The History Man
The Guardian, January 12, 2008
Edited by Andy Ross
The title of Malcolm Bradbury's third novel, published in 1975, has become a
proverbial phrase. To understand why
History Man impressed itself so deeply on the British collective
consciousness and the English language, the novel itself must be placed in
its historical context.
The History Man is set almost entirely in and
around the University of Watermouth, a fictitious town on the south coast of
England, but it dealt with an international phenomenon, the movement for
revolutionary change in social, political and cultural life which erupted in
western Europe and the United States in the late 1960s.
herded together and suddenly removed from parental control, were ripe for
ideological awakening and sexual experiment, which sometimes turned into
indoctrination and exploitation by their teachers. Bradbury observed this
scene with a satirical relish for its absurdities and contradictions, and a
sombre concern about its social and cultural effects.
The action of
the novel is placed very precisely in 1972, just when the first flush of
enthusiasm for the late-60s revolution began to fade, and those who had
hitched their wagon to that Zeitgeist were concerned to keep its momentum
going. One such is the central character, a sociology lecturer in his early
30s called Howard Kirk.
Marxism is the chief source of inspiration
for Howard Kirk's radicalism. The words "history" and "inevitable" are
constantly on his lips. He believes the plot of history has just entered a
critical phase from which a new world of human freedom and possibility will
be born, and that it is his duty to help it along. Conveniently, this
mission coincides with his inexhaustible appetite for intrigue, control, and
The History Man disconcerted many readers who had
enjoyed the more genial comedy of Bradbury's previous novels. The unsettling
absence of depth or interiority in the narrative mimics the negation,
implicit in Howard's deterministic ideology, of the individual human
consciousness on which liberal humanism is founded. This doesn't mean that
the novel is empty of thoughts, feelings, anxieties and desires. The
characters talk about such things obsessively.
The novel was not an
instant success. Then, in 1981, the BBC aired a four-part mini-series very
faithfully and skilfully adapted by Christopher Hampton. It proved to be a
landmark in British TV drama. Mrs Thatcher's Conservatives had won the
General Election of 1979 and the radical Right was now in the ascendant. Its
pundits welcomed The History Man as a confirmation that left-wing academics
were corrupting the minds of the young.
It is hard to disentangle the
reception of the novel from the reception of the television version, but one
good effect of the latter was to prompt many more people to read the former,
and to establish it firmly as a modern classic.
AR I remember watching the mini-series in 1981.
My best friend at the time, Graham Curtis, was very taken with the character
of Howard Kirk and decided to let it shape his own approach as a polytechnic
lecturer. As for David Lodge, I watched him give a talk at the Brain and
Self Workshop in Elsinore, Denmark, in August 1997. Lodge's novel Thinks ...
(2001) amusingly recycled his experiences and reflections on the academic
study of consciousness and cognition.