Malcolm Bradbury was among the handful of contemporary British fiction writers who managed to extend the range of the English novel by simultaneously working within and against the liberal-realist tradition that dominated British writing in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Equally important, his career encapsulated the shift that occurred in postwar British fiction from a more or less provincial realism to a decidedly international postmodernism.
Bradbury was born on September 7, 1932, in Sheffield, England. Attending college during the 1950’s, he was among the many middle-and lower-middle-class students to benefit from the expansion of England’s university system immediately after World War II. His first novel, Eating People Is Wrong, draws extensively on Bradbury’s student days at three “redbrick” universities (Leicester, London, and Manchester) and evidences an obvious but by no means slavish debt to Kingsley Amis’s first novel, also set in a redbrick university, Lucky Jim (1954), which began the assault on social and academic privilege and pretense. Both novels are satirical. They belong to the English comic novel tradition and, more specifically, to the subgenre of the “campus novel.” What especially distinguishes Bradbury’s novel is a depth of moral concern that derives from the liberal-humanist tradition that Bradbury both endorsed and questioned. This doubleness of vision and intent becomes much more evident in his second novel, Stepping Westward. Here, Bradbury, drawing on his own experiences at American universities in the mid-and late 1950’s, focuses on the plight of a young, iconoclastic English novelist as he acts out his part of visiting writer-in-residence in the American cultural and academic wilderness. Reversing the direction of the Jamesian international novel, Bradbury juxtaposes not only two nations and societies but also, more important, two very different kinds of liberalism and two very different narrative styles. The result is a work in which each is tested but no one emerges entirely victorious or entirely unscathed by Bradbury’s satire and skepticism. He probes a number of cultural, political, moral, and literary issues without attempting to impose any definitive solutions. As novelist and as moralist, he seeks to provoke rather than propound.
Just as his work as a novelist cannot be separated from his belief in liberal humanism, neither can it be separated from his work as literary critic. Even as a critic in the tradition of Matthew Arnold and F. R. Leavis, Bradbury demonstrated a deep and ever-increasing interest in the contemporary literary theories that have largely supplanted the liberal-humanist tradition. Awareness of and attraction to contemporary theory did not, however, prevent Bradbury from stubbornly maintaining his faith in character (the literary representation of the liberal-humanist individual) and his belief that literature in general and the novel in particular exist every bit as much in a social and historical context as they do in a textual space, or event. In the face of the postmodern challenge to individual (bourgeois) authorship and merely “readable” (consumable) texts, Bradbury insisted upon his own authorial existence and authority, but in an increasingly self-conscious way that pays deference to the very forces Bradbury would have liked to defeat.
Thus, Bradbury did not nostalgically and anachronistically indulge himself and his reader by writing conventional novels of social and moral concern, but neither are his novels examples of postmodern play. The History Man is at once a critique of the sociological perspective that has displaced both the individual self and narrative art and a pyrotechnically postmodern text in which Bradbury made use of a variety of innovative techniques in an effort to discover how much, or how little, of the liberal-humanist tradition remains viable following the onslaught of dehumanization in all of its forms: political,...
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