Like several English novelists before him, Malcolm Bradbury began his literary career writing humorous and parodic sketches of contemporary life in magazines like Punch. This literary apprenticeship left its mark on his novels and stories, which are notable for their sharp, witty and densely specific observation of contemporary manners and morals, fads and fashions. The fact that most of these fictions are set in the academic world or have academics as their principal characters does not limit their representativeness. Read in chronological sequence, they constitute a satirical social history of post-war Britain. They also reflect developments, seen through British eyes, in the two great empires of the second half of the 20th century, the American and the Soviet Russian, which Bradbury observed on his academic travels.
These novels have a dimension of serious - indeed pessimistic - moral and philosophical reflection. Every now and then the brittle, amusing social surface cracks open to reveal dark and disturbing depths: violence, treachery, madness, despair. Bradbury used the conventions of the "campus novel" to develop the combination of comedy of manners and moral seriousness which he found in the modern British novelists he most admired, E.M. Forster and Evelyn Waugh. He also learned from contemporary American writers - not surprisingly, in view of his academic specialization in American Literature. His first novel, Eating People Is Wrong (1959) owed as much to the intellectually sophisticated fiction of Lionel Trilling, Mary McCarthy and Saul Bellow as it did to Kingsley Amis's Lucky Jim (1954). Like Amis, however, and other British campus novelists, Bradbury also drew on a native tradition of robust farce that goes back to Fielding, Smollett and Sterne in the eighteenth century.
Rather unusually for a young writer's first novel, Eating People Is Wrong has a 40 year-old hero, Professor Treece, Head of English at a provincial redbrick university. This allows Treece to represent a theme that consistently fascinated Bradbury, the liberal's sense of being an impotent spectator of, and at times an involuntary collaborator in, the cultural decline which he observes going on around him. Treece finds the brash, socially mobile Britain of the 1950s, where university teachers vandalise the learned journals in their own common rooms, a distracting and demoralizing climate in which to cultivate beauty and truth, but fails to live up to his own high ideals. Succumbing irresponsibly to the charms of a pretty postgraduate, he drives an unstable but gifted student into madness and is punished by his own comically horrendous hospitalization in the last chapter.
In Stepping Westward (1965), Bradbury dispatched a similarly weak liberal hero, a provincial novelist called James Walker, to be writer-in-residence on a campus in the middle of America, where he proves quite incapable of reading the political plot in which he becomes involved. Full of brilliantly epigrammatic dialogue and acute observation of British and American manners, Stepping Westward was an important transitional novel on the way to the masterly The History Man (1975). Bernie Froelich, the sly plotter of Stepping Westward, who manipulates the innocent Walker to further his own interests, is a precursor of Howard Kirk, the machiavellian left-wing sociologist at the new University of Watermouth in the south of England, who finds that the plot of history according to Marx coincides neatly with his own desires for possession and domination of other people. It helps that the cultural and sexual revolution which started in the 1960s is now in full swing, discomposing Howard's accident-prone colleague Henry Beamish, the prim Scottish lecturer Miss Callendar, and the novelist himself, who makes a thinly disguised appearance towards the end of the story. Technically, this novel marked a major innovative development in Bradbury's work. There is no internalization in the treatment of character. The fictional discourse scrupulously restricts itself to the subtly cadenced representation of speech and behaviour, reported in a present tense that renounces any claim to wisdom after the event. The reader is compelled to make his or her own assessment of the ethics and motives of the characters, without having any privileged access to their thoughts or guidance from a reassuring authorial voice.
Dr Petworth, the much-travelled linguistics lecturer in Rates of Exchange (1983) resembles the weak liberal heroes of the first two novels. As the beautiful Slakan magic realist novelist Katya Princip tells him, he is not "a character in the world-historical sense". His very name is subject to ludicrous mutation - Petwurt, Prevert, Pervert etc,, -- on the lips of his hosts in the mythical East European Communist state, Slaka. This is a richly imagined synthesis of several Balkan and Slavic countries for which Bradbury invented a whole new language full of delightful verbal humour. Superficially, the fun is at the expense of the Slakans; on closer inspection they emerge with more credit and dignity from the story than their English visitor, who comes to accept that Katya Princip's tale about a young folk hero called Stupid is his own fable of identity. In a political climate where discourse is a matter of life and death, Petworth's professional tinkering with linguistic theory is made to seem dilettante.
By the time of Dr Criminale (1992) the Berlin Wall has fallen, Communism is dead, and a more fluid and confusing cultural world has evolved. Bradbury takes as his subject the international intellectual superstar, personified in a fictional character who reminds us of real thinkers like George Lukács and Paul de Man. The structure of the novel is picaresque: Francis Jay, a young English arts journalist, is commissioned to research the life of Bazlo Criminale, omnipresent conference keynote speaker and versatile theorist of a multitude of disciplines, for a mooted TV documentary. But the man proves curiously elusive, and the closer Francis gets to his quarry as he pursues him round the globe the more darkly ambiguous Criminale's personal and ideological history, on both sides of the old Iron Curtain, appears. In the end we are invited to admire the dexterity with which he used his intelligence to survive the brutality of 20th century history.
Bradbury's last completed novel, To The Hermitage (2000), was a change of direction: a historical novel about the time the French philosophe Denis Diderot spent in Russia at the invitation of Catherine the Great in 1773-4 , spliced with a satirical account of modern academics conducting a floating seminar about Diderot on a cruise ship bound for St Petersberg, narrated by one of them, who is obviously Malcolm Bradbury. Like Diderot, who imitated Laurence Sterne's Tristram Shandy in his Jacques the Fatalist, the narrator of To the Hermitage teases the reader with witty Shandean digressions and metafictional jokes. Complex, ambitious, and many-layered, To the Hermitage must not be hurried if it is to be enjoyed.
The moving description of Diderot's decline and death in this novel acquired an extra poignancy from the circumstance that Malcolm Bradbury died in the year it was published. Among the literary projects he left unfinished was a large fragment of another historical novel about the French Romantic writer Chateaubriand, called Liar's Landscape (it is included in the posthumous collection of his writing published under that title in 2006). To the end of his life Malcolm was fascinated by the relations between fiction and truth, and looking for new ways to explore this theme. In concluding this brief survey, I refer to him finally by his first name alone, to gesture to a personal friendship and professional indebtedness too extensive to describe here. (I have written about it elsewhere, in the Afterword to Liar's Landscape.)
© David Lodge