The History Man by Malcolm Bradbury

A review of the satirical historical campus novel The History Man by Malcolm Bradbury

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Widely considered today to be one of British literature’s landmark campus novels, The History Man by Malcolm Bradbury is a mid-1970s work of satirical fiction critiquing the world of academia with darkly comic fervour. With words pouring from Bradbury’s pen like a bucket of ice-cold water down a Guardinista’s back, the novel’s lead character and subsequent anti-hero Howard Kirk is a sociology lecturer at a seaside university, navigating the permissive society with selfish zeal and reprehensible relish.

Reflecting the state of the nation a few years after the Swinging Sixties had swung its last, The History Man mirrors a country with a moral compass seemingly off-kilter. The novel is populated by characters from an educated class who share a laissez-faire attitude to sexual politics, a disgust for traditionalism, and an opposition to—quite literally—almost anything which doesn’t fit their unorthodox worldview. Howard Kirk, for example, eschews his role as moral guardian to his students and regularly partakes in recreational drug use, and (despite being married) has no qualms about sleeping with his students and his university colleagues, seemingly oblivious to the hurt and, at times, chaos his destructive behaviour wreaks.

If nothing else, The History Man is attacking the hypocrisy of the post-Sixties liberal intelligentsia, accusing them of intellectual cowardice and taking potshots at the self-destructive mushroom cloud of moral irresponsibility engulfing the teaching profession. Bradbury’s satire of left-wing radicalism, particularly the Marxist tradition popular with über-liberal academics, could easily be misinterpreted as a conservative strand of cultural pessimism. On the contrary, The History Man shares principles people of a left-wing persuasion could easily relate to, if you’re unafraid of placing the hypocrisy of the radical Left under a magnifying glass and discovering that the fascists of tomorrow could, if left unchecked, be liberals themselves.

The manner in which Howard Kirk accuses others of racism or fascism if their views don’t align with his, for instance, remains chillingly relevant today. In the social media age, this remains a sore point—we may believe society is free and liberal but those who exercise their right to free speech risk getting trolled by Twitter hate-mobs and publicly shamed, much in the same way Howard Kirk curtails discussions in university debates so it better fits his own jaded agenda. Of course, this may be a cynical and often sardonic viewpoint, but Bradbury really succeeds in exposing the cracks of bigotry in Howard’s self-perceived liberalism to great comic effect.

As satires go, the idea of university lecturers such as Howard Kirk being responsible for educating the youth of tomorrow is bitterly ironic, yet so much of the humour found in The History Man could well be applied to today’s trendy world of Corbynites, hipster beards, astrology nut-jobs, vegan food acolytes and promiscuous sex-loving Tinder addicts. Sure, Bradbury’s style of writing has dated somewhat, and his dialogue-heavy approach may be an acquired taste for some readers, but satirical fiction rarely hits its targets better than in The History Man, particularly if you’re willing to question moral proclivities, no matter what side of the fence you’re on.

Humorous fiction writer, poet and novelist. Fond of satire. Interested in comic novels, black comedy and tales of satirical derring-do.

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