Tuesday, November 23, 2004

Eating People Is Wrong

I've spent the past few weeks reading Malcolm Bradbury's sublime satire and novel of social observation of campus life in England in the 1950s, Eating People Is Wrong.

It's been very interesting to read this book in public. The looks I got on the subway or bus once people made out the title were priceless, accentuated further once they observed me chuckle constantly at the numerous puns. The equation was something like:

Black guy + weirdly titled book + laughs = Reluctant Cannibal?

In any case, this novel is highly recommended. As befits the title, the writing is dazzingly witty and the characters richly memorable. I suppose it should be placed in the same company with the almost contemporaneous Lucky Jim by Kingsley Amis or David Lodge's later Changing Places: A Tale of Two Campuses which represent the pinnacle of the "campus novel" but the emphasis here is less on the intricacies of the plot and more on observation.

He focuses on the unease and self-concious bemusement of the liberal in England of the 1950s with the British empire in rapid decline, yet with politicians claiming that "you've never had it so good" (after all the National Health Service was in its second decade at that stage). His commentary on the changing social and sexual mores of the time is sensitive without being jaundiced. He's especially good on class and provincialism and coming to terms with life in middling institutions in a middling part of a middling country.

Of course he plumbs the depths of the numerous quirks of university life with many finely detailed set pieces: the cocktail parties and mixers, the literary societies, the visiting professors, the foreign students and cross-cultural misunderstandings, ungainly youths, nervous breakdowns etc. Although a period piece, I found many parallels to today's world albeit with a few changed labels in the interim (political correctness is more formally articulated these days).

Here then, some snatches of sometimes absurd dialogue.

On the English:

'I like the English, They have the most rigid code of immorality in the world.'
On writers:
'I suppose you know a lot of writers,' she said.
'I know some,' said Treece, 'but I think I prefer people.'
Worthy of Ionesco:
The lady in the flower-pot hat sat down beside Treece and sighed deeply. 'It's terrible to be abnormal,' she said, and heaved another sigh. 'Did you have an unhappy childhood?'

'I had an unhappy maturity,' said Treece. 'I had a frankly bloody childhood,' said the woman. 'Tell me, do you like this hair style? Be frank. I can have it done again somewhere else.'

'Darling, I was going to ask you, what happened to it?' said a man in a bow-tie. 'You could have fought back. Or did they give you an anaesthetic?'

'You should have seen what he did to my dog,' said the lady.
On pompous professors:
The children's novelist now leaned over. "Do you read much children's literature, Professor?" he asked. "I don't," said Treece. "I think you're ignoring, if you don't mind my saying so, a very fruitful field for study," said the novelist. "I'm sure you're right," said Treece, "but the trouble with me is that I have a sophisticated mind. Was it Chesterton who said he didn't like children because they smelled of bread and butter. I dislike them because they aren't grown up".
Harry Potter anyone?

On English provincialism (substitute today's America and you won't be too wrong):
Poor man, he has tried to show us all that foreigners aren't funny; but they are. After all, there was one thing that every Englishman knew from his very soul, and that was that, for all experiences and all manners, in England lay the norm; England was the country that God had got to first, properly, and here life was taken to the point of purity, to it's Platonic source, so that all ways elsewhere were underdeveloped, or impure, or overripe. Everyone in England knew this, and an occasion like the present one was not likely to prove that things had altered. I have lived in England, was the underlying statement, and I know what life is like
Read the novel not only for the farce, which is plentiful, but also for its considerable social insight, which will make you return to it time after time.

You can eat also this cannibalistic toli at Blogcritics.

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