(Masterpieces of British Fiction)

Jim Dixon is the hero of LUCKY JIM, Kingsley Amis’ first and more widely praised novel. Lewis is in danger of being trapped by the wrong woman, the wrong town, and the wrong job; since he is not committed to any of them, there are no moral obstacles to his discarding them when vastly superior substitutes appear; his only problem is to convince himself that their superiority is sufficient reason for him not only to prefer them but also to follow up his preferences.

For John Lewis, the hero of THAT UNCERTAIN FEELING, matters are more difficult. Lewis has an ill-paying job, a wife, two children, a depressing apartment, and the desire, although not the means, to change matters. When the means present themselves, they merely make for more trouble because, as he recognizes at the end of the novel, he will always be torn between wanting to be moral and wanting to do things that are immoral; this is the only thing of which he can be certain. It is as natural for him to want to be faithful to his wife as it is for him to prefer a woman whom nature and circumstances have treated with more kindness. These problems admit to no easy resolution; unlike Jim Dixon’s predicament, in LUCKY JIM, no new job or new woman can solve the basic problem, although both are available.

This, therefore is both a serious and a funny book; it is also an honest book, because it slights neither the humor of the situation into which Lewis pilots himself nor the toughness of his moral dilemma. It has been argued that there is too much of a clash between the almost slapstick comedy that Amis creates so brilliantly and the decidedly not funny dilemma faced by his hero. This view, however, is to forget that the classic function of comedy is to enlighten. Amis uses his comic techniques to unmask, to discover what the truth is; that some of the truths discovered are less than pleasant neither obviates nor invalidates the comedy by which they are uncovered.

Lewis works in the library of a small Welsh city, Aberdarcy; he earns just enough money to keep his wife, Jean, and their two small children in an uncomfortable attic apartment. The sublibrarianship—a job that pays fairly well—is open, and he, along with Ieuan Jenkins of the library and two outsiders, is in the running for the job. His chances are greatly improved when he meets Elizabeth Gruffydd-Williams, whose husband is very rich and very influential, a member of the Town Council and of the Libraries Committee. Most of the novel is concerned with Lewis’ entry, aided by Elizabeth’s help, into the world of the quasi-aristocracy of Aberdarcy and with the effect this has on his life.

He first meets Elizabeth when she comes to the library looking for a book on ancient Welsh costumes; she is in charge of costume design for the local theater group’s presentation of Gareth Probert’s nonsensical verse drama, THE MARTYR. Mrs. Gruffydd-Williams’ social status, her interest in costumes, Probert’s ostentatiously Dylanesque play, and the use of the Welsh mother tongue are all of a piece. Disguises—literal costumes as well as the figurative disguises of speech, manner, and affectation, and the more devious and deeply seated disguises of personality—crop up continually in the novel. The Welsh revival, exemplified and defined as acting by Probert and his play, and the Anglicized Welsh aristocracy, Elizabeth and her crowd, are both treated in terms of disguise, as masking of true intention. Lewis himself is often acting—trying, for example, to imitate film stars—and he is a very bad actor. Other actors include Ken Davies, son of Lewis’ unpleasant downstairs neighbor and his Americanized friends, and Mrs. Jenkins, whose migraine headaches are a psychological act.

Indeed, everyone in the novel is in disguise. Amis suggests, by adumbrating...

(The entire section is 1564 words.)