From the beginning of his writing career Malcolm Bradbury was a prolific critic. He published a wide range of books and essay collections: studies of single authors; histories of the novel in Britain and America; interpretations of modernism; cultural histories; and contributions to the theory of fiction. All of them were informed by his exceptional intellectual energy, wide reading and a passion for the value of literature and the life of writing.
The first book Malcolm Bradbury published was a novel, Eating People is Wrong, in 1959. His second was a work of criticism, a short study of the English novelist, Evelyn Waugh, published in 1962. Taken together the two works show Bradbury's fascination with the novel as a comic form. The work on Waugh was an assessment of a master of comedy and satire in the 20th century, an author who was still very much a living presence at the time of the book's first publication. In his later work as a critic Bradbury extended the historical range of his thinking about the novel and comedy to encompass 18th century writers like Henry Fielding and Jane Austen. He believed this form was especially attuned to the changing social mores and class structures of English society. Irony was its essential mode. It combined a close observation of styles of dress and speech with a humorous exposure of the follies of human greed and ambition. Above all – and this was a theme he returned to repeatedly – it showed the novel as a 'discovering form'. Exploring the clash between traditional values and new ways of life, the comic novel revealed the texture of English life in a way that could not be disclosed by the methods of history and sociology. If the novel in one of its significant forms was a representation of life, that representation was also a way of knowing a society.
Bradbury's critical preoccupation with the comic novel was one of the many points where his work as a novelist and his work as a critic coincided. Writing comic novels and thinking about them critically went hand-in-hand. Another was his engagement with literary modernism. This had begun with his work as a doctoral student. He wrote a study of the 'little magazine' and its significance in the modernist period, a project that took him for the first time to the United States. If his work on the English novel was about literary inheritance, his many studies of modernism showed a lifelong fascination with formal experiment in literature, with the question of what it meant in Ezra Pound's words, 'to make it new'. Here the focus was not so much on the continuities of literary form and social history as on a break or rupture between work in the past and work in the present. For Bradbury, modernist writers represented an exemplary dedication to the art of literature. He wanted to understand the social and intellectual conditions that gave rise to modernist experiment in literature and the other arts. He wanted to assess the continuing relevance of the innovations in form associated with the work of Joyce, Woolf, Conrad and Faulkner.
If the comic novel and literary modernism formed two kinds of inheritance that Bradbury's criticism analyzed and assessed, there was a third that was vital to his critical sensibility and the tone of his writing. He regarded himself both in his fiction and in his criticism as an inheritor of nineteenth century liberalism. His thinking was shaped by the debates about the value of culture in an industrial and commercial society that had informed the work of the nineteenth century poet and critic, Matthew Arnold. He returned again and again to one of the central dilemmas of liberal thought, the competing claims of individual freedom and collective responsibility. This debate was not simply a matter of abstract intellectual analysis. It was an ethical question that was enacted and lived through in daily experience and one, therefore, that the novel was especially suited to explore. The values and dilemmas of liberalism were intellectual questions that Bradbury's criticism returned to repeatedly, in his book on E.M. Forster, for example. But they were also the source of passionate feeling and, in particular, a way of imagining a world in which the hesitant, doubting voice of liberal conscience was drowned out by more dogmatic and confident voices. If liberalism existed at all in the late twentieth century it did so under threat. Bradbury's criticism was at one and the same time a way of reasserting liberal values and of worrying about their continuing relevance.
The preoccupations of the critic are also a portrait of the writer: a comic ironist, an experimental modernist, and a voice of liberal conscience. One of the things that distinguishes Bradbury's criticism is that these preoccupations were not just historical. He could certainly draw on the methods of historical and sociological analysis, as he did in his remarkable book The Social Context of Modern English Literature. But the role of the critic was constantly to assess the continuing vitality in the present of what had been inherited or discovered from the past. Criticism was not antiquarian. It was not a matter of specializing in a past period of literature and assessing it in the light of new theories. If criticism needed to explore the conditions and qualities of what had been written in the past, it did so in the light of a continuing dialogue with what was being written in the present. The critic, in short, had responsibilities for understanding what was happening now, in the contemporary moment.
This commitment to contemporary literature is at least one reason for Bradbury's deep and continuing interest in the literature and culture of the United States. In the work of writers like Saul Bellow, Philip Roth, John Updike and Thomas Pynchon he found some of his most important contemporaries. It possessed a literary culture which had not only been a source of modernist literary experiment in the early 20th century. Its contemporary writers had responded to the work of their modernist predecessors, whether in the United States and Europe, with a creative gusto that was lacking in post-war England. Bradbury's thinking about the contemporary state of the novel had been influenced by an argument that the English novel from 1945 onwards had turned its back on experiment. He acknowledged the force of this argument at the same time that he wanted to dispute it.
One of the ways he disputed it was by the invention of the Creative Writing MA at the University of East Anglia in 1970. The critical atmosphere at the time was anxious about the decay or death of the novel in England. He saw this as an intervention, a way of counteracting the assumption that the capacity to create important work had migrated to the United States, Europe, or other parts of the world. But the ethos of the course was not insular and defensive. Its basic assumption was that good writers are good readers. So the writers accepted on the course were encouraged to read as widely as possible amongst their contemporaries and predecessors. One of the exhilarations of the course, at least for those who attended it in its early years, was to read, with Bradbury's guidance and encouragement, the work of Nabokov, Bellow, Spark, Robbe-Grillet amongst many others.
The MA in Creative Writing was nurtured as much by Bradbury's work as a critic as by his work as a novelist. The atmosphere of intellectual and creative challenge that he created helped the work of a number of writers – Ian McEwan. Kazuo Ishiguro, Anne Enright amongst them – whose work he later wrote about with characteristic verve and insight in one of his last critical works, The Modern British Novel.
© Jon Cook