Malcolm Bradbury Bradbury, Malcolm (Stanley) - Essay


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Malcolm (Stanley) Bradbury 1932–

English novelist, critic, short story writer, editor, dramatist, scriptwriter, and essayist.

A university professor whose major academic interest lies in contemporary literature, Bradbury is known for both his critical works and his satires of academic life. Much of Bradbury's fiction takes place in university settings in England or America and incorporates themes of social dislocation and liberalism.

Bradbury is one of England's most respected authorities on the modernist tradition in novels. The Social Context of Modern English Literature (1971) is a kind of modernist handbook which examines the intellectual responses of writers to historical and cultural changes. In Possibilities: Essays on the State of the Novel (1973) Bradbury advocates naturalism but also calls for a flexible approach to what he terms the "new problematics of realism." The Modern American Novel (1983) is an introductory study of American writers from 1890 to the present.

Bradbury's first novel, Eating People Is Wrong (1959), is a comic depiction of English provincial university life. In this work a British professor who considers himself a liberal humanist experiences a midlife crisis of conscience. Stepping Westward (1965), a lampoon on the differences between English and American culture, centers on a liberal, socially awkward British professor invited to lecture at an American university. The History Man (1975), perhaps Bradbury's most critically acclaimed work, was described by Margaret Drabble as raising "some very serious questions about the nature of civilization without for a moment appearing pretentious or didactic—a fine achievement." Rates of Exchange (1983), a cultural comedy about language and its contradictions, involves a professor of linguistics abroad in a mythical Eastern European province. Rachel Billington called the novel "one of the most exciting, original and worthwhile novels to appear in Britain recently."

(See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 1-4, rev. ed.; Contemporary Authors New Revision Series, Vol. 1; and Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 14.)

C. P. Snow

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

I am very interested in how this book ["Eating People Is Wrong"] goes down in the United States. For several reasons, I am sure the author is one of the most intelligent and gifted of up-and-coming English novelists. I am also sure that the difficulties of writers getting read across the Atlantic—in either direction—are becoming, not less, but greater….

I say all this because Mr. Bradbury's novel, which is extremely funny, packed with intelligence and moral feeling, and au fond original, does present some difficulties of setting for American readers. It is basically a story of people trying to find meaning in their lives, and in particular trying to find meaning through the right love relation. That, of course, is the same in Sioux Falls as in Mr. Bradbury's English town. But Mr. Bradbury, like several other English writers of his generation, has chosen to place his people in an English provincial university; and this may muffle some of his effects, unless U.S. readers have now got to terms with "Lucky Jim." Oxford and Cambridge are international symbols, but the English provincial universities, particularly in their effect on their brightest alumni, such as Mr. Bradbury, are not easy for Americans to apprehend. You have universities all conceivable shapes and sizes, but you have not anything deeply interwoven with the intricacies of the English class structure, which is in many ways a tedious subject for you and, God knows, often even more tedious for us. The essential...

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Martin Tucker

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Hail the bumbling, fumbling conquering hero. Malcolm Bradbury has written a first novel [Eating People Is Wrong] that is sloppy, structurally flabby, occasionally inane, frequently magnificent and ultimately successful. It is as if Dickens and Evelyn Waugh sat down together and said, "Let's write a comic novel in the manner of Kingsley Amis about a man in search of his lost innocence who finds it." The result is one of the most substantial and dazzling literary feasts this year.

Bradbury's novel starts out as a well-made satire of Welfare-State Academia, a genre becoming almost as indigenous to England as Mrs. Gaskell and the three-penny dreadful. About a third of the way through, the novel changes course to become an undergraduate-style lampoon with cardboard characterizations of poker-faced English beats and eccentric, highly-sexed college teachers. The last part of the book redeems all, for here Bradbury shows an increasingly tragic awareness of the comic shortcomings of life once the protective veil of satire is snipped off. This traffic between the clever and the profound, the serious and the flippant is never halted…. It is inevitable that Bradbury's book will be compared to Kingsley Amis' Lucky Jim. Both are novels about the deadly torpor of British provincial university life, and the deadly silly attempts to relieve or disguise that torpor. Both open in the same manner….

Bradbury is also indebted to Amis for the amusing placement of a mild teacher between two aggressive females. In Lucky Jim, the hero succeeds with one woman only when another woman is chasing him. At 40, Bradbury's hero, Treece, finally summons up enough courage to seduce a woman, only to have another woman barge in on them.


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The New Yorker

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

["Eating People Is Wrong"] is full of jokes and witticisms of almost every description, but there are no funny situations, and the few comic episodes that occur are much too light, and perhaps also too tired, to stand up against the predominant, tragic predicament that is Treece's life. Treece's predicament is tragic, but his story is not a tragedy, because it is lacking in the act—the proof of life diminished or increased at whatever cost—that is required to complete the movement that starts with the first sentence of this book. What we have here is aimlessness inside countless circles of busy, monotonous aimlessness, and even if this spectacle were more richly decorated than it is with jokes and puns and so on, it would not be good enough. Mr. Bradbury has created a serious and very human character, and has obscured him with jugglers. (p. 97)

A review of "Eating People Is Wrong," in The New Yorker, Vol. XXXVI, No. 22, July 16, 1960, pp. 96-7.

Edwin Morgan

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Malcolm Bradbury's first novel Eating People Is Wrong had a well-deserved success as a witty examination of the liberal conscience in a middle-aged professor at a provincial university. His new book [Stepping Westward], which attacks the same theme from a different angle, is just as entertaining, with some truly hilarious moments, and a lot of very sharp observation. This time the hero, James Walker, is a wilting provincial writer, thirtyish, going to fat ('bird-eyed, balding' according to Time), with three 'promising' novels behind him and a yearning for spiritual revitalisation…. Much of the comedy of the book rises out of the hard job America has prodding open this inert, tweed-suited, non-car-driving limey into some semblance of assertion and commitment.

In one sense the attempt fails, since the hero returns home to his wife … without having completed his year, but in another sense he turns the tables on America by mildly refusing to sign a loyalty oath and becoming the storm-centre of a controversy which delights his American sponsor, Professor Froelich. A fruitful clash of English and American liberalisms is what Froelich had hoped for and what the serious passages in the novel are concerned with…. Yet Walker's various defeats and insufficiencies as he shambles across the States … don't cancel a certain respect he rouses both in Froelich and in the reader. Anti-hero or not, he sometimes reminds us that what America claims to offer him for his rebirth is what Saul Bellow's Henderson had to leave America to find. Apart from the fact that too much time (a third of the novel) is spent getting the hero across the Atlantic, this is a fresh, stimulating, and very amusing book. (p. 191)

Edwin Morgan, "Shambling Man," in New Statesman, Vol. LXX, No. 1795, August 6, 1965, pp. 191-92.∗

A. S. Byatt

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[The Social Context of Modern English Literature] treats literature as a social product: it occupies "a middle ground between literary study, sociology and intellectual history." It is broadly concerned with the "modernization" of the social world and the ideas of a distinctively "modern" literature.

Professor Bradbury studies the intellectual response to large changes: the concentration of men in cities, the machine, shifts of administrative power. He also describes the changes that affect the production of the literary work: writers' finances, periodicals, publishing, media. Much of his book's considerable value is due to the careful relation of hard, limiting facts to complicated ideas....

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John Spurling

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

It may well be … that the period of bitterly opposed [literary] factions is already over, that novelists are starting to put sides to middle, borrowing elements of naturalism, modernism, symbolism and even criticism with cheerful insouciance. In his new book of essays [Possibilities], Malcolm Bradbury—himself both novelist and critic—suggests as much. True, he is not an impartial witness; he seems to hold much the same attitude towards the nouveau roman as Professor Weightman, calling it "dehumanised, chosiste" as though he too had failed to read Simon's or Sarraute's novels except through a cloud of Robbe-Grillet's theory. He also concentrates mostly on English and American novels and...

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Margaret Drabble

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

The hero, if so he could be called, of "The History Man" is a predatory, unprincipled and ruthlessly fashionable sociologist, Dr. Kirk…. The description of the evolution of this representative contemporary figure, and of his equally representative wife Barbara, is a small narrative masterpiece, occupying one short chapter but spanning the changes of the last 15 years….

Bradbury writes brilliantly about the way in which our concepts of ourselves determine every detail of our lives—the clothes we wear, the food we purchase, the houses we live in, the people we choose to sleep with, the manner in which we sleep with them. One of the reasons why this novel is so immensely readable is its evocation...

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George Steiner

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Malcolm Bradbury is a master of enumeration. "The History Man" … is packed with ludicrous or gloomy taxonomies. The female lead, Barbara Kirk, is … a promoter of Women for Peace, the Children's Crusade for Abortion, and No More Sex for Repression. The glass-and-concrete English academe in which her husband teaches burgeons with notices for all seasons. They include the Women's Lib Nude Encounter Group, the Gaysoc Elizabethan Evening: With Madrigals…. Each year, campus fashions change in delicate modulation with the spirit of the day…. At the party that is the crux of the novel we find young guests in Afghan yak, combat wear, wet-look plastic. The fauna ranges from bearded Jesuses and long-haired androgynes to...

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Nick Totton

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

It must be … self-admiration that leads Malcolm Bradbury to fill a third of Who Do You Think You Are? with poor and loutish parodies of other writers, many of whom are a good deal better than himself. Mr Bradbury is of the opinion that random exaggeration and distortion, plus vulgarity, are a substitute for really understanding the forces which generate a writer's idiosyncracies; this opinion is false.

Having finished with the parodies, a reader may turn back to the stories to see just what it is that Mr Bradbury so much prefers to Murdoch, Durrell, Spark and company. To complicate matters, Mr Bradbury's own stories are really rather good, and often extremely funny. In 'A Goodbye for Evadne...

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Martin Green

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Stepping Westward is a great advance over Malcolm Bradbury's first novel, Eating People Is Wrong; in fact, it shows a really significant comic talent. (p. 53)

But I don't want primarily to appraise [Stepping Westward] here. I want to reflect on some of its themes, both as Bradbury handles them, and as they exist (in the reader's mind) outside his handling of them. Just what makes him a significant comic talent, of course, is that he puts his finger on material in the reader's mind that stimulates one to this sort of thinking. These themes may be described as some American psychological types and their environment, or the differences between all that and the English equivalent....

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(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

The History Man is a novel about dehumanization; behind the book is a strong visual analogy, of a flat, hostile landscape, not our good old friend, of multi-storey car parks, block buildings, blank walls, treeless spaces, run-down city scapes, a graffiti-scarred new university which could, if events require it, be well converted into a factory, a world in which it is hard to put in the person. The characters, too, are hard objects, and there is no entry into their psychology or their consciousness: they manifest themselves by their speech and their actions. There is one ostensibly sympathetic character, who speaks for humanism; she is a deception to the reader. The central figure, Howard Kirk, the radical...

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John Walsh

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Although he claims, in the Introduction [to All Dressed Up and Nowhere to Go], to having never been an Angry Young Man in the 1950s (they were all ten years older than he), Malcolm Bradbury's stance in this collection of witty sociological essays is precisely that of the provincial, anti-establishment, pooh-poohing intellect associated with Amis, Osborne, and Wain in their prime.

First published in 1960 and 1962, his two books, Phogey! How to Have Class in a Classless Society and All Dressed Up and Nowhere to Go or the Poor Man's Guide to the Affluent Society, collected here in a new edition, are masterly studies in the never-had-it-so-good Britain that emerged from the post-war...

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Martin Amis

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

It is not every year that Malcolm Bradbury writes a novel. It is every decade that Malcolm Bradbury writes a novel. Already he has called 'Rates of Exchange' 'a novel for the early eighties,' just as '"Stepping Westward" was my novel for the early sixties.' Given such ambitions, it's no wonder that Bradbury's books are notoriously slow to get off the ground—and, in the present case, slower still to land.

'Rates of Exchange' begins with a cod history of Slaka, the imaginary capital of an imaginary East European state. This teasing sketch is written with such ravenous drollery that you can almost hear the author rubbing his hands and smacking his lips at the prospect of the feast to come. Page 13...

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Roger Lewis

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[In Malcolm Bradbury's Rates of Exchange] Slaka is a volatile state in the Soviet orbit. Its 'history is a mystery' because at various times it has been conquered by every tribe in existence. This quirky Ruritania is in permanent flux: the grammatical structure of its language alters overnight (the populace obediently setting aside time in which to change placards), there are several financial systems, and the world beyond the capital is shrouded in mystery. It is a landscape in which gross confusion stems from an attempt to be organised.

Into this world comes Dr Petworth, a minor academic from an even less exalted institute of higher education, a linguist despatched by the British Council on...

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Francis King

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

What is best in [Rates of Exchange] is not the plot, which is essentially thin, nor the characters, who are essentially stereotypes derived from other Iron Curtain novels, but the exhilarating vigour of its author's intellect and style. I particularly enjoyed those passages in which, in the manner of Fielding—a novelist whom he resembles in his mixture of humanity, frankness and irony—Mr Bradbury buttonholes the reader as 'cher lecteur' and then delivers to him what is, in effect, a dazzlingly clever mini-essay in a style notable for the crispness of its imagery and the athleticism of its pace.

Francis King, "Professional, Foul," in The Spectator, Vol. 250, No....

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Hermione Lee

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

To cover all of twentieth century fiction in 200 pages is no easy task; Professor Bradbury's survey ['The Modern American Novel'] does it smoothly and well. The necessary chronological structure is livened up by the trick of starting each decade with a key moment….

The literary 'isms' of these decades are clearly defined….

Bradbury is surely right to take Crane's 'The Red Badge of Courage,' Norris's 'McTeague' and Dreiser's 'Sister Carrie' as the crucial turn-of-the-century novels, to give prominence to the innovations of Gertrude Stein and Dos Passos, to promote Henry Roth's 'Call It Sleep' (1935) as a major precursor of later Jewish-American fiction, and to rate Pynchon as the...

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David Montrose

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

A critical record, in a mere 186 pages, 'of the achievement of American fiction since the turning-point of the 1890s', Malcolm Bradbury's [The Modern American Novel] resembles, at first glance, a literary equivalent of those whirlwind tours that promise the delights of 12 capitals in seven days…. The book should be judged for what it is: a compact introduction for rookie undergraduates.

Given the incidence of bibliophobia on our campuses, the book had to be, above all, brief and comprehensive. Depth is, therefore, a necessary victim. Nor is comprehensiveness taken so far as to embrace writers who do not fit into the academically-conceived tradition of 'the Modern American Novel'. There are...

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Joel Conarroe

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[Rates of Exchange] manages to be funny, gloomy, shrewd and silly all at once. Much of it, especially the first hundred pages or so, reads less like fiction than like a meticulously detailed journal kept by a jaundiced traveler with total recall. To anyone who has ever done time in that funny, gloomy place called Moscow the book will afford innumerable shocks of recognition. To everyone else it will provide comic but nevertheless reliable exposure to a land of astonishing inefficiency, awful food, rampant paranoia, and surprisingly hospitable (and lovable) people….

[The book is], more often than not, engaging, even though Bradbury, like all compulsive wits (and especially the British sort),...

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Rachel Billington

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Malcolm Bradbury, the author of "Rates of Exchange," has always been concerned with defining the value of language. He once wrote that the novel "may resemble the real world in many respects and may appeal to a common recognition of society, reality, humanity; but it is a world made of language."…

Although he has always used campus life and campus characters for his fictional world, he has never been what one might describe as an intellectual writer. His favored weapon has been the traditionally English sword of irony and satire, though his technique merges often (and very successfully) into the broader strokes of comedy and even farce. He simply loves language, using it with sharpness and...

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