Wednesday, August 29, 2012
I never wanted to leave college. I'd found a place where your job was reading books. I liked the gothic architecture, the ivy, the rumpledness, the quiet. I did leave, but I still go back occasionally, usually by reading novels about college life, the best one being Lucky Jim, which I've reread every ten years or so with increasing admiration and relish. When NYRB asked me to illustrate the covers of Amis's novels for them I quickly began rereading them all, starting with Lucky Jim, which I found as richly amusing as ever.
I did several dozen drawings of Jim Dixon to start. I drew him with a pint in his hand, with a book, wearing a jaundiced expression, a bilious expression, a world-weary expression. Then I decided to do the reader a favor and let them visualize Lucky Jim how they liked. I turned him volte face, striding up a long sidewalk toward the college.
What college? He's a minor instructor at a minor redbrick college, not Oxford or Cambridge. Amis's biographers think he might have been visualizing Swansea (where he was teaching) or Lancaster or Leicester, but he doesn't say. I looked for appropriate examples of Midlands collegiate architecture and started drawing them. The final image is adapted from a wing at Liverpool University. I removed some of the soot and made the brick redder. Still, it looks appropriately prisonlike, because Jim Dixon doesn't like where he is. Unlike myself at his age, he longs for escape; the novel is escapist in that sense. Our hero is a boozer, a slacker, a mocker of authority, but in all things a colossal fuck-up, and his story is a masterpiece of slow-motion catastrophe. I hope I've done it justice.