book-reviews

The History Man

by Malcolm Bradbury

Rating: ★★

I come out of this book wondering what it was I was meant to find in it. Potentially, this is down to datedness -- perhaps if I'd read the book as an academic in the 1970's, I would find it a biting send-up of something or someone from real life. As it stands, however, the book comes off mostly as a description of a petty, malicious man who happens to be a sociologist, and the damaged company he keeps. I don't know anyone like Howard Kirk, or really anyone who fits into that milieu, so the book simply describes a hateful character and then... urges me to hate him?

It's not like it's a funny sort of satire. I mean, there are a few high-level jokes weighted largely on hypocrisy, but they're not going to make you smile so much as roll your eyes, because of course the despicable people would also be hypocrites. The only bits I found at all amusing were the couple of paragraphs about general university life, like the departmental board meeting that struggles for hours over an entirely meaningless agenda item. That's not even remotely enough to hang the book on.

So it's a scornful sort of satire, which, okay, but I really struggled to understand what I was meant to be scorning. The book has a sort of sneering tone which it seems to apply liberally to everything and everyone. I don't know, for instance, if the opening description of Kirk's open marriage is meant to be inviting my contempt or just setting the scene. Am I more liberal than the author, or less? It sounds a bit like several of the more conservative characters used as foils to Kirk are meant to be sympathetic, but does this mean we're meant to scoff at all of the liberal elements of Kirk's life, or only be disgusted by his hypocrisies regarding them? The fact that I don't know makes it hard to get a handle on how exactly the book failed.

There are other issues. The use of present tense makes the whole plot one long scene, depriving it of any sense of development you might have wrung out of the meagre events. The close formatting of the dialogue is needlessly confusing. These might be issues if the book was more fundamentally worthwhile, but, while there is evidence of some authorial talent behind the scenes, it simply isn't worth the tedium.