December 2013 Reading Recap

My progress through Herman Hesse’s novel Narcissus and Goldmund has slowed, so I thought to write this post up a bit early. Sometime in January I also plan to revisit my top novels post I did once before.

  • Lucky Jim, Kingsley Amis – Reviewed here, Lucky Jim is a comedy of errors. On some level, James Dixon is alienated from teaching at the university because he is surrounded by insane people, but on another he is a college instructor who is wholly unsuited for the position. I had a particularly strong negative reaction to this novel, which is reflected in the review, but the more I reflect on it the funnier the story is and it is likely to appear on my updated list of top novels–even if I still have misgivings about the moral presented about people in academia and what contingent faculty should do with themselves.
  • The Secret History of the Lord of Musashi, Junichiro Tanizaki – reviewed here, Tanizaki “explains” on the basis of several fictional sources the rumored, but unknown, sexual desires that drove the eponymous Lord of Musashi to become a successful warlord. I enjoyed the book, although I did note that it seemed to be a solid addition to a secret history genre, rather than a great novel in its own right.
  • Scoop, Evelyn Waugh, a novel satirizing news media, public consumption of news, journalism, and foreign correspondents. John Boot, an author, pulls some strings to get a job as a correspondent in Ishmaelia, an African country on the brink of civil war, so that he can escape a persistent women. But the newspaper hires the wrong Boot, William, a homebody whose writing consists of stories about country fauna. William does take the job and goes to Ishmaelia, where he is a fish out of water. Waugh has some wicked insights about what news is and the absurdities of journalism.
  • The Stranger, Albert Camus – Mersault works hard, he is seeing a woman from work who he might marry, and he gets to go swimming. His mother has just died, but other than that his life could be described as good. Mersault might not say so, though. Life is. His pattern of life changes drastically when he shoots an unknown Arab man on the beach.
  • The Garden of Eden, Ernest Hemingway – One of Hemingway’s incomplete posthumous novels that was heavily pruned from the manuscript form (something like 2/3 of manuscript was cut to create the story in its published form). David Bourne and his wife Catherine are on their honeymoon along the Mediterranean coast of France. The couple is in love and, in typical Hemingway fashion, most of their time is spent eat, drinking, and swimming, sleeping, and having sex. The erotic games really begin when Catherine begins to alter her appearance to more resemble her husband and take control of their relationship and then when she brings a new woman into her marriage. There is an emptiness to this story that is more pronounced than usual, probably because the story was incomplete and because it was so thoroughly trimmed. There are still some things to recommend The Garden of Eden–Catherine is a fuller, more powerful female character than most Hemingway created, he creates a powerful sense of place for a beautiful setting, and the story that remains has some rich irony given the background of manuscript.

As noted above, I will finish Narcissus and Goldmund in the next few days, and after that I don’t know what I will read. As of this writing, tomorrow is a new year and the possibilities are endless.

Lucky Jim, Kingsley Amis

James Dixon is an English World War Two veteran and a young contingent faculty member at a small university in the UK midlands. He specialized in medieval history not because he felt a particular vocation, but because it was easy and spends most of his time trying to avoid teaching unless the class is composed of attractive women. Jim’s career is in limbo, with an article out for review being delayed and he is unable to get a direct answer from the head of his department as to his status for the upcoming year. His love life is no better, as he takes care of and feels beholden to his colleague, Margaret, who has recently had an issue with anxiety and had to be institutionalized. In short, Jim is in a state of limbo. The story proceeds from here, picking up steam when Jim meets Christine, a young woman who piques his interest and the girlfriend of Bertrand, the son of the head of Jim’s department.

Jim pisses off just about everyone around him, often by trying to white-wash his mistakes. In return, Jim is annoyed by everyone around him, people who he finds annoying, superficial, narcissistic, etc. Only Christine is exempted.

More than in any book I have read, I simultaneously sympathized with and was utterly repulsed by the main character, Jim and so went my opinion of the book.

First, the good. Jim seems like a generally decent person and he usually tries to do the right thing despite his uncertain position. In my current position as a graduate student I certainly sympathize with his financial and academic stresses. Additionally, while Amis tends to telegraph the catastrophes Jim walks into, his plans go awry in funny ways that escalate to a grand climactic implosion.

Then, the bad. When I decided to read Lucky Jim, I was led to believe that the protagonist was just a man whose efforts to do good failed in increasingly spectacular ways. The general plot is recognizable in that construction, but I found Jim much less benign than the blurb implied. For one thing, as a student who feels some measure of vocation both for my chosen topic, I was annoyed with Jim’s decision to specialize in a topic because it was easy. Likewise, I was irritated with his primary teaching interest to be to avoid eager male students and to collect attractive female ones. This general apathy about his profession and superficial interests also manifested itself in Jim’s interest in Catherine. He doesn’t pursue her primarily because she interests him as a person, as he seems to want the reader to believe, but mostly because she is prettier than Margaret, with a dash of spite towards Bertrand.

To my mind, Jim is a generic, generally cowardly schmuck. His saving grace is that everyone around him is significantly worse than he is. There are duplicitous women, elitist professors, arrogant artists, womanizers–Jim is not a particularly good person, but he is justified that he is better than they are. It is easy to demonstrate examples in the story of Jim being wronged, how he is being supportive toward Margaret, and how he is acting gallantly toward Christine by saving her from Bertrand who is just using her. But what jumped out to me is that Jim is just as superficial and often as petty as these other people are as he desperately tries to cover up his mistakes and “saves” Christine from Bertrand because is attracted to her.

I may be too harsh on some of the gender dynamics given that the book was published 1954. Nevertheless, I found the dissonance between Jim’s claims to benignity, his somewhat superficial motivations, and the awfulness of almost everyone else in the story frustrating. I sympathized with Jim, both because of bad things happening to him and because some of his circumstances struck close to home, but too many of his actions and behaviors were among my personal pet peeves. My sympathy waned as the book wore on and Jim’s actions piled up and when his career in the academy resolved, I couldn’t help but feel a sense of relief for everyone involved.

Lucky Jim is a comedy of errors created by putting Jim in an environment he is largely unsuited for and surrounding him with awful people. The main drawback I had (if you were previously unable to guess) is that I found Jim off-putting. Beyond that, it was distasteful to me, though not entirely unwarranted, that the people worse than Jim in the story were the rest of the people connected to the academy.

Next up, I am about halfway through Evelyn Waugh’s Scoop, and am taking Camus’ The Stranger and Hemingway’s The Garden of Eden with me over the holidays.