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

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

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