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The History Man

The History Man (1975) is a campus novel[?] by British author Malcolm Bradbury[?] set in 1972 in the fictional seaside town of Watermouth in the South of England. (Watermouth bears some resemblance to Brighton. For example, there is a frequent and fast train service to London.)

Howard Kirk is a professor of sociology at the local university. The Kirks are very trendy leftist people, but living together for many years and the advance of middle age have left some unfavourable traces in their relationship. It is Barbara Kirk who notices this change, whereas Howard is as enthusiastic and self-assured as always. Officially, the Kirks oppose traditional gender roles just as fiercely as the exploitation of humans by other humans. Nevertheless certain practices have crept into their lives which do not live up to such high standards: Howard writes books, while Barbara -- stranded with much of the housework and two little children -- would like to but never gets round to actually doing it. Any female student who comes to live with, rather than work for, them is ruthlessly made to baby-sit for them and perform all kinds of domestic chores.

Warning: Wikipedia contains spoilers

What we learn about the Kirks' past does not set them apart from most young working-class intellectuals who grew up in the stifling 1950s. When Howard and Barbara meet in their third year at the University of Leeds, Howard is still a virgin. They are both working class and during their student years cannot afford more than the bare necessities of life. A few years after their graduation, in the summer of 1963, the "old Kirks", already a married couple living in a small bedsit, metamorphose into the "new Kirks" when one day, while Howard is at the university where he has a job as a lecturer, Barbara has spontaneous casual sex with an Egyptian student. This fling triggers a whole series of events: When he has got over his initial shock, Howard begins to associate with all kinds of radical people. The Kirks make lots of new friends; they smoke pot at parties; Barbara develops a new interest in health food[?] and astrology; Howard grows a beard; and they both start having "small affairs". When Barbara gets pregnant, Howard, rather than cancelling his class, takes all his students to the clinic to watch his wife giving birth. Finally, in 1967, he is appointed professor at Watermouth, and right from the start he is intent on radicalizing that bourgeois town, especially the newly-founded university.

The novel chronicles a few months -- one term, to be precise -- in the lives of Howard and Barbara Kirk. Howard's zero tolerance concerning non-Marxist, especially conservative, thinking makes him persecute one of the male participants of his seminar[?] who, apart from wearing a university blazer and a tie which make him look like a student out of the 1950s, just insists on being allowed to present his paper in the traditional, formal way, without being interrupted and without having to answer questions before he has finished his train of thought. In front of the others Howard calls him a "heavy, anal type" and what he has prepared for class "an anal, repressed paper", without considering his own apparent hypocrisy any further. In the end he succeeds in having the student, a "historical irrelevance", expelled from the university.

Whereas Howard selects his many sexual partners from among the people who work at the university -- students as well as faculty --, on Saturday mornings Barbara Kirk regularly goes on "shopping trips" to London which usually turn into "wicked weekends". What is more, the Kirks consider the parties they throw in their house a success if at least some of their guests have sex in the many rooms they provide for that. At one point in the novel Howard's indiscriminate promiscuity gets him into trouble when he is told that he might be fired for "gross moral turpitude" (defined by a female student of his as "raping large numbers of nuns"), but he shrugs off this accusation as being based on "a very vague concept, especially these days".

A number of supporting characters round off the vivid picture of the permissive society of the early 1970s. For example, there is Henry Beamish, one of Howard's work colleagues whose childless middle-class marriage to Myra has been a largely unhappy one. There is Dr Macintosh, a sociologist from Howard's department who, despite his pregnant wife, can be convinced by Howard that shagging one of his students during the end-of-term party is the right thing to do. Also, there is Flora Beniform, a social psychologist with rather unconventional research methods -- the traditional psychiatrist's couch becomes her own bed, she sleeps with the men she is professionally interested in in order to elicit information from them.

At the end of the novel Howard and Barbara are still together, and all their friends admire their stable yet "advanced" marriage. Howard has even further metamorphosed into "the radical hero" who is "generating the onward march of mind, the onward process of history. According to his philosophy, things, especially those he likes, are bound to happen: This is called "historical inevitability".

The History Man was filmed by the BBC as a four-part mini-series in 1981. It starred Anthony Sher[?] as Howard Kirk.

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