The History Man

By David Lodge
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 The 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.

Students, 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 sexual conquest.

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.