Malcolm Bradbury

Start Free Trial

Introduction

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

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

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

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 feature of Mr. Bradbury's background is that a high proportion of all the faculty are disappointed to be teaching where they are, instead of at Cambridge. They feel lost and without either status or purpose….

The people, though, would be just as viable in an American faculty. They are Mr. Bradbury's great triumph....

(This entire section contains 622 words.)

See This Study Guide Now

Start your 48-hour free trial to unlock this study guide. You'll also get access to more than 30,000 additional guides and more than 350,000 Homework Help questions answered by our experts.

Get 48 Hours Free Access

He knows them, cares about them, does not sentimentalize them, and gives each, even the absurd, his measure of respect. That is why it is important that he gets read. Professor Treece is forty, a faded young man such as we have all known, still preserving in a faded but honorable fashion the relics of his liberal youth. He is a very good chap, without enough energy to cut a way through life; he likes girls, but his vitality is not overmastering and he gets lost in labyrinths of personal relations….

The whole of this central theme is treated with both originality and depth, and Mr. Bradbury is a natural novelist. It is fair to say that, though much of the comic decoration is extremely effective, it does not come from the same level of originality. Mr. Bradbury, who is himself an academic, has, like Amis and Wain and a good many other youngish English writers of the Fifties studied Eng. Lit. and adopted certain modish forms of farce. There is in fact a hilarious chapter in his novel where a young academic novelist-poet, as much a drip as any of the young academic novelist-poets' own characters, arrives to give a lecture. That is fun, but some of this knockabout faux féroce writing is getting altogether too derivative—one of the occupational dangers of this whole school of writing in England either in prose or verse. Too many scenes have filtered through Waugh, Wodehouse, William Cooper …, come out in "Lucky Jim," and are continuing to come out, even in a book which, at a deeper level, is as much on its own as Mr. Bradbury's. Still, that doesn't matter much. His is a really interesting talent, odd, perceptive, melancholy, and tender. I should be ready to take a fair-sized bet on his future.

C. P. Snow, "No Faculty for Finding Love," in Saturday Review, Vol. XLIII, No. 15, April 9, 1960, p. 29.

Martin Tucker

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

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.

Both novels also utilize the same device for their climax. Amis has Jim deliver a speech for the university at an important town-gown affair; the speech is naturally a fiasco of hilariously appalling degree, and Jim sinks to the platform dead drunk. Bradbury gives the speech not to the hero but to a new character, someone not unlike Amis himself, an angry-young-man novelist who has been invited to the university for an important social-literary celebration.

Yet Bradbury is by no means a pilferer. He refers to Amis by name and by allusion…. But when plot incidents are forgotten, Bradbury and Amis are worlds apart. Amis' book ended with Jim freed from the stagnant ocean of convention that engulfs the university town; Jim is on his way to London and freedom. It was a clever escape, an amusing plot contrivance that got Jim his freedom, but as a solution to the problem Amis opened up, it could not be taken seriously: Jim is ready for new picaresque adventures in London, for in never really facing himself, he has kept the possibility of surprise available at every moment. But Bradbury's novel goes much further afield than Amis ever intended. Bradbury progresses from the ridiculous to the tragic, as Waugh did in Vile Bodies. He shows the insane amusements of his milieu only to close with that milieu's lack of resources.

What Bradbury is writing is a morality drama. At 40, Treece begins to review his life and wonders how much of a man he has been. (p. 19)

Treece is supposed to represent the old liberal who no longer "fits" into the new doctrinaire leftism. The political theme however is as relevant or irrelevant as any other part of the bigger question Bradbury is dealing with—the question of commitment…. Treece lacks the sense of commitment which gives meaning to any artist, and … being a liberal humanist, Treece is committed to his virtue—honest doubt—which grows more painful as the years pass.

In any society Treece would be a passive liberal. Just as he is nothing without a society to give him meaning, so he is a welcome, necessary and unnoticed addition to any society he enters. He is the eternal questioner: everyone listens to his questions, but no one tries to answer them, including himself. His questions are never meant to be answered: that is his tragedy….

You may be depressed by the conclusion, but you can also expect some of the brightest comedy in years. Eating People Is Wrong is often foolish; it is more often magnificent, and it certainly marks the debut of a first-rate talent. (p. 20)

Martin Tucker, "'You Must Expect to Be Depressed'," in The New Republic, Vol. 142, No. 16, May 2, 1960, pp. 19-20.

The New Yorker

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

["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

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

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

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

[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.

He gives a balanced and intricate historical account of the writer's idea of his function in a liberal society. Throughout the modern period (1870 to now) he discerns a tension between an excited hopefulness, a feeling that the artist is a free man, rid of the old pressures of inherited values and orders—and an apocalyptic despair, a sense that institutions are now blank and anonymous, that values and art itself are essentially subjective and ephemeral, and that freedom itself is only a meaningless lack of relation to anyone or anything.

These are the grand clichés of literary chatter. Malcolm Bradbury treats them with enough knowledge and respect to show their operation as real forces in men's work and lives. He sees a hardening of scepticism and a thickening of uncertainty after the great creative period of Lawrence, Eliot, Conrad, Yeats, and Joyce, all of whom were able to create a style from a despair, an orderly product from an intuition of blankness or chaos. For them, detachment from the social process, or even the desire to destroy or undo the existing culture were a function of the need to create new and durable values centered in their work itself….

Professor Bradbury's discussion of the interlay of tradition and innovation, gaiety and despair, has an impressive detachment and balance, even to the shaping of his sentences. His discussions of egalitarian culture is by contrast vehement. He ends with an impassioned stand on behalf of what Henry James called "the beautiful difficulties of art", of ideas which in literature are not simply ideas but "part of a differently realized world of experience". It is on behalf of this world that he so mistrusts its parody in the differently realized images of the mass media. In these later sections he uses words like purity, disinterestedness and mystery with a conjuring authority which is curiously impressive after the ordered dryness of the earlier part of the book.

It is worth remarking in this context that he does not really discuss what ought to be, if it isn't, a cultural force for high culture—the great increase of organized study of literature. He tells us that English literature was only really an object of study in this century, and, in another place, almost without comment, that good modern writers, if they went to university at all, usually read classics or history, not English….

Malcolm Bradbury is one of the few good creative writers in the university literature schools. He could have told us more about their effects—whether they are inhibiting, or stimulating or neutral. F. R. Leavis believed they should be the custodians of value. I had hoped they were at least what Professor Bradbury says barely exists—"places to find sophisticated discussions of literary practice". Professor Bradbury writes almost as if it is generally accepted that they are purveyors of the bland levelling culture and its dubious malaise.

Writers and readers have been driven to hysteria, lassitude or cramping dogmatism by thinking too much about the concepts in this book. Professor Bradbury's virtue finally is that he knows what he is talking about. His style has the solidity and finish that comes from ideas thoroughly thought through. And that is something to be grateful for.

A. S. Byatt, "Creating a Style Out of Despair," in The Times, London, September 9, 1971, p. 10.

John Spurling

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

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 probably for that reason tends to equate humanity with liberal humanism. Nevertheless, for all he often appears to be no more than another advocate for naturalism (which he calls "realism"), he does make a genuine attempt to occupy the middle ground.

He reminds us, first, in an essay called "The Open Form", of the immensely varied history of the novel … and he argues that at this particular moment in its history "in a good number of our writers there is a desire to resist formal wholeness." If I read the essay right, he is suggesting that the making of new fiction depends not on the continuous invention and development of new means of expression, but on the constant recycling of old means. Stated so baldly, this may sound suspicious: are we merely to read Nathalie Sarraute as if she was Dostoevsky or Rilke instead of as if she was Robbe-Grillet or Butor? But I don't think this is Professor Bradbury's point. He is really calling for a more empirical approach to all writers, whether of the "crystalline" or "journalistic" type, for an approach which would so far as possible release writers from their period and genre and would place less emphasis on the history of literature with its accompanying list of -isms, and more on the actual means deployed by each individual writer to support his fiction. In other words, he considers that novelists have more freedom of form at their disposal than, for instance, poets, and that critics should make some effort to appreciate the fact. (pp. 68-9)

He proceeds to take both bulls—the bull of fiction as autonomous art and the bull of fiction as journalism—by the horns and, banging their heads together in the politest possible way, concludes that "while we must regard novels as verbal constructs, which they inescapably are, we must see what is constructed not alone as a self-sustaining entity but a species of persuasion—the writer handling material for the reader to engage him properly in the world of this once-and-for-all work."

I am not altogether convinced by the content of Professor Bradbury's argument. It seems to me rather too early in the history of the novel to be able to judge whether all the possible changes of form have yet been explored…. It may be that contemporary novelists are simply swinging back like a pendulum from extreme crystallisation towards journalism, as Professor Bradbury detects; or it could be that they are going through a phase of retrenchment after the bold experiments of the first half of this century so as to experiment still more boldly in the future. Again, I think that Professor Bradbury's lack of sympathy with the non-naturalistic novel has led him to underrate the real adjustments critics have to make in their own thinking every time a new novelist of stature puts a bomb under their existing poetics. There is a distinction between the "experimental" writer like B. S. Johnson, who cuts a hole in his page or shuffles up a novel in a box, and the writer like Nathalie Sarraute, or perhaps Firbank, who entirely alters the fictional mode of perception. I don't think Professor Bradbury makes this distinction.

But I am attracted by his temperate tone of voice and by the fact that he offers at least a chance of reconciliation between the factions; and perhaps therefore a chance for the writers to be reappraised in terms of their fictions rather than their theories or the movements to which they have been assigned. "A species of persuasion" may not be a very exact definition of the novel, but it is surely a sane and restorative notion…. Criticism remains a personal matter between critic and writer…. After all, manning the barricades for one group of writers against another not only plays into the hands of professional critics but makes one feel distinctly uneasy: there are so many writers one doesn't like on the same side, and so many one does like on the other. (pp. 69-70)

John Spurling, "Unman the Barricades," in Encounter, Vol. XLI, No. 6, December, 1973, pp. 66-70.∗

Margaret Drabble

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

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 of physical reality: it may be a book about ideas, but the ideas are embodied in closely observed details…. Consciousness of Freud enabled, indeed obliged novelists to dwell on the workings of the unconscious; consciousness of sociology has enabled all of us to read new meanings into objects, and Bradbury catches extremely well the anxiety of those self-aware people who know that their every choice, their every word or movement, transmits a message, and defines them as this or that kind of person.

It is a hard, uncomfortable world, appropriately described in the present tense since these are present people…. Bradbury refrains here from moral comment: his tone as narrator is impeccably detached, politely pleasant. A thoroughly civilized writer, he has written a novel that raises some very serious questions about the nature of civilization without for a moment appearing pretentious or didactic—a fine achievement. (p. 3)

Margaret Drabble, in a review of "The History Man," in The New York Times Book Review, February 8, 1976, pp. 2-3.

George Steiner

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

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 girls with pouting plum-colored mouths….

These lists define the brittle, hectic landscape of Bradbury's comedy, which is England in its current dishevelment. Open your door and the jetsam of a broken culture tides in…. Howard and Barbara Kirk welcome them all. It is their business to conduct life on the broad and rushing front of involvement, of high-finish immediacy. (p. 130)

The Kirks embody a characteristic but fairly complicated piece of English domestic history. Bradbury calls them "new people." Howard is a representative product of the opening of educational-social doors in the fifties…. Barbara has made it to higher education owing to a Socialist teacher of English who has pushed an inherently bright but timid girl out of the gray ruck of family expectations…. England is shifting into the swing of the sixties. Marx, Freud, the Beatles are loud in the land. The young look back in anger on the bleak suffocations of their roots and upward scramble…. Sexual experiment and mutual license are the most evident gestures of the new dispensation. But the revolution is general: in diet and clothes, in mobility and dreams.

Howard's sociological study "The Coming of the New Sex" is a success. It is a work in consort with the times—a little weak, perhaps, on documentation, but robustly in tune with the energies and challenges of the permissive scene. (Brad-bury's handling of the "adult-liberal" idiom of the London reviewing tribe is immaculate.) An offer is made by the new university at Watermouth. (pp. 130-31)

The moves are familiar: marital abrasions in the groves of academe, departmental Machiavellianism with a dash of ideology, the carapaces of the old and the pimples of the young. There are moments in which Howard and Barbara almost come to question their own dynamic vulnerability, the ecumenical welcome they have extended to the spirit and demon of the age. Windows have been broken and things said which are nearly irreparable. But brightness does not fall from the air. (pp. 131-32)

It is not the plot that matters. Malcolm Bradbury has an acute sense of the autonomous spiralling of language in a society in which anything can be and very nearly everything must be said. The world of the Kirks is one of vehement confession. (There is irony in their name.) Language streams outward, from the bedroom, from the sociological questionnaire, from the lips of the guru. The game of being is the game of words: probing, corrosive, charged with generational tension and frankness as never before. "Historical inevitability," breathes Miss Callendar, the young instructor in the dark-blue trouser suit, as she yields to Dr. Kirk. And the reply comes pat: "Marx arranged it."

The result is an intense stylization. For all its acid and beautifully gauged actuality, "The History Man" is very much in the manner of Henry James. It has the same density of convention, the same alertness to the flick of intonation…. All in all, this is one of the funniest, most intelligent novels to come out of England in a long time. (p. 132)

George Steiner, "Party Lines," in The New Yorker, Vol. LII, No. 11, May 3, 1976, pp. 130-32.

Nick Totton

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

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 Winterbottom', for example, he cunningly exploits the central character's 'liberal', trimming evasiveness, giving him a prolix dexterity that makes his voice a marvellous narrative instrument, while at the same time displaying his personality. This is a kind of real economy of structure at which Mr Bradbury excels….

There is a certain glibness, it is true, in the relentless placing and typing of characters—a bit surprising in view of the title story's argument that such a taxonomy is insupportable. Sometimes Mr Bradbury lets his anti-modernist ideology dominate. But by and large the comedy of these stories is humane and humanist, able to attain a respectable seriousness.

Nick Totton, "In Short," in The Spectator, Vol. 237, No, 7736, October 2, 1976, p. 22.∗

Martin Green

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

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. But in fact, as Bradbury fictionally defines those types, they are something much more sharply challenging and richly suggestive than "types"; they are a discovery of his own, and a discovery for us of our own experience.

The story tells how James Walker, a literary, married Englishman, comes to America on a creative writing fellowship to a Western university, and there encounters a different idea of being a writer and being married. This idea, which is essentially the same mode of being in two different contexts, is in fact his "America." He finds it very exciting and very inviting, and much larger than the English equivalents. But he himself does not measure up to it, and at the end of the book he goes back to England, which means his "large domestic wife" and his writing of querulous comic novels.

The American idea or mode of being is embodied first in Julie Snowflake, a student at somewhere like Wellesley, who meets Walker on the ship from England, visits him during the Christmas vacation, takes him off with her to California, and finally rejects him. This is the sexual, would-be-marital, mode of the idea. In its literary-intellectual version, the American idea is embodied in Bernard Froelich, a member of the English faculty at Benedict Arnold University, who gets Walker the fellowship, who persuades him to refuse the loyalty oath the university imposes, and who exploits the resultant scandal to advance his own interests.

Bradbury has drawn both these figures very well, it seems to me. It is the things they say that are best—very accurate, very funny, very interesting and impressive bits of behavior, but he also knows the house they live in, the books they read, the food they eat, and so on. The writing about them is on a different level from the straight satirical description of institutions and streets and Americana. Bradbury is always sharp in his observation, but when he deals with Julie Snowflake and Bernard Froelich he is doing more than observe. He is responding to an idea, and the surface reality interests him also as the expression of something within, about which he has many powerful and conflicting feelings. (pp. 54-5)

Walker represents England, and English liberalism, we are told. Bradbury offers us some quite elaborate analyses of those concepts. I am unconvinced. Politically, Walker is a lower-middle-class conservative, it seems to me; ideologically, he is a romantic pessimist with a horror of the technological future; and I don't see anything valuably English about those categories. (I mean, of course, that his England does not impose itself on me as even comically authentic.) But Walker does represent his kind of negativeness quite vividly, and thereby gives full value to the American positiveness. He "brings out" the other characters. And since this American quality is so powerful even when not brought out, is so much a feature of the cultural scene, Walker's experience does represent that of Englishmen (among others) when in America. (pp. 57-8)

What Froelich has, what "America" has, and what Walker has not, is an egotism of the body. This American type, though involved so much in intellectual activities, is dedicated to self-expression and self-enforcement in immediate relationships, tests of strength, and direct sensual-emotional contacts. The English equivalent expresses himself and enforces himself much more through his identification with cultural abstractions—in Walker's case, through his writing.

One of the puzzling things about Walker, as a person, is the completeness (the 100% quality) of his self-negation. He has no convictions, no opinions, no power to assert himself, no power to cope with the world or with other people; the reader wonders how he holds together. And yet we are told that Froelich "envies and admires" him; and Julie seeks him out and gives herself to him. Why? Because of what he has written, in both cases. And that is obviously not a matter of mere talent, if we separate that off from the personality it expresses. We need only turn to the book flap to remind ourselves, with a glance at Bradbury's own career history, how much seriousness, industry, energy, ambition, and sheer force of will go into becoming what James Walker is. This too is self-creation, and of a kind that impresses the other two.

Julie and Froelich, though so much more impressive in their social performances, even as people of intelligence, are probably not going to achieve anything in the world of literature, or of any other kind of "abstract" activity. They put a lot of their energy into such activities, but not of the best kind of energy. Froelich is going to be chairman of his department. He is writing a book on the plight of the twentieth-century writer, and we are given to understand that it will be just another such book. All that inventiveness in immediate contacts becomes sterile academicism in the world of thought. And I think the reader knows instinctively that Julie too will always be able to express herself in the world of immediate contacts too completely to need, or be capable of, any large-scale venture into abstractions. (pp. 58-9)

There is much stress on Walker's paleness, flabbiness, paunchiness, physical uninterestingness, and on these being English qualities in him. The attractiveness of Julie, and of American girls in general, is located in their physical firmness, litheness, springiness. Much is made also of his clumsiness, his gracelessness, his lack of physical coordination—his ineptitude in the swimming pool and at changing a tire. Julie's first attempt to reform him is an attempt to teach him to "relax physically." And after his few months in America, Walker does become browner, leaner, fitter, more interesting physically—and the mere approach to the boat home sets him sneezing again. America is the land of bodies, as Dr. Jochum, a European wiseman, tells Walker. (p. 59)

America is finally the land of freedom, of anarchy, in every cultural, moral, and sexual way. The campus buildings are a riot of architectural styles, the students are extravagantly sophisticated and extravagantly naive, the married couples on the faculty swap partners for the night. A part of Walker's fascination with America is his sense that anything goes; right and wrong are irrelevant there….

Not that Julie Snowflake and Froelich represent moral and intellectual breakdown; quite the reverse, and it is the novel's generosity and justice toward them in this way that is one of its best features. (p. 60)

The Americans that Julie and Froelich can be said to represent must be primarily the intellectuals. But in a longer perspective, surely a great deal of the country can be said to be, as it were, focused through them. They are experimenters, morally, socially, and intellectually. Their personality style promises to be able to handle difficult and conventional situations—to be able in ten minutes to establish them as what they are, with total strangers, unprotected and unsponsored—to be able to sell themselves. And this is what nonacademic America seems to Walker, a series of alarmingly difficult and unconventional situations. (pp. 61-2)

And surely Bradbury has the right to identify American with this kind of personality structure, in which the ego is located much more in the area of direct emotional-sensual relations, direct and "childish" affections and hostilities, and every kind of cultural abstraction is distrusted, from formal manners to state socialism. It presumably has something to do with the much more permissive system of child-rearing in America. This is the America that erupted in the Berkeley students' movement, and this is the America one can place in opposition to the official personality of Communist Russia. (p. 62)

Walker represents an opposite type at least half against his own will. He believes in American-style "freedom" before he comes to America, despises his own domesticity, and is only halfhearted about the English virtues of politeness, detachment, not hurting people, and so on. He sees England much as his American friends see it, as a damp dugout for the damp of soul, a national funk hole. And at the end he completely accepts Julie's indictment and dismissal of him. And it is in the completeness of his failure that the punch of Bradbury's story lies.

Julie and Froelich were attracted to Walker partly by his negativeness; in their world he is a curiosity of almost pornographic interest; he is a nudist among knights in armor. They took him into their favor, offered to play the games of life with him, promoting him over the heads of a hundred other people nearer their own size and weight. The moment they forgot to give him extra advantages, the moment they began to use both hands, he was hopelessly outclassed. He was knocked to the floor and trampled under foot. Bradbury is saying that this is likely to happen every time between an Englishman and an American—at least, as long as the Englishman accepts the American standards, the superiority of the psychological structure that is described as "American." And that Englishmen should do that seems to be part of American cultural dominance today. (p. 63)

..…

I wrote the preceding remarks in 1965, immediately after reading Stepping Westward. Now, in 1972, it seems worth adding a few more, which derive from the events of the seven years that have passed since then. It is now not true that Englishmen "must" accept American cultural standards or psychological structures.

In America, a great deal has happened that can be summed up by saying that we have entered upon an age of revolution. A considerable number of bright young people have made up their minds that a revolution must happen, and everyone who thinks has been forced to declare himself for or against the idea, and to say why. The American personality type that Bradbury presents as material for comedy has begun to deal in death. Its love of freedom has ceased to mean mostly sexual license. It has taken on political functions. (pp. 63-4)

For perhaps the most interesting thing that the seven year lapse measures is the way "reality" has changed while the literary conventions have not. (By "reality" I mean that consensus view of America which is powerful and general enough to force itself on a writer as much in touch as Bradbury.) I have read several other British comic novels since 1965 that took the same angle on America as Stepping Westward did. Some of them were published slightly before, but essentially they were contemporary with it, and David Lodge's Out of the Shelter was considerably later. Two of them, Julian Mitchell's As Far As You Can Go and Kingsley Amis's One Fat Englishman were of comparable literary interest with Stepping Westward, and Andrew Sinclair's The Hallelujah Bum was at least lively. In all of them (they form a distinct genre of modern British fiction) the view of America and the way its idea contrasts with the English idea is the same. In them all the central character, who represents the novelist, comes to the U.S.A., responds reluctantly to its various challenges and invitations, gradually makes up his mind for it as opposed to England, but (usually) returns home nevertheless, feeling unable to meet those challenges adequately. And though they do not deny the tragic elements in the American situation, they respond more to the comic elements. They see even the tragic as comic, in the sense that it is another manifestation of the whole country's size and vitality, its oppositeness to the smallness and claustrophobia of Britain.

Of course the heroes do not all represent the same England as Bradbury's Walker does…. The differences between the heroes illustrate the range of British types involved in this imaginative encounter with "America" during the sixties.

Moreover, during these years we also saw America produce comic work that corresponds to the British, in the sense that it issues from the identity that Bradbury attributes to Froelich—I mean the comedy of Heller and Pynchon and M.A.S.H. and above all John Barth. Giles Goat-Boy is surely the supreme manifestation of that aggressive, extrovert ebullience, that harsh, gross body-humor, which Bradbury describes as "America."

But both these styles seem to have been by-passed by events. America is no longer triumphantly comic, for its citizens or for its visitors. (pp. 64-6)

Moreover, among the Englishmen I have recently met over here, more and more seem to have that sense of themselves, and of their style as Englishmen, in America. They move through the thundering ruins of this great, gaudy, wicked Hollywood set, this Day of the Locust scenario, openly keeping a tight hold on their integrity—publishing a sense that they belong to a tight little tradition, unambitious and untriumphant, but simple, solid, cautious, durable. It is a vastly more attractive posture than that of James Walker. Morally they have every advantage. Imaginatively, however, I suspect that the disintegrated looseness and openness of the comic heroes of the sixties promised more in the way of new life for British comedy. (p. 66)

Martin Green, "Transatlantic Communications: Malcolm Bradbury's 'Stepping Westward'," in Old Lines, New Forces: Essays on the Contemporary British Novel, 1960–1970, edited by Robert K. Morris, Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 1976, pp. 53-66.

Biography

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

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 sociologist who, four years after the revolutionary season of 1968, when onerous reality seems wonderfully to lift, tries to sustain his transforming passion in an inert world. But he believes that privacy is over, and the self is no more than the sum of the roles that it plays. Howard acts, but otherwise, in a world where speech-acts and ideas cannot affix themselves to a sense of value in action or history, passivity is the norm. Accidents become important, and so do happenings, those chance events that arise when we give a party or juxtapose students in a classroom. There are no purposeful plots, except Howard's; he plots in a plotless world, hoping to serve the radical plot of history. The dominant tense is the present, diminishing the sense of historical or personal rootedness, making the world instantaneous; the text is hard, presented in long paragraph blocks which immerse the agents and their speech. The mode is irony, and neither the world nor its personages are our good old friend. And realism moves toward a harsh abstraction. (p. 207)

Malcolm Bradbury, "Putting in the Person: Character and Abstraction in Current Writing and Painting," in The Contemporary English Novel, Stratford-Upon-Avon Studies, No. 18, edited by Malcolm Bradbury and David Palmer, 1979. Reprint by Holmes & Meier Publishers, Inc., 1980, pp. 181-208.∗

John Walsh

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

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 decade of austerity, and discovered coffee bars, geometric furniture, American slang, beehive hairdos, Swedish glassware, sun-lounges and sociology … then tried to work out a British life-style to go with the new toys.

Bradbury's central victim is the 'phogey', (a conflation of foggy, phoney, and old fogey), an imperial throwback, a mean-spirited, wary, insular, super-conventional, know-your-place traditionalist that lurks within the psyche of every Brit (even, it sometimes appears, within Mr Bradbury himself). His brisk anatomising of this stuffy figure's beliefs and responses to external stimuli are marvellously entertaining; and he identifies types (The Hanging Judge, The Genial Administrator, The Lady Academic, The Good Sport) with a gimlet eye for detail.

Elsewhere in the volume, Bradbury turns his attention to some modern developments in those large issues, wealth and class…. And if, like him, you find both the trappings and assumptions of consumerist society getting too much to bear, you can adopt his guerilla tactics of voluntary poverty, provincialism and the agrarian life.

Mr Bradbury's essays, as one would expect from the author of The History Man, are unfailingly elegant, even when at their most polemical, full of new-minted wisdom … although their ostensible subject is 20 years old, and manage to make many serious points while dazzling the reader with wit.

John Walsh, in a review of "All Dressed Up and Nowhere to Go," in Books and Bookmen, No. 327, December, 1982, p. 31.

Martin Amis

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

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 sees the hero, the laconic linguist Petworth, warily circling Slaka Airport….

The opening wedge of prose would seem to be an elaborate dramatisation of culture shock…. Bradbury's apocryphal language—acknowledged here as the fruit of a collaborative classroom project—is an impressive artefact but an unwieldy one, often imperilling the novel's sense of balance.

Anyway, given so many pages in which to recuperate, and so carefully acclimatised by the official guide, the reader finds that his culture shock is dwindling into a long series of mild surprises. All novels, as Professor Bradbury will confirm, are official tours through invented countries; and, as a guide, Bradbury is perhaps rather too finicky and oversolicitous. He doesn't want us to miss anything. 'Poor Petwit, I am sorry. For you there is no story at all,' some cultural janitor tells the hero on page 129, as the novel belatedly embarks on its familiar itinerary: lunches, lectures, romance with lady novelist, entanglement with literary placeman Plitplov (a version of Bernard Froelich in 'Stepping Westward'), brush with comic ambassador and his nymphomaniac wife. The comic ambassador, a farcical stutterer, must be one of the most outrageously unfunny characters in modern fiction: 'Perhaps you'd care for a pee, care for a pee a peach brandy?… Well, how about a sort of piss a sort of Piesporter?' But then, too, the novel does a lot of stuttering on its own account.

Take the 15-page wait at Slaka Airport. Here, Petworth expects the official machinery to fulfil its function of 'meeting and greeting.' Yet 'there has been no meeter to meet him, no greeter to greet him.' A few pages later there is still 'no meeter, no greeter.' A few pages later he is 'waiting for his meeter to meet him, his greeter to greet him.' A few pages later 'the process of meeting and greeting' has yet to begin. If this is deliberate, why is it deliberate?

Similarly, the prose is littered with the lazy adjectives 'small,' 'little,' 'vast,' 'big,' 'fine' and 'great'—especially great. This last epithet must put in two or three hundred appearances. Again one allows for a calculated effect. But then great goes away for a spell. But then great returns, in spades…. No doubt, or just possibly, this is deliberate. Great. But why?

Bradbury is a deliberate writer. As is the case with his stablemate David Lodge, Bradbury's modernity is courteous and straightforward, almost apologetic, part of the expository thrust of his fiction. This seems to be the English way. Bradbury tells you what he is up to, and so do his characters…. Bradbury has set up the many neat polarities implicit in his title, and these themes are ably and ingeniously dispatched. But the novel's air of teachability is greater than its spontaneous life.

At least two other Westerners have stepped eastward in the recent past: John Updike in 'Bech: A Book' and Saul Bellow in 'The Dean's December.' Comparisons are odious—also unflattering. Bradbury does not match Updike's seriocomic swiftness or Bellow's troubled, meditative realism. True, he is going for something rather more abstract, rather more 'readerly'; but in the end 'Rates of Exchange' is uneconomical—prohibitively so.

Bradbury is a novelist with one voice, one register: it is cold, amused, detached, donnish, pedagogic…. 'Rates of Exchange' is his first venture outside the academic milieu. In the real world, in 'a novel for the early eighties,' that voice sounds somewhat strained; it drones, and stutters, and goes on a bit too long.

Martin Amis, "A Slowcoach in Slaka," in The Observer, April 3, 1983, p. 29.

Roger Lewis

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

[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 a culture tour. Much of his life has been spent exporting 'the ideal British product': the English language. Almost permanently on the move from country to country, he can discern only the drab similarities of his destinations rather than the exciting differences. As genteelly crumpled as his lecture notes, Petworth is menopausal, almost always fatigued, and never fights back when riled. Our hero in Rates of Exchange, with his paper-clips and Fontana Modern Masters, would seem almost wholly unappealing. Bradbury's success, however, is to conduct us behind the ungalvanic facade so that we come to realise that the meekness is in fact virtue. Petworth, 'a speech without a subject, a verb without a noun, certainly not a character in the world historical sense', is nevertheless the only still point in a convulsively turning world.

Into his latest novel Bradbury has hurled all his pet hates, coming to terms with what bores him by making it comic: airports, immigration controls,… couriers. His world is one where irritating fads breed like Ionesco's chairs. This would pall were Bradbury not able to turn it into a theatre of the absurd…. [In] his novels he writes as a critic (where he gives the impression of being a wry commentator on his characters' activities rather than the inventor of them) and in his criticism he is enormously creative (making imaginative connections and absorbing himself in what he writes about). He plays one role under the guise of the other.

To depict Slaka he develops a style that easily allows both farce and seriousness. Intermingled with the jokes is a subtle disquisition about freedom and privacy. There is no unemployment in Slaka because everybody is officially occupied spying on everybody else. Rooms are abristle with sonic lugs and behind every mirror lurks a member of the secret police who minutely scrutinises one's ablutions. Watched in this way the citizens become actors, learning to disguise their real emotions with such skill that they don't know what an authentic feeling would be like. In this bizarre world of duplicity and stratagem the mild-mannered Petworth appears a subversive warrior. His gentle honesty, in the midst of such mendacity, seems like dissident troublesomeness. He is temperamentally unsuited to barter on this psychological rate of exchange.

Roger Lewis, "Merely Players," in New Statesman, Vol. 105, No. 2716, April 8, 1983, p. 24.∗

Francis King

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

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. 8074, April 9, 1983, p. 26.

Hermione Lee

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

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 outstanding writer of the early Sixties group that included Barth, Heller, Vonnegut and Kesey. There is an interesting comparison of James and Dreiser; there are expressive passages on writers such as Hemingway and Dos Passos, and some good quips about Wolfe's portentousness, Stein's gargantuanism … and Vonnegut's 'sentimental folksiness', and there's also a very useful bibliography.

Bradbury gives short shrift to women writers….

Still, as a reference book this is impressively informed and strongly directed. As a literary work for sustained reading, however, it is heavy going. As in his just-published novel, 'Rates of Exchange' (similarly preoccupied with the fate of language and character in the modern 'pluralist' universe), Bradbury's vocabulary is knowingly modish and tiresomely repetitive. Over-insistent key words—'psychic,' 'mythic,' 'discontinuous'—make all the writers sound alike.

In the 'post-modernist' period this language comes into its own: 'signs seem to outrun signification,' there is 'a crisis of intertextuality,' 'the novelist lives in a world of unattached signifiers,' the novel offers itself 'as a form of de-creation leading to re-creation,' 'the sign has floated free of the signified,' the text is 'functioning by an elaborate and often expository discursiveness working on the interface between two levels of experience.' This is the language of 'Rates of Exchange,' and these are the post-structuralist terms in which Bradbury renders the world and the book. It may be that Bradburese is the most authentic critical currency of the late twentieth century, but a lot of it leaves me, I'm afraid, with a bad attack of la nausée.

Hermione Lee, "Reader's Digest," in The Observer, April 24, 1983, p. 31.

David Montrose

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

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 no more than fleeting references to such notables as William Styron, Gore Vidal, and Flannery O'Connor…. E. L. Doctorow, John Irving and Don DeLillo, having emerged too recently yet to be set authors, receive similar treatment. And there is no room whatsoever for even the leading practitioners of that distinctively American form, the private-eye novel.

David Montrose, in a review of "The Modern American Novel," in New Statesman, Vol. 105, No. 2720, May 6, 1983, p. 23.

Joel Conarroe

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

[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), sometimes lets his cleverness get in the way of his story.

His protagonist is Angus Petworth, a middle-aged linguist who travels from London to "Slaka," where he gives some rarefied lectures on the English language…. To call him an antihero is seriously to understate the case—Petworth is a scarecrow with a passport. He neither acts nor reacts, and his conversation is less than memorable. It is Bradbury's curious triumph to make of this colorless nonperson a center of attention, to show how, a blank, he becomes the object of desire for a number of people who project onto his vacant persona their own frustrated erotic hopes….

Bradbury's satirical targets are legion. One running joke (a bit too long-running) has to do with language, butchered by everyone Petworth meets, e.g., "Oh my English, I wish it was gooder."… Language is Bradbury's theme—he also amuses himself at the expense of the "more fashionable thinkers of the Structuralist persuasion," and of Russian speech, reduced to a series of made up words, as in "Burs'ii Proly'aniii" (government bank), or "Prif'sorii Universitayii."

A minor pleasure (or perversity, depending on your point of view) derives from Bradbury's depiction of America and Americans. When he reveals that he has traveled in the States, Petworth is bombarded with questions: "Do they have topless seminars now in the university, the topless physics, the topless mathematics? How is your ego and your id?"…

So much for us! But then since everybody in the book, the British included, is made to look foolish we can forgive Bradbury his stereotypes. We can forgive him, too, his occasional prolixity and his tendency to strain after comic effects, can, in fact, ignore these things and just listen to the music. The novel (or journal, or compendium of cartoons) is full of winning characters and hilarious scenes. Anyone who thinks this sad old world of ours can do with an occasional laugh will find it satisfying.

Joel Conarroe, "Malcolm Bradbury: A Safari to Slaka," in Book World—The Washington Post, November 20, 1983, p. 3.

Rachel Billington

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

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 energy. "Stepping Westward," his second book, made hilarious fun of an Anglo-American professional exchange. His last novel, "The History Man" (1975), was celebrated in England as an indictment of the excesses of the academic revolution of the 1960's. Its celebrity grew after it was adapted into a popular television serial.

"Rates of Exchange," which was a finalist in the prestigious Booker Prize competition in Britain this year, is a very different sort of book. Suddenly, here the professor of English is the theorist. This densely written book, in which dialogue appears on the page in unparagraphed chunks, is a novel about an idea. It is an astonishing tour de force. Mr. Bradbury has invented an entire country, essentially mythic although Eastern European in origin, to sustain a proposition laid out before us in various forms in the course of the book.

"What, after all, is our life," the author asks near the start, "but a great dance in which we are all trying to fix the best going rate of exchange, using our minds and our sex, our taste and our clothes?" Trust nothing, he tells us, nothing is fixed, nothing is what it seems; "trust only the novelists, those deeper bankers who spend time trying to turn pieces of printed paper into value, but never pretend that the result is anything more than a useful fiction." This leads us to the most essential and most misleading "rate of exchange"—that in language.

Although the story line is simple, the novel designed to convey these ideas is frequently tough going. (p. 15)

"Rates of Exchange" is a novel by a supremely confident writer. This is both its strength and weakness. Mr. Bradbury dares to create a dominant author's voice and does this in an age when most novelists seem to want a cloak of invisibility. This voice, setting out the theme of the novel, leads us through the first 60-odd pages. Petworth, the protagonist, is hardly allowed a thought, although he is gradually being moved … from England to Slaka via airport, airplane and then airport again. The level of writing is excellent, and yet, in the light of the whole novel, this part appears a self-indulgence that Mr. Bradbury should have written, perhaps, for his own use and then put away. The novel, though substantial, should not have to bear what is in effect a long introduction.

His confidence shows again, appropriately so, in his use of the spoken word. Whatever their theme, how many writers would dare to put most of their dialogue in a Slakian kind of nonsense English? Sometimes, of course, the result is amusing … but it does not make for fluid reading. As with the opening pages, one admires and yet reserves commitment.

Mr. Bradbury is essentially a comic writer, a man gifted with the power to produce laughter. So comedy is possibly the clue to a final judgment on the book's success or failure. There are many funny jokes based on wordplay and puns and a few extremely funny scenes in "Rates of Exchange." However, in general, the tone is too bleak for laughter, the author's grip too tight on the reader's neck. Even the characters, brilliantly inventive though they are, seem too much under the thumb of their master for any heartbreaking moment of truth. (pp. 36-7)

While "Rates of Exchange" may not be an altogether successful work, it is nevertheless one of the most exciting, original and worthwhile novels to appear in Britain recently. (p. 37)

Rachel Billington, "Tongue-Tied Linguist," in The New York Times Book Review, November 20, 1983, pp. 15, 36-7.

Previous

Analysis