This is going to be a tough review for me because what apparently makes the book notable – its portrayal of rapidly-evolving British social conventions regarding class and academia in the 1950s – requires background knowledge that I, as an n-th generation American female, definitely don’t possess. Anthony Burgess has said that the main character, Dixon, a provincial lad who finds himself teaching at a stuffy, bourgeois university, “makes little dents in the smug fabric of hypocritical, humbugging, class-bound British society,” and “Amis [has]caught the mood of post-war restiveness in a book which, though socially significant [is] still extremely funny.” I’m going to have to take his word for it, because my impressions of the tale were somewhat otherwise.
First, there’s the fact that what constitutes “funny” in this book doesn't align well with what most folks would find funny now. Dixon’s sense of humor is infantile: when displeased, he makes childish faces at people behind their backs or plagues them with stupid/cruel practical jokes (defacing photos with mustaches; placing prank calls). I’ve seen enough Monte Python to accept that it's possible that British readers would find this content funny, but Dixon’s boorish antics mostly left me unsympathetic and annoyed.
Then there’s Amis’s portrayal of “hypocritical, humbugging, classbound British society,” which I didn’t quite see either. Yes, Amis’s bete noir, a college professor named Welch, is old and doddering, a little too fond of recorder music and madrigals and the ideal of “merrie England” – a construct that exists more in imagination rather than fact (as the final scene of this novel successfully mocks), but at least he cares about his college and has manners. Dixon, on the other hand, cares little about scholarship (“Good God, you don’t think I care about any of this stuff?” he confesses at one point) and less about his students (the only criteria for his summer session topic is whether it will appeal to most attractive women at the university). I had a hard time not siding with Welch in this dispute. There is another subplot pitting Dixon against Welch’s son Bertrand, a pretentious snob who is genuinely easy to hate. The problem is that he’s a little TOO easy to hate, and so comes off more as a villain than as an honest representation of British bourgeois society, thus lessoning the impact of Amis’s satire in this direction.
Overall, I found the subplot involving Dixon’s love life to be more thought-provoking; though, again, I think it may be necessary to possess a British sensibility to understand it fully. By modern standards, it’s hard to understand why Dixon remains loyal to neurotic, needy fellow-academic Margaret rather than pursuing the woman of his dreams, Christine. (I’m going to omit mentioning my distaste, as a female, for the condescending way that basically all the female characters in this book are depicted, as I’m attributing this to the general backwardness of the era rather than a particular flaw of the author’s.) But the relationship makes more sense in the context of British morality, especially British morality during the war years, when “duty” was drilled into young men along with their letters. Though the introduction to the volume I read, penned by David Lodge, attributes Dixon’s loyalty to pity, I would argue that it’s Dixon’s sense of duty/obligation that prevents him from straying. (To paraphrase an exchange from a recent television show: “What was the name of that Gilbert & Sulliven operetta about duty?” Answer: “They’re all about duty.”)
Jim does finally does hit a lucky streak in the final pages of the book, winning (SPOILER) both the job and the girl of his dreams. After 100s of pages of enduring his whining, peevish, petty, drunken antics, can't say I was convinced he deserved to live happily ever after. But there’s no denying that “nasty things are nastier than nice things,” as Dixon notes. And there’s no denying that Kingsley Amis’s narrative style is distinctive and a fascinating time capsule through which to view mid-century British sensibilities.