Eating People Is Wrong by Malcolm Bradbury (1959)

To Treece, the existence of people, of liberal intellectuals, like himself was infinitely precarious, infinitely unsure, and infinitely precious. The kind of intellectual purity he stood for was a tender blossom that had little or no chance in the bitter winds of the world. Sometimes you could do no more than thank God that there were people such as he, thought Treece in no spirit of self-congratulation; he simply meant it. But those who live by the liberalism shall perish by the liberalism. Their own lack of intransigence, their inevitable effeteness, betrayed them. Already liberal intellects like his own found themselves on the periphery. The end was coming, as people like him had less and less of a social function, and were driven into an effete and separate world of their own, to the far edge of alienation. (p.210)

This is one of the worst novels I’ve ever read. Pretentious, pseudo-intellectual, wordy, mealy-mouthed, repetitive, under-imagined, 290 pages of high-minded but hollow rhetoric, the lofty tones of a bloodless spinster channeling E.M. Foster at his most old ladyish and pointless.

A world away from Kingsley Amis or Keith Waterhouse with their irreverent protagonists, short punchy novels and their vividness of prose. Although Bradbury (b.1932) was younger than either Amis (b.1922) or Waterhouse (b.1929), this – Bradbury’s first novel- feels like the work of a much older man, in fact a much older woman, a maiden aunt. I imagine this is what the Mapp and Lucia novels are like, with lots of tea parties and characters feeling the world is all changing a bit too fast, and ‘in my day we really believed in something, young people these days…’ etc etc. There is a moment when someone puts a lump of sugar in Treece’s tea but he doesn’t like sugar in tea, but he doesn’t want to cause a scene, so he drinks his sugary tea trying not to grimace. Wow, high-powered comedy. Wow, this is living all right.

And God, it is so dull, so prolix, so wordy, lacking any kind of wit or sparkle or edge or turn of phrase or precision. The language lies formal, dead and inert on the page. Just horribly second rate characters endlessly discussing their feeble souls.

‘The trouble is,’ said Emma, when the waitress had gone, ‘that, with one’s behaviour one doesn’t know what to believe.’ Believe, believe, who said believe? Treece’s eyes seemed to say; here in my universe there is someone who talks of believing!
‘Do you believe?’ asked Treece.
‘No; I don’t believe; I just do things,’ said Emma. It was only men, Emma considered, who believed in things; women recognised that being a woman was way of life enough.
‘Do you believe?’ asked Emma.
‘I believe, I suppose, in my way; I believe in scrupulousness in the face of action. You know, I’ve spent all my life trying to understand the relationship of action and consequences. I wonder if I shall ever learn – I find myself singularly obtuse. But the two seem in such different sphere – actions are in time and consequences are in suspension.’
‘I know what you mean, and in a way I’d say the same,’ said Emma. ‘But at the same time you aren’t really saying anything, are you? Not about the world. I mean, where do you take your values from, and how does this apply to other people?’
‘But it doesn’t, said Treece, ‘and it isn’t a valuable position. You mistake me if you think I’m trying to elevate it into a public philosophy. All I’m saying is that I don’t believe in public philosophies, that I want to live according to my own lights, and that I don’t want to change anyone else.’
‘But you did, with me,’ said Emma.
‘That’s true,’ said Treece, ‘and I’ve repented. But… if people can believe in God, so much the better; they have a code they can, and ought, to live by.’
‘But you cultivate your own garden.’
‘My avant-garden,’ said Treece.
‘And how do you determine what’s scrupulous?’
‘The same way as you do,’ said Treece ‘I try to examine what lies before me in all its complexity and to bring to bear on it all the moral resources at my disposal.  That is what life is, as far as I’m concerned.’ (p.96-97)

My avant-garden. Ha ha. You see what he did there? It is all this lame, precious, pretentious and empty-headed.

There is no plot just a sequence of half-arsed events, which come to an abrupt and brutal halt. We are at some provincial university and introduced to Stuart Treece, ‘congenitally a person who is always served last’ (p.175), an English professor pushing 40 who, next to Lucky Jim or Billy Liar, looks like a fossil from a bygone era. He has published one dull book about A.E. Housman and keeps crapping on about the 1930s and how the world is going downhill and agonising about his moral scruples and his scrupulous morality and the morality of art and the ethics of morality and What Is The Point of The University in The Era of Television and so on. All at a succession of bloody tedious ‘parties’ (tea and cake, gin and port) with a selection of deeply boring colleagues, male and female, against a backdrop of inane students getting drunk and being unfunnily ‘witty’.

He is wet. He is inept. We watch him fail the driving test for his motorised bicycle. Twice. Attend faculty and student parties, generally ending up in a corner reading a critical magazine, justly ignored by everyone. Dim, timid, feeble, ineffective, Treece is the lead character and a pitiful loser.

‘I’m nearly forty and I can’t even cook myself a proper meal. (p.253)

‘I feel that when they made me, they botched it.’ (p.278)

‘Really Stuart,’ said Emma, ‘you’re hopeless.’ (p.257)

He has nothing interesting to say and says it at great length. What a depressing, demoralising character. He has no energy or life, no insight or ideas, just a cold porridge of worrying and the ability to talk for hundreds of pages about his values and moral scrupulousness and the end of liberal values and, oh dear, what is the world coming to.

Literary theory (absence of)

Never did a professor of literature have less to say about literature or books. He has no ideas beyond worrying about ‘morality’, no theory, no system, pattern or interpretive principles, no notion of hermeneutics, of reader reception, of Marxist or psychoanalytical criticism. David Lodge’s novels, when they feature academics, always contain useful, sometimes inspiring, précis of their theories, sometimes entire lectures outlining them are included in the text. Although this novel is entirely dedicated to a professor of English literature and the small circle of his fellow academics and students, there is absolutely nothing of intellectual substance to get your teeth into, just reams of spinsterish worrying.

For Treece literature’s function lay here: as a humanist he pursued the record of experience as he pursued experience itself, seeking to distil from it more searching exploration of the human fabric, to chart new worlds in the universe in which human sensations are played out; he looked searchingly into the ocean to see what sort of channel was made by the human passage across the world. (p.249)

A) This is a rubbish definition of literature, which is much more various, anarchic and inspiring than this dull, old-fashioned prospectus. B) But even on his own narrow terms, he is a vast and epic failure: he doesn’t distil anything (except mousy navel-gazing), he doesn’t seek any new worlds, he emphatically doesn’t look out searchingly into any ocean. He is a self-deluding coward.

On one, yes one, occasion he lets himself be persuaded to leave the college to go out into the town, taken by the university’s sociology professor on a tour of clubs, pubs and espresso bars, and is appalled at the crude energy, the loud adverts, louder music, the shouting and drinking of the working class – relieved to scurry back to the safety and security of the little tutorial room where he can discuss Moral Values, happy like a hamster in its cage.

As far as I understand it, all the characters parrot a particular strand of washed-out English liberalism derived from G.E.Moore’s Principia Ethica as popularised by the Bloomsbury Group in the 1920s, ie that personal relationships are the be-all and end-all of existence; mixed with a fifth-form awareness of the best quotes from Keats’s letters (‘O for a life of Sensations rather than Thoughts’), underpinned by the pervasive influence of F.R.Leavis that Literature is important because it is about Life, about feeling Life, it helps you to understand Life and live Life more intensely. That’s it.

‘Surely, [Viola said] vitality of personal relationships is all; it’s all there is. Life is catalysed by knowing interesting people. That’s where the vivid moments come from.’ (p.193)

The whole pack is a dreadful advert for higher education, giving the impression it is populated by feeble inadequates who, beneath all their high-mindedness, think about sex all the time, do nothing but attend parties, and then spend days afterwards agonising about the tiniest friction in a social encounter or an accidental harshness of conversation, because of the ‘moral’ issues they throw up. ‘Yes, maybe one was a little sharp with that new sociology student, but oh, it is so difficult to act with moral probity all the time.’ The university as a kind of refuge for the socially inadequate.

In the first half or so there are only two characters with a pulse – an African, Eborebelosa, who already has four wives and propositions all the women on the campus in search of a nice white woman to be his fifth. This promising comic character disappears around page 60, only to make a page-long reappearance towards the end when he is beaten up by some Teddy Boys simply for being black. Not so funny any more.

Louis Bates, the working class loser

The other is a repellent hulking caveman in a long raincoat named Bates whose monotonous role is the whiningly obsessive pursuit of the pretty but oh-so-sensitive post-grad student, Emma Fielding. To my dismay, Bates goes on to become the dominating presence of most of the book, screwing up every social situation he appears in, making the comfortably middle-class characters dislike but pity him, and helping to make the book the long, dire, dreadful dirge it is.

Bates is meant to be some kind of portrait of a working class adult student, in which case he is a grotesque travesty and imaginative failure. Instead of learning anything about the challenges facing men of his class in this era trying to better themselves through adult education (a potentially interesting subject), we are subjected to hundreds of pages of the altogether easier-to-write and desperately-irritating-to-read trope of him whining why nobody likes him, and pursuing Emma like a stalker. He is clumsy, ugly, smells and has no social graces. By half-way through the book I wanted to scream every time ugly Bates appeared because I knew it would lead to another 5, 6 or 7 pages whining at Emma, ‘Why won’t you love me, or kiss me, or sleep with me, or go out with me? Is it because I’m working class? What have you got against the working class? I know I’m a bit clumsy but I love you, Emma. Why won’t you go out to me? Can I come to your room and we can talk? I have so much to say to you? Why won’t you go out with me, Emma?’

On and on and on and on and on and on, at the same level of whining importunity, for nearly 300 pages, with no real insight into his character or motivation, no development or change in his situation. Reading this novel is like being in prison.

When you consider this was the era of the Loneliness of the Long Distance RunnerRoom At the Top and numerous other novels dramatising working class life, as well as all those classic new Wave movies – Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, A Taste of Honey, Billy Liar – it is a scandal that this thin, dull, self-satisfied failure of a shallow under-imagined cartoon was ever published.

Moral claptrap

Dire, dull, heavy and boring, with no plot and no characters worth getting to know, this novel is made almost intolerable by the reams of high-falutin’ and utterly meaningless rhetoric about ‘morality’ which dominate all these effete ‘intellectuals’ thoughts and lives. They fart out their petty tastes and their little opinions but insist on dressing them up as Moral Principles and Grand Insights, when they are nothing of the sort, – as is demonstrated by the way these Principles have little or no impact on their actual behaviour.

‘The trouble is one does like charming people better than good people; it’s a moral corruption’ (p.159)

Yes, whether to like charming people more than ‘good’ people, it is a Profound Moral Dilemma.

It seemed as if his special human situation had somehow sapped him morally, in the plain sense of the word moral, which demands a sound and simple capacity for living life itself… The moral passions can drive one too hard until, as with Gulliver, home from his travels, ordinary life is hardly to be borne… One can’t use one’s illnesses as a kind of moral lever…

One can’t, can one? What does that mean, what does that even mean, if anything? High-minded, grand-sounding bollocks. At yet another party, we are briefly introduced to a minor character – a ‘morose, barrel-chested artist named Hermann’. This is solely so the author can point out that he has a partner, ten years older than him, who works as a prostitute to support them both. And this is solely to prompt yet another ‘moral’ discussion between radical young Viola who thinks the girlfriend is a ‘saint’ and elderly librarian Miss Enid, who is horrified:

‘Viola, dear, if she walks the streets, how can you call her that?’ ‘But she’s giving herself because of something she believes in, his work, and because she loves him,’ said Viola. ‘She’s spending herself.’
‘But why, Viola dear, do you call that saintly? I know I’m an old-fashioned thing; but you know a lot of saints got their promotion, so to speak, because of their chastity. You talk as if she’s doing something very moral; I can’t see how she is even by your standards.’
‘”Even by your standards” isn’t very kind,’ said Viola, ‘but it is moral, in the sense that she’s living life worthily.’
‘I suppose sex has just ceased to be a moral issue,’ said the librarian.
‘No,’ said Viola, shocked. ‘Oh no. It’s just a different morality. I think sex is full of moral problems; luckily, I like moral problems, and I think that’s the difference. People are prepared to have moral problems today, instead of shying away from the places where they came up.’
‘I insist,’ said the librarian. ‘You aren’t moral about personal behaviour…’ (p.102)

And so on for 290 pages. Wading through reams of piffle about ethics and morality and the morality of ethics and the ethics of the morality of ethics, made me realise this is the kind of thing people talk about at length, when they haven’t got anything interesting to say, but are convinced that they have.

They know they are special. They are really convinced they are special. But they are nervously aware that they don’t have an original thought in their heads. They don’t understand the times, they are hopelessly cut off from the culture around them, but – aha! – what they do have is their moral insights!

Yes, despite being cut off from the world around them, failing to understand anything happening in the wider society, despite being puzzled by the motor bicycle and unable to operate a payphone, incapable of cooking a meal, despite disliking this new ‘rock and roll’ music, despite not liking ‘modern’ art and despising the new fashion for ‘coffee bars’, despite in every way being marginalised and irrelevant losers, this cohort of characters keep their spirits up and persuade each other they are doing something valid by dressing up their inconsequential thoughts and insignificant lives (‘Oh should I kiss Louis just to cheer him up? Is it the moral thing to do?’) in the grandiose rhetoric of Morality and Liberal Values.

‘Humanity is hung around everyone’s neck, but we seek ourselves to live in a kind of moral and human suspension.’ (p.264)

Oh how precious and saintly and fine and sensitive their moral vibrations are. Or do I mean: Rubbish. Empty words signifying nothing but their self-love.

The pitiful thing is that all this talk about morality doesn’t – as per usual, as so often in ‘real life’ – actually make any difference to anybody’s behaviour. As Bob Dylan said, people do whatever they want to and then find fancy reasons to justify it afterwards. In a classic example, Treece spends 150 pages wondering about his soul and his moral scruples and feeling old and like his day is passing, the narrator describing on scores and scores of occasions each little flicker of moral scrupulosity his pathetic brain farts out – and then goes ahead and sleeps with one of his students anyway, pretty Emma, the postgraduate Louis Bates is obsessed with.

Ah, but what makes them so precious, you see, is that the sleeping together makes him (Treece) and Emma unhappy – their big achievement (which they confuse with being thoughtful or insightful) is to transform every aspect of human experience into over-analysed misery. And they discuss their unhappiness at great length, taking comfort from it, taking solace from the way they can’t even have sex without complicating it with pompous and ineffectual hand-wringing.

Suicide (the only way out of a Malcolm Bradbury novel)

And when Louis finds out, when Emma tells him flat out NO she will not sleep with him because she is having an ‘affair’ (the word of choice of the ineffectual, the self-deceiving, the self-dramatising – she has clumsy, inevitably unsatisfying sex with the man who can’t even ride a bicycle in a shabby single bed in her dingy rented room – once – but darling, it wasn’t sex like those ghastly working class people have, it is an affair because we talk about D.H.Lawrence and we know foreign languages, it is an affair because we spend hundreds of hours worrying and agonising over whether we have betrayed our Values, whether it is a Moral Action or merely a satisfaction of Animal Lust, and in these Fallen Times of ours, after all, darling, what can An Intellectual like me do: would you like to listen to us discuss the meaning of our one act of sex for hundreds of pages?) Louis tries to kill himself.

This crude, violent (and typically depressing, sterile) event happens very abruptly at the end of the book. After 200 pages of whining at Emma and being rejected and refusing to let that stop him, of asking ‘Emma, why don’t you love me?’ every time he meets her at every party, reception and drinks which make up the ‘events’ in the novel – ‘is it because I’m working class? But I love you Emma,’ on and on and on and on, when finally confronted by her conclusive rejection, he abruptly swallows a bottle of aspirin and is rushed to hospital.

We know this because Treece is already in hospital because of stomach ulcers he’s been suffering which have been leading to haemorrhages, loss of blood, weakness etc. The novel isn’t really developed enough to have symbolism or pattern or meaning to it, but it seemed entirely appropriate that Treece’s body is bleeding away into a physical inanition perfectly reflecting the wordy vacancy of his mind and his self-pitying sense that his Values are no longer relevant in the world.

I was surprised when I read Bradbury’s most famous book, The History Man, trailed as one of the great comic novels of the 1970s, to find that not only is it not funny, but it opens and ends with a character at one of the Kirks’ ‘famous parties’ gashing their wrists on the perennially broken window in the spare bedroom. It is not only not funny, it is actively bitter and miserable.

So both Bradbury’s first and his most famous novels conclude with characters trying to commit suicide. Can’t help feeling this is what they are really about: 200 pages of humour-free ‘comedy’ and then the real point: ‘I may have read all these books, my mutual admiration society thinks I’m so clever – but God, I am sooooooooo unhappy. Help me.’

Mal mots

My teenage son and his friends are ruthlessly critical of each other’s gags and routines. Pointing both hands at someone like a cheesy American game show host and saying, ‘Ha. Ah ha. I see what you did there,’ is a favourite way of indicating obvious, laboured and contrived attempts at humour. This novel has a steady trickle of mots you feel the author has laboured over long and hard and which fall lifeless to the floor.

‘But you cultivate your own garden.’
‘My avant-garden,’ said Treece.

‘It must be wonderful to be educated. What does it feel like?’
‘It’s like having an operation,’ said Treece. ‘You don’t know you’ve had it until long after it’s over.’ (p.141)

It is wit not humour, in that you don’t laugh. It is designed to prompt a knowing smile. Oh how clever. Ha. Ah ha.

Over at the table beside the bottles a serious literary conversation was taking place, Treece found. ‘How is your novel?’ asked a brittle, cultured voice. ‘My novel, did you say, or my navel?’ replied someone. ‘Your novel, old boy,’ said the brittle voice. ‘Well, they’re both suffering from lack of contemplation,’ said the second voice. (p.153)

‘Ah,’ said Jenkins, shaking a waggish finger in a very Continental way, ‘you want to have your cake and eat it.Why not, of course? It’s an absurd proverb. I always have my cake and eat it. It’s the only wise thing to do.’ He ate several cream pastries with great rapidity. ‘You expect too much,’ he said finally, sucking his fingers. (p.202)

‘A lot of water has flowed under Robert Bridges since then… ‘ (p.194)

Boom boom.

Academics are idiots

Like pseudo-intellectuals everywhere, Treece and the members of faculty he bumps into at parties and receptions all think the intellectual life of the world officially ended when they and their friends say so – that culture has gone down the pan, that the Great Tradition is ended, that – in their case – the arrival of television and advertising spell doom, the Life of the Mind is over, darling, I have lived on into a Philistine Age, what is the point of our possessing such Fine Moral Sensibilities?

It is 1959. On the eve of the 1960s and the vast worldwide explosion of entirely new modes of seeing, writing, making music and art and fashion and design, these dull, shallow, blind provincial, petty intellectuals see their feeble lines of though puttering to a seedy end – and knowing or understanding nothing, absolutely nothing, about the world they live in, they draw the self-deluding conclusion that the world is ending, when in so many ways, it was just beginning.

‘But then there is no English culture left, is there?’ (p.178)

… Here there were, really, no heroes and no vital men, and one simply filled in time… (p.179)

‘But there are no rich cultures left, are there? It’s a seedy world.’ (p.187)

‘How can I explain it to you? I do bad things. I lack the energy to carry through any process I conceive. And when I look at all the people in the modern world, and at the way things are moving… then I trust nothing. I simply have no trust or repose anywhere. All is change for the worse.’ (p.207)

What an imperceptive idiot. What a truly dreadful novel this is.

Related links

Malcolm Bradbury’s novels

1959 – Eating People Is Wrong – a dire, heavy, boring and tiresome portrait of a bunch of effete dullards at a provincial university, pitifully obsessing over the tiny outpourings of their feeble minds.
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

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