Sunday, January 14, 2007


The other novel read, though not entirely, during my waiting room adventures was Malcolm Bradbury's The History Man (1975), mentioned to me by a colleague at the department Christmas party when I'd mentioned my plot for a story of a student's involvement with an academic couple. Having now read Bradbury's book, I can safely say, "that is not it at all. That is not what I meant, at all."

Bradbury is a literary humanist looking askance at the rise of sociology and the sociological (i.e., political) approach to teaching as it was fostered in the period the book dates from. He's got it right, and is rather more bemused than snide. Not a Mr. Jones who knows something is happening but doesn't know what it is, Bradbury does know and is able to archly show us by presenting one semester at the University of Watermouth in Britain. Nothing much happens except that the main character, Howard Kirk, gets laid a lot, and gets into a scuffle with administration due to one "fascist" student who refuses to produce the kinds of papers Kirk wants his students to write.

The characters in the book don't really interest Bradbury and so he spends little time trying to make them interest us. What he does seem to be trying to do can best be assessed by a little moment in which Kirk seems to meet his author:

"The face has a vague familiarity; Howard recalls that this depressed-looking figure is a lecturer in the English department, a man who, ten years earlier, had produced two tolerably well-known and acceptably reviewed novels, filled, as novels then were, with moral scruple and concern. Since then there has been silence, as if, under the pressure of contemporary change, there was no more moral scruple and concern, no new substance to be spun. The man alone persists; he passes nervously through the campus, he teaches, sadly, he avoids strangers."

This brief portrait, of Bradbury or someone like him, lets us know why the book has no concern -- it's not the writer's fault, it says, he tried, but that's not the way it's done any longer. Perhaps not, but to do something more than vaguely entertaining with the situation the novel is addressing would require more resources than Bradbury brings to bear. It reads like the literary equivalent of a pro forma reader response to a lackluster dissertation: in other words, fatigue with academia and its tempestuous teapots is rife in the book, but with an ironic joust, a slight demur: of course the sociologically relevant, Marxian, Freudian hotshots will get all the great (academic) women!

And will probably both cause and experience grief as a kind of historical inevitability -- which is what it's all about anyway. He who writes history, changes it. But this is only fiction, and fiction changes nothing. And since "moral scruple and concern" have likewise become fictions....

No comments: