The History Man by Malcolm Bradbury (1975)

Melissa Todoroff walks towards the door, precariously carrying her glass of wine; she says, ‘I’m going right back there into that party and then, wow, watch out.’ At the door she stops. ‘I don’t care what your friends say about you, you’re a good guy,’ she says, ‘a radical’s radical. And if you really work at it, you could be a radical’s radical’s radical.’ (p.228)

The History Man has the reputation of being one of the defining novels of the 1970s, one of the most influential comedies of the decade etc. It is certainly written in a tone of detached irony but it is rarely actually funny. In terms of technique, it is an interesting experiment to write an entire novel in the present tense, but you soon get used to that and what really characterises the book is its insistently flat and lifeless prose.

Howard and Barbara Kirk – the early years

The focus of the novel is the marriage, and the rocky relationship underpinning the marriage, of Howard and Barbara Kirk. The only parts I really liked were the relatively straightforward account of their upbringings in Northern non-conformist communities, their struggles to get to university (in Leeds), how hard they studied, then the poverty and insecurity of being struggling post-grads.

Then the 1960s started – in 1963, apparently – and they found themselves experimenting with infidelity, soft drugs, new ideological approaches, as well as the new pop music and fashions, their minds opening to a new world of possibilities. The reiteration of phrases like ‘they felt, ‘they grew’, ‘they shared’, after a while reminded me of D.H. Lawrence and his sweeping descriptions of the ebb and flow of family relationships seen as part of nature’s great tides, seen here as part of wider social or ‘sociological’ forces.

Although Bradbury is keen to satirise the Kirks at every turn, I found these descriptions of their early lives very traditional and rather moving, as well as shedding interesting light on a particular historical period, as refracted through the prism of these small-town characters.

Howard the hypocrite

The central idea is simple. Howard Kirk has evolved from earnest hard-working student in the early 1960s to being, a decade later, a sneaking, manipulative egomaniac university lecturer who uses his power to get his way, whether it’s at home dominating his wife or at work bullying students who disagree with him or anywhere else, trying to seduce every woman he meets.

This supposedly repellent specimen is depicted as a monster of his times because he dresses up his manipulations in the trendy buzzwords of the day, in the teachings of his fashionable subject – sociology – in canting concerns about the importance of feeling ‘liberated’ and fully expressing social conflicts and role playing and fighting against ‘repression’, and so on.

There are several problems with this:

1. It feels so dated. Academics aren’t like this at all now: most are concerned about managing their mission statements, securing research grants and the feedback their students post on the faculty website.

2. Second, it is routine in campus fiction to depict academics as over-intelligent hypocrites, spouting high-minded rhetoric while all the time scheming to ruin their rivals and bed their students. I couldn’t see anything innovatory here.

3. Insofar as this novel adds the targets of radical chic and fashionable leftiness to the traditional stereotype, many of the targets Bradbury selects as, in their day, laughably trendy, have now become established parts of the social landscape. He laughs at organic food and women’s lib. Well, organic food has its own aisle in every supermarket alongside farmers markets, while feminism shouts from the front of every magazines and newspapers, there is a Minister of Women, one of the most newsworthy features of David Cameron’s reshuffle (May 2015) is it resulted in 30% of ministers being women, and so on.

At the big party which is the core of the novel, we overhear women discuss their orgasms and maybe this was an example of the ridiculous pretentiousness that had contemporary readers hailing it as ‘ruthless satire’, but that kind of thing is quite routine in supermarket magazines and newspapers nowadays.

Similarly, the characters are quick to spot and criticise signs of racism and sexism and maybe this is part of what led early reviewers to describe it as ‘clever, sardonic, horribly accurate’ in its skewering of what were, at the time, caricatured as ‘right-on’ attitudes, and only 20 years later came to be described as ‘political correctness‘. But discrimination on the basis of race or gender or sexual persuasion is now banned by law. When I started work with a government department, the longest section of my two-day induction was devoted to raising our awareness of issues around race, gender, lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender rights, religious belief and disability.

In other words, a lot of the social attitudes which Bradbury was poking fun at, and his early middle-class reviewers joined in laughing at, have now triumphed and become the social norms we all operate within.

4. What has disappeared, and is therefore of historical interest, is the assumption of Howard, his wife and most of his students and friends of a Marxist world-view, complete with all the revolutionary jargon and phraseology – that all bourgeois discourse is ideologically committed to concealing the basis of capitalist society in exploitation and domination of an immiserated proletariat etc etc. I remember this kind of talk dominating newspapers, magazines, school debates and conversations in the pub throughout the 1970s and carrying on in more embittered tones during the Thatcher years.

Although a lot of liberal, soft left opinion endures to this day, nobody now uses ‘bourgeois’ as an insult or sounds off at dinner parties about their solidarity with the proletariat. This strand of the novel is as dead as the dinosaurs. But one of the disappointing things about the novel is the way it doesn’t really delve into this lost underworld. Because Howard is a sociologist – not a lecturer in politics or history – his insights are all about situations and personas and happenings, not about political theory. When he is shown conspiring to get a right-wing speaker invited to the university to stir up trouble among the students, it isn’t as part of a concrete political strategy, to change anything, but simply to make life more ‘interesting’.  All the other characters are depicted as being in it for the kicks. His colleague Flora consents to sleep with him only if he brings along some sociologically interesting subject matter to discuss. He agrees and, after sex, gives her a detailed rundown on the sad marriage of his friends Henry and Myra. Flora, for her part, thinks his psychoanalytical interpretation of Henry and Myra’s marriage was interesting enough to justify her putting out.

Is that it? Dressed up in fancy jargon, does the plot just amount to horny academics shagging each other and bitching about colleagues? I was hoping for something a lot more insightful.

Dead tone

The tone is not really comic at all. It is coldly factual, observing the characters’ external behaviour with a clinical precision often reminiscent of the most dead-eyed thriller. Howard wakes up, has a pee, brushes his hair, trims his moustache, selects an outfit from the wardrobe. Page after page is like that.

He picks up his briefcase, and goes along the hall to the front door. He steps out of his domestic interior into the day and the pouring rain. The city world takes him in again; the puddles shimmer on the terrace. The morning begins; the edge of nameless melancholy with which he started the day begins faintly to lift. He walks round the corner, adapts to the anonymous world, watches the traffic light glint, the umbrellas move in the street, the yellow bulldozers churning the mud of demolition. Up the hill he goes, to the square; he finds the van, and starts it. He drives back down to the terrace, and the front door opens to his hoot. Barbara stands on the steps; she ushers out two huddled, miniature figures in red wet-look raincoats. They run through the rain, and pull open the passenger door, arguing about who will sit in front, who in the back. On the steps, Barbara waves; the children climb in; Howard starts the van, and turns it in the terrace, and drives, past his long, thin house to the business of the main road up the hill. (p104)

Not so many laughs. This is very flat writing, with no metaphor or simile, no interesting, unexpected use of language. After a while, rather like eating cardboard. I find it staggering that Peter Ackroyd, no less, in his review refers to ‘the sustained and beautiful surface of Bradbury’s prose.’ Really?

If Bradbury’s purpose was to lament the absence of morality and human sympathy from a superficial contemporary culture caught up in surface attitudes and vapid pursuit of the next excitement, the next ‘happening’ – then it was profoundly counter-productive to do it in a language which itself denies human feeling and linguistic warmth and instead epitomises the very focus on surfaces and empty shells which it criticises.

Plot

The plot only covers a couple of days: it centres on a party given by sociology lecturer Howard Kirk with his wife Barbara at the Georgian house they’ve done up in the fictional university town of Watermouth on the first day of the autumn term, 1972. Lots of booze, people smoking dope and arguing about Hegel and women’s rights. Howard takes a student, Felicity Phee, down to his study and screws her there, while his wife is screwing another guest elsewhere (the husband of a woman who’s been taken to hospital going into labour), while an old friend of both of theirs (Henry Beamish) cuts his arm open on a smashed window in a bedroom as a cry for help because his bored wife is leaving him.

A tale of ‘liberal’ academics screwing around and being miserable. Not such a funny plot. There are stagey set pieces: the swinging party, which is observational but not particularly amusing; and a faculty meeting which is long-winded and argumentative with a particularly tiresome American feminist shouting ‘castrate the sexists’ at every opportunity. The meeting has been called because of a sub-plot -Howard is conspiring to get a leading geneticist with controversial views invited to speak at the university solely so he can whip up opposition to it, organise a strike and petition and sit-in, generally stir things up. The meeting is described at really great length.

The pile-drivers thump outside; the arguments within continue. The sociologists, having read Goffman, know there is a role of Chairman, and a role of Argumentative Person, and a role of Silent Person; they know how situations are made, and how they can be leaked, and how dysphoria can be induced; they put their knowledge to the test in such situations as this. Benita Pream’s alarm has pinged at 14.00 hours, according to her own notes; it is 14.20 before the meeting has decided how long it is to continue, and whether it is quorate, and if it should have the window open, and 14.30 before Professor Marvin has managed to sign the minutes of the last meeting, so that they can begin on item 1 of the agenda of this one, which concerns the appointment of external examiners for finals. (p.155)

Here, as throughout the novel, Bradbury risks being as long-winded and otiose as the thing he is satirising. It is less satire, in fact, more like plain description with a bit of exaggeration.

Dialogue

Is the dialogue any better? Sharp, witty, fast-moving, wise-cracking? No. Like the prose it is slow and leadenly lifelike. After they’ve had sex Flora asks Howard about his family, which prompts this exchange:

‘Well, of course, it’s the old story.’ ‘Oh, Howard,’ says Flora, ‘I want a new story. Which old story?’ ‘Well, when I’m up, Barbara’s down,’ says Howard, ‘and vice versa.’ ‘When you’re up who, Barbara’s down on whom?’ asks Flora. ‘Flora, you’re coarse,’ says Howard. ‘No, not really,’ says Flora. ‘And Barbara’s down now?’ ‘Well, I’m up,’ says Howard. ‘Things are happening to me.’ ‘You ought to watch Barbara,’ says Flora. ‘Oh, it’s the usual things,’ says Howard. ‘We battle on, emissaries of the male and female cause. Barbara says: “Pass the salt.” And then, if I pass it, she smirks. Another win for the sisters over the brothers.’ ‘Marriage,’ says Flora, ‘the most advanced form of warfare in the modern world. But of course you usually pass the pepper.’ Howard laughs and says: ‘I do.’ ‘By accident,’ says Flora. ‘Oh Flora,’ says Howard, ‘you should have married. You’d be so good at it.’ The bed heaves; Flora pushes herself up from her place against Howard, and sits in the bed with her knees up, her hair loose, the bedside lights glowing on her flesh and casting sharp shadow. ‘Isn’t it amazing?’ she says, reaching across to the table at her side, and picking up a packet of cigarettes and a lighter, ‘Why is it that married people always say “Come in” when everything they do says “Get out”? They talk about their miseries and then ask you why you’re unmarried. No, Howard, I prefer to stand on the sidelines and watch. I really find it much safer.’ Howard laughs; he reaches out, and runs his hand round the curve of Flora’s breast. ‘It has its compensations,’ says Howard. ‘You’re never lonely.’ ‘I know you aren’t, Howard,’ says Flora, ‘but it seems to me that you’ve demonstrated that the main compensation of marriage is that you can commit adultery. A somewhat perverse argument.’ (p.177)

It is noteworthy that the text here, as throughout, is in the present tense. It is noteworthy that Bradbury puts his dialogue into chunky continuous paragraphs, rather than giving each reply a new line or paragraph, as is conventional. Noteworthy, but hardly the daring experimentalism some reviewers made it out to be.

And the actual content of this conversation – it’s banal, isn’t it? They could be discussing other conversation killers like the price of houses or how your kids are doing at school. Marriage suits some people and doesn’t suit others, well, fancy. It’s not a particularly comic subject; it isn’t handled in a particularly deft or witty manner, and the style itself, the use of words, is flat and unimaginative.

We read fiction for compelling stories, for flashes of insight into human nature, for brilliant turns of phrase. Not much of that to be found here.

Finale

The last 40 pages or so threatened to bring a smile to my lips as, in the wholly conventional way of all bedroom farces, Howard’s hens come home to roost. The student he screwed volunteers to babysit for his wife, and turns out to be a remarkably efficient and subservient housekeeper; but when Howard tries to kick her out she cuts up rough and threatens to turn the students against him. Myra, the mousey wife of his old friend Henry, who he spent the evening dissecting for the amusement of his lover, Flora, inconveniently turns up on his doorstep begging sanctuary.

But then the novel abruptly cuts to another party, the party the Kirks host at the end of term in the run up to Christmas. It gives the text a rather tiresome symmetry to bookend it with two similar events which allow us to compare and contrast, to be told about the changes since the first one. And, briefly, these are that: Howard successfully got the conservative student expelled; he himself escaped scot-free from the student’s threats to tell everyone about his immoral sex life; instead Howard was able to twist it into making himself appear a martyr to the repressive ‘establishment; the visit of the right-wing speaker is cancelled but not before his student proteges have organised a sit-in, miniature riot, attempt to set fire to the campus and ransack the office of his long-suffering friend, Henry.

In the last pages Howard is shown down in his study screwing the pallid English lecturer he’s had his eye on all along and – in a final, jarringly bitter note, his wife is shown upstairs rubbing her arm along the broken glass of the bedroom window in a sign of her desperate unhappiness. Comedy? No.


Taking the mickey

From the satirists’ point of view the 1960s saw an explosion not so much of lifestyle possibilities and liberating freedoms, but of wonderfully satirisable new tribes: mods and rockers, Beatlemaniacs, flower people, hippies, womens libbers, dropouts, playboys, the jet set and so on. There were numerous sub-sets of left-wing and trendy Marxist intellectuals, who enjoyed the trappings of bourgeois society from safe within its bosom – Tom Wolfe coined the term radical chic to describe taking up radical causes (black power, revolutionary Marxism, women’s rights) in order to be seen to do so, as a fashion statement, as early as 1970.

In a way what’s disappointing about this book is that the characters aren’t extreme enough. Howard is a bit of a swine but he takes the kids to school, helps with the shopping, turns up at work on time. Sure he bullies his students (like the hapless conservative student George Carmody in chapter 8) but my teachers and tutors often gave me or my friends a hard time. Sure he argues with his wife, but I’ve witnessed numerous arguments between married friends. Sure he sleeps around a bit, but so do most characters in modern novels. Sure he dissects his friend’s marriage for amusement, doesn’t everyone comment on their friends’ marriages?

Focusing on one rather boring couple and their tamely ‘wild’ parties (a window was smashed, some people got stoned, it went on till four o’clock!), narrating in swift flashback a bit of campus unrest (the students empty Henry’s Teasmaid onto his nice shagpile carpets!) – all feels like a very limited portrait of the world in 1972 – the year which saw Bloody Sunday and the start of the IRA’s mainland terrorism campaign, the Easter Offensive in Vietnam, kidnappings, hijackings and political assassinations across Europe not least by Germany’s Red Army Faction, the horrible Munich Olympics massacre in September, the fateful Watergate break-in.

It’s a bit mind-boggling that this small-time provincial character, described in such flat lifeless prose, made such a powerful impact on the literary world of its day.


Dating the text

Although it was published in 1975 The History Man is set in 1972, deliberately datable by the reference on page 1 to Senator George McGovern’s forlorn anti-war campaign against incumbent Republican President Richard Nixon, which ran up to the election on Tuesday 7 November. So the party which is the focus of the first half of the novel is on the first day of the Autumn term 1972.

Ie it isn’t really satirising the 1970s, which had barely begun, but the turn of the decade, the way the bright optimistic 1960s had turned into something grimmer and more calculating in just a few short years.


Taking the mickey on TV

Taking the mickey out of aspirational groups is a well-established English tradition. Contemporary TV series sprouted to poke fun at anyone who stepped outside a kind of cosy, Daily Mail normality:

  • The Good Life (1975-78) lampooning middle class types who want to get back to nature
  • Fawlty Towers (1975 and 1979), not only skewering the deranged protagonist but allowing for a weekly turnover of period stereotypes
  • I Didn’t Know You Cared (1975-7) with its catchphrase, ‘That’s not very young executive, Carter’
  • The Fall and Rise of Reginald Perrin (1976-79) which moved from satirising the stupidities of corporate life to ridiculing Reggie’s attempts to set up a commune
  • Citizen Smith (1977-80) about a ludicrous suburban ‘revolutionary’

The TV series

The History Man TV dramatisation slipped right in alongside all these other digs at contemporary trends. It was broadcast by the BBC as a four-part serial in 1981, starring Antony Sher as Howard Kirk and Geraldine James as his wife, Barbara. Apparently, it was a great success and had a big impact at the time, crystallising many people’s impression of politically correct, seedy and corrupt academia – but it was living on borrowed time. Mrs Thatcher had been in power for two years. The trendy leftiness it satirises was about to be confronted head on, embittered by cuts and conflict and, eventually, liquidated.

Related links

Malcolm Bradbury’s novels

1959 – Eating People Is Wrong
1965 – Stepping Westward
1975 – The History Man – Howard Kirk is a repellent sociology lecturer.
1983 – Rates of Exchange
1987 – Cuts: A Very Short Novel
1993 – Doctor Criminale
2000 – To the Hermitage

Leave a comment

2 Comments

  1. Pete

     /  January 10, 2016

    The ‘right-wing’ speaker wasn’t portrayed as right-wing in the text. He was a geneticist, a scientist, whose research was controversial only because it touched on race, hence the arguments about the nature and purpose of academia.

    Furthermore, the visit wasn’t cancelled; the guest didn’t turn up because he had died.

    Reply
  2. Jeremy

     /  August 30, 2016

    Hi thanks for the review. I’m sorry you didn’t like the book. I’m struggling to think of a way to persuade you of its merits. I thoroughly enjoyed the excerpts you used here which if nothing else confirms how different our take is. But thanks again.

    Reply

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