no illusions about their working-class or upper-class neighbours. The romanticisation of the working class is one of the most nauseating phenomena of English cultural life, one from which Amis was mercifully free.

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