Culture Literature

The Student’s Lockdown Reading List 3.0

I recently came across an article on The Guardian website titled, ‘Have you been using the pandemic to catch up on long classic novels?’ Needless to say, I hadn’t. Should I have been? It appears some regular masochists have taken lockdown as an opportunity to make themselves feel even worse, with sales of War and Peace up 69 per cent and the monstrous Don Quixote up 53 per cent. Talk about tilting at windmills. Nobody likes being reminded of how productive other people are being, and so I’ve compiled a list of my own. The following novels are comical, easy to read, and even have some literary merit if anyone dares ask what classics you read during lockdown.

Nutshell, Ian McEwan (2016)

‘So here I am, upside down in a woman’. This is the intriguing opening line of Nutshell, Ian McEwan’s wittiest and most insightful novel to date. Nutshell is a playful take on Hamlet, told from the perspective of an unusually precocious and worldly foetus. Our narrator is a wry and speculative soul, with a penchant for philosophising and a taste for good white wine. He boasts that unlike himself, ‘You may never have experienced, or you will have forgotten, a good burgundy (her favourite) or a good Sancerre (also her favourite) decanted through a healthy placenta’. Yet as the story progresses, our protagonist hears more than any young foetus should have to bear. His mother, Trudy, is cheating on his beloved poet of a father, John, with his intolerably dull uncle, Claude. As yet unborn, he finds himself distressingly powerless to intervene as mother and uncle plot to get John out of the picture. The narrator reflects that ‘When love dies and marriage lies in ruins, the first casualty is honest memory…’ Yet despite his apparent impotence, he will not stand idly by.

Lucky Jim, Kingsley Amis (1954)

Lucky Jim is the most celebrated work of the elder Amis. It follows the story of Jim Dixon, a petty academic at a university in the Midlands. Jim is a highly unambitious malcontent who spends a great deal of time considering his shortcomings whilst making no effort to overcome them. Instead he harbours bitter thoughts and fantasies. Jim is the kind of man who has a nemesis, and when confronted with the budding painter, Bertrand Welch, he can’t help feeling ‘like devoting the next ten years to working his way to a position as an art critic on purpose to review Bertrand’s work unfavourably’. Jim’s life at university sees him come into contact with outlandish characters, from the pompously oblivious Professor Welch to the fragile and clingy Margaret Peel, who Jim maintains a strained relationship with. Amis’ characters, though often heavily caricatured, spring to life through Jim’s contemptuous inner voice. Though pointedly uneventful, the peculiar cast and uncomfortable situations make this novel a highly enjoyable read.

Money, Martin Amis (1984)

Martin Amis attests to the fact that his father was no fan of his work. According to Martin, Kingsley once flung the novel Money across the room upon encountering a character named Martin Amis. This strikes me as a shame, since Money is one of the young Amis’s most dynamic and fast-flowing creations. The novel follows the utterly outrageous and debauched dealings of John Self, a British adman visiting New York to shoot his debut movie. John has a highly addictive personality: he is gluttonous; spends money compulsively; visits prostitutes frequently; is almost always drunk. Despite all this, John is unable to stimulate himself, lamenting ‘Oh Christ, the exhaustion of not knowing anything. It’s so tiring and hard on the nerves. It really takes it out of you, not knowing anything’. As John’s personal life spirals, so does his movie. Each of the actors in his film are at odds with their on-screen personas. Spunk Davis, the born-again Christian, doesn’t want his character dealing drugs, whilst the insecure and washed up Lorne Guyland refuses to let his character be physically overpowered. As his film collapses around him, John receives threatening phone calls from “Frank the Phone”, who is envious of his unearned success. John has never had so much bad luck, if luck has anything to do with it.

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