Thursday, June 1

Lucky Jim excerpt

In Kingsley Amis' LUCKY JIM, Jim Dixon is a young history professor at a small British university. Though he would be the first to admit that he's terrible at his job and is willing to quit at any moment, he all the same doesn't want to get fired, either. Therefore, he has to stay on the good side of the history department dean, Professor Welch. In this excerpt, Dixon is stopped while leaving campus by a student interested in a seminar Dixon is giving upon Welch's recommendation.

'Excuse me, Mr Dixon; have you got a minute to spare?'

First making his shot-in-the-back face, Dixon stopped and turned. He was leaving College after a lecture, and so had been hurrying. 'Yes, Mr Michie?'

Michie was a moustached ex-service student who'd commanded a tank troop at Anzio while Dixon was an R.A.F. corporal in western Scotland. He now confronted Dixon near the porter's lodge. As always, his manner seemed to be concealing something, though Dixon could never be sure what. He waited for a moment and said: 'Have you got that syllabus together yet, sir?' He was the only student Dixon had ever heard calling a member of the staff 'sir', and apparently reserved the title exclusively for Dixon.

'Oh yes, that syllabus,' Dixon said, playing for time. He hadn't got it together yet.

Michie pretended to think his question needed amplifying. 'You know, sir, the list of stuff for your special subject next year. You said you were going to distribute copies to the Honours people, if you remember.'

"Yes, oddly enough I can remember having said that,' Dixon said, then pulled himself together; he mustn't antagonize Michie. 'I've got the stuff ready in my digs, but I've not given it to the typist yet. I'll try to have it ready for you early next week, if that's all right.'

'That'll do beautifully, sir,' Michie said fulsomely, his moustache writhing a little as he smiled. He began moving away down the drive, keeping his eyes on Dixon, trying, it seemed, to engineer a joint departure from College. A briefcase, swollen with the week-end's reading, swayed in his loose grip. 'If I could come along to your room some time and pick them up?'

Dixon stopped trying to stand his ground, and allowed Michie to draw him away towards the road. 'If you would,' he said. Fury flared up in his mind like forgotten toast under a grill. The getting together of the syllabus had been, of course,
Welch's idea; on receipt of it, the candidates for Honours in History were to 'see whether they were interested' in studying this new special subject, in preference to the old special subjects taught by the other members of the Department and examined in one of the eight papers required for B.A. Clearly, the more students, within reason, Dixon could get 'interested' in his subject, the better for him; equally clearly, too large a number of ' interested' students would mean that the number studying Welch's own special subject would fall to a degree that Welch might be expected to resent. With an Honours class of nineteen and a Department of six, three students seemed a safe number to try for. So far, Dixon's efforts on behalf of his special subject, apart from thinking how much he hated it, had been confined to aiming to secure for it the three prettiest girls in the class, one of whom was Michie's girl, while excluding from it Michie himself. Added to Dixon's dislike of thinking about work at all, the necessity of keeping Michie at arm's length went far to explain his present discomfort.

'What are your main ideas so far, sir, if you don't mind my asking?' Michie asked as they turned downhill into College Road.

Dixon did mind, but said only: 'Well, I think the main emphasis of the thing will be social, you know.' He was trying to stop himself from thinking direcdy about the official title of his subject, which was 'Medieval Life and Culture'. 'I thought I might start with a discussion of the university, for instance, in its social role.' He comforted himself for having said this by the thought that at least he knew it didn't mean anything.

'You don't propose to offer an analysis of scholasticism, then, I take it?'

This question illustrated exactly why Dixon felt he had to keep Michie out of his subject. Michie knew a lot, or seemed to, which was as bad. One of the things he knew, or seemed to, was what scholasticism was. Dixon read, heard, and even used the word a dozen times a day without knowing, though he seemed to. But he saw clearly that he wouldn't be able to go on seeming to know the meaning of this and a hundred such words while Michie was there questioning, discussing, and arguing about them. Michie was, or seemed, able to make a fool of him again and again without warning. Though it would have been easy enough to pick some technical quarrel with him, over an undelivered essay for example, Dixon was reluctant to do so because he felt superstitiously that Michie was capable of insisting on studying Medieval Life and Culture out of sheer spite and desire to do him down. Michie, then, must be kept out, but with smiles and regrets instead of the blows and kicks which were his due. This was why Dixon now said: 'Oh no, I'm afraid there won't be much meat in it from that point of view. I'm not qualified to pronounce on the learned Scotus or Aquinas, I'm afraid.' Or should it have been Augustine?

'It might be rather fascinating to study the effect on men's lives of the various popular debasements and vulgarizations of the schoolmen's doctrines.'

'Oh, agreed, agreed,' Dixon said, his lips beginning to shake, 'but that's a subject for a D.Phil thesis, wouldn't you say, rather than a fairly elementary course of lectures?'

Michie gave at some length, but luckily without asking any questions, his views of the case for and against such an opinion. After Dixon had voiced his regret that so interesting a discussion must be broken off, they parted at the foot of College Road, Michie to his Hall of Residence, Dixon to his digs.