Friday, November 2, 2012

The History Man, by Malcolm Bradbury

This is another from the list of Anthony Burgess' 99 Best Novels, which I continue to explore with very gratifying results. It's a wonderfully catholic list, the only requirements being that the books are written in English and between the years of 1939 and 1983 (the year in which Burgess published the list).  I appreciate that some of the novels are not the authors' best known, such as William Faulkner's The Mansion and William Golding's The Spire (which I am reading now). Three of Aldous Huxley's novels made the list, but Brave New World wasn't one of them. The list has also introduced me to authors  -- I owe my enjoyment of William Sansom's The Body and Elizabeth Bowen's The Heat of the Day to Mr. Burgess' list.  

I expect Malcolm Bradbury is a familiar name to those in the UK. I sheepishly admit I was thinking of Ray Bradbury, the science fiction writer, when I copied The History Man to my Kindle. This highlights another pro and con of e-books. The con: an e-book has no back cover on which to print a synopsis. The pro: You copy it onto the Kindle and see how it goes. If you love the book, it's a victory, and if you loathe it, the delete button presents itself. I read this novel at Pagoda Rocks in Sihanoukville, Cambodia, and in that setting, its academic satire certainly felt as otherworldly as Ray Bradbury's science fiction. 
Anthony Sher played Howard Kirk in the BBC adaption.
Some of Bradbury's satire is timeless, poking fun at the pomposity and pretensions of academics regardless of century, never mind decade. But who can resist mocking the 1970s? Howard Kirk, the title character, is a delicious, despicable combination of arrogance and self-indulgence.  I admit my own academic snobbery here: Howard Kirk is a professor of Sociology, a field of study which often met with derision from students at my college who considered it a discipline for dolts. If it could even be termed a discipline...  Bradbury's portrayal of the voluble, six-hour department meeting suggests that it surely cannot.

As the novel opens, Professor Howard Kirk and his wife, Barbara, are planning a party with a sociologically interesting petri dish of guests. The setting is to be their multi-storey, previously condemned apartment block in fictional Watermouth (which bears a suspicious resemblance to Brighton). The Kirks moved into it as squatters and later convinced the council to let them stay. Being liberals, the idea of buying property was uncomfortable. When Howard's friend and colleague, Henry Beamish, had taken them around to find lodging, the Kirks' oh-so-liberal sensibilities became evident. 
Now and then Henry stopped the car, and they got out, and solemnly examined a property. Henry's taste in property had been transformed, become rural and bourgeois; he praised, mysteriously, 'advantages' like paddocks and stables. The Kirks stood and stared, peering through trees at hills. Never having encountered a property before, they had no idea how to behave in the presence of one; they knew their radical desires were being subtly threatened and impaired, even though Henry told them what was true, that they had more money now, that a mortgage was a good investment for the advance, that the time in their lives, with a second baby, was here when they should settle down. But down was not where they wanted to settle; a hideous deceit seemed to be being practised; Henry, having already destroyed himself, was seeking to inculpate them too.
The Kirks are not impoverished -- Howard has published two books and assumed his post on the faculty of Watermouth University -- but they are hardly about to become bourgeouis. They must find a way to merge their liberal socialist values with their new income and status. Barbara takes thermos jugs of coffee to the drug addicts in the derelict block next-door, for example.  They don't fit in, either with the vagrants or with the other academics.
Howard's two books being now staple radical documents in that expanding market, their jeans and caftans are rather more expensive than those of most of the people they know. But it is invisible expense, inconspicuous unconsumption, and it creates no distances and makes them no enemies, except for the enemies who were always their enemies. The Kirks are very attractive, very buoyant, very aggressive people, and, even if you dislike or distrust them, or are disturbed by them (and they mean to be disturbing), very good company.
Howard is a creature of his time, a "man of history", using his academic jargon to justify his sexual permissiveness and dismissing traditional marriage as a stultifying example of outdated gender roles. The Kirks shall not be a part of such oppression. (Yet Barbara is often left with the care of the children as Howard pursues his flings with students, many of whom in turn are lured into the Kirk household as nannies and scullery maids.)

The Kirks began their investigation of an open marriage when Howard lusted after students, and a young Egyptian man took a fancy to Barbara. Their explications of this situation differed somewhat.
'I think,' says Howard now, 'the purpose he had in mind, natural enough from his cultural standpoint, was to establish intimacy between the male parties. We have to recognize his culturally determined view of women.'
'My God,' says Barbara, 'he just liked me.'
The beauty of  academic pseudo-science (oops, there's my inner academic snob again...) is that it concocts the vocabulary to justify its every whim.  And moreover, to bash anyone who dares disagree, such as the gentle, more traditional Henry Beamish.
'That's because you're bourgeois now, Henry. You have the spirit of a bourgeois.'
'No, I don't,' said Henry, 'that's nasty. I'm trying to give my life a little dignity without robbing anyone else of theirs. I'm trying to define an intelligent, liveable, unharming culture, Howard.'
'Oh, Christ,' said Howard, 'evasive quietism.'
And the blissfully liberated Kirks... Are they really happy? Bradbury assesses their condition mid-novel and mid-life and arrives at a different adjective.
They have a strong sense of something that was undelivered then, and a hazy dream still shimmers ahead of them: a world of expanded minds, equal dealings, erotic satisfactions, beyond the frame of reality, beyond the limits of the senses. They remain in their terrace house, and they stand somehow still on the fulcrum between end and beginning, in a history where an old reality is going and a new one coming, living in a mixture of radiance and radical indignation, burning with sudden fondnesses, raging with sudden hates, waiting for a plot, the plot of historical inevitability, to come and fulfil the story they had begun in bed in Leeds after Hamid had slept with Barbara. They are busy people.
Howard carries on an affair with Flora Beniform, a colleague who uses her lovers as research fodder. Much as he would like to convince himself that their relationship is a purely physical and cerebral affair, Howard's emotions occasionally slip out and reveal a wee bit of neediness. Flora responds by telling him that she has no time for him next week and then explaining why the traditional marriage -- with the professional husband and stay-at-home wife/mother -- can't work.
'He talks all day to pretty students who know all about structuralism, and have read Parsons and Dahrendorf, and can say "charisma" properly, and understand the work he's doing. Then he comes home to a wife who's been dusting and cleaning. He says "Parsons" and "Dahrendorf", and she says "Huh?" What can he do? He either gives her a tutorial, and thinks she's pretty B minus, or he shuts up and eats the ratatouille.'
Howard Kirk's ugliest side comes out not in response to his female students or colleagues, however, but in reaction to George Carmody, a student who refuses to conform by becoming non-comformist. Carmody is who he is: an unfashionably diligent student, an earnest young man.  
He has changed most, and changed by not changing at all. Here he sits, in his chair, looking beamingly around; as he does so, he shines forth unreality. He is a glimpse from another era; a kind of historical offence. In the era of hair, his face is perfectly clean-shaven, so shaven that the fuzz of peach-hair on his upper features looks gross against the raw epidermis on his cheeks and chin, where the razor has been. The razor has also been round the back of his neck, to give him a close, neat haircut. From some mysterious source, unknown and in any case alien to all other students, he has managed to acquire a university blazer, with a badge, and a university tie; these he wears with a white shirt, and a pair of pressed grey flannels. His shoes are brightly polished; so, as if to match, is his briefcase. He is an item, preserved in some extraordinary historical pickle, from the nineteen-fifties or before; he comes out of some strange fold in time. He has always been like this, and at first his style was a credit; wasn't it just a mock-style to go with all the other mock-styles in the social parody? But this is the third year; he has been out of sight for months, and here he is again, and he has renewed the commitment; the terrible truth seems clear. It is no joke; Carmody wants to be what he says he is.
Howard Kirk simply cannot abide George Carmody. He gives him failing marks, and when the student files a grievance with higher authorities, claiming that Professor Kirk has shown favoritism to the female students with whom he has sexual relationships, Kirk resolves to destroy him. Carmody repeatedly asserts that Kirk is not rejecting his work, but rejecting him as a human being, and none of Kirk's jargon can absolve him of this charge. He has no more success clearing himself of the claims of rampant sexual misconduct, as Carmody and his camera have captured most of them on film.
'An outside eye's sometimes illuminating,' says Miss Callendar, 'and of course, as Henry James says, the house of fiction has many windows. Your trouble is you seem to have stood in front of most of them.'
The novel ends as it began, with a party in the Kirk household, complete with the illicit frolics in dark corners, sodden discussions about socialism, and hands thrust through window panes. There is no such thing as an accident, Howard maintains.

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