The Literature Man

Charles Nicholl

  • Cuts by Malcolm Bradbury
    Hutchinson, 106 pp, £6.95, April 1987, ISBN 0 09 168280 0
  • No, Not Bloomsbury by Malcolm Bradbury
    Deutsch, 373 pp, £17.95, May 1987, ISBN 0 233 98013 X
  • The Last Romantics by Caroline Seebohm
    Weidenfeld, 322 pp, £10.95, May 1987, ISBN 0 297 79056 0
  • The Magician’s Girl by Doris Grumbach
    Hamish Hamilton, 206 pp, £10.95, May 1987, ISBN 0 241 12114 0

Malcolm Bradbury has what the political image-makers call ‘high definition’. We know who he is, where he’s coming from, what he stands for. As a novelist he belongs to a recognisable literary stable: specifically the ‘university novel’, more generally the humorist-humanist vein of embattled liberalism in post-war British fiction. He is a familiar face on the TV arts circuit, a familiar voice in the literary press. He has stood on both sides of the fence in the Booker stakes, being chairman of the judges in 1981 and a short-listed nominee (for Rates of Exchange) in 1983. He is Professor of American Studies at the University of East Anglia. He is an editorial director of the magazine Granta. Influential, lucid and topical, he has become a kind of quality control manager for the literary industry. One might almost call him – to adapt the title of his best-known book – the Literature Man.

There are many sound reasons for his occupying of this central position, but a prolific output of fiction is certainly not among them. His first novel, Eating people is wrong, was published in 1959. In nearly three decades since, he has written just three full-length novels: Stepping Westward, The History Man and Rates of Exchange. Strictly speaking, his latest work, Cuts, does not add to this tally, since it is not a full-length novel. Its publishers describe it as a novella, though Bradbury – perhaps distrusting the rather dinky, miniaturist feel of that term – prefers to style it, with characteristic self-deprecation, ‘a very short novel’. Either way, the text takes up less than a hundred pages, and does little to dispel an impression of slightness – in volume terms, at least – in his fictional oeuvre.

He has, of course, written a great many other things: short stories (collected in Who do you think you are?), humorous essays, television plays. His TV adaptation of the John Fowles short story, ‘The Enigma’, was extremely skilful. To the general public he is probably best-known by virtue of the BBC serialisation of The History Man. This caused something of a stir a few years back, partly due to the excellence of the book itself, of the adaptation by Christopher Hampton, and of the charismatic central performance by Anthony Sher – and partly due to the blushes of self-congratulation that suffuse the BBC when it oversteps its own maidenly limits in matters sexual and political.

More than all this, Bradbury has written books of academic literary criticism. A brief canter through some of the titles on offer – The Social Context of Modern English Literature, Essays on the State of the Novel, The Novel Today, The Modern American Novel, Modernism, 1890 to 1930 – suggests, to say the least, the general drift of his interests. He has clearly thought widely and deeply about the modern novel, and has expended much paper and pipe-tobacco in questioning its nature, articulating its purpose, defining its role, providing its context, and taking its inside leg measurements.

In this sense, one can see that Bradbury’s ‘high definition’ as a literary figure is to some extent a matter of self-definition as a literary figure. As a novelist he’s contributing to a tradition which, as critic and pundit, he’s carefully mapped out. Bradbury floats the ball across from the left and – my word! – there’s Bradbury in the middle, totally unmarked, to nod the ball home. It would be unfair to suggest that there’s any devious kind of opportunism in this, which I am sure is not his nature, nor even that it’s in some way unhealthy, since he seems a writer pre-eminently concerned with our cultural ‘health’. It’s just that it feels like a bit of a closed circuit. The critic proposes, the novelist disposes. The arbiter of taste is bound – is, in a sense, condemned – to be tasteful.

It certainly makes for some predictability in the preoccupations of his work. It comes as no great surprise that the central character of Cuts is a modern novelist, Henry Babbacombe, who is also a lecturer at a provincial university. Or that the story is about Babbacombe being drawn – part forced, part enticed – into the capricious commercial machinery of the major TV serial, as Bradbury has been, and that therefore it is partly ‘about’ the nature, purpose, role etc of the modern novelist. It also seems fairly typical that the publication of Cuts should be closely followed by the publication (though from a different publisher) of a collection of critical essays, entitled No, Not Bloomsbury. And one isn’t exactly knocked sideways to learn that these essays ‘all have to do in one way or another with the busy and creative period in British writing, and especially in the novel, that came after the Second World War’. Or to find that the opening essay is entitled ‘Writer and Critic’, and is about the relationship between the two; that another is entitled ‘Adapting and Being Adaptable: The Novelist and Television’; that another, ‘Campus Fictions’, reflects on the development of the university novel; and that the title of the collection is a quote from that seminal university novel, Lucky Jim.

We’re beginning to feel a bit rat-trapped here. We’re beginning to get groggy with all this text and sub-text, fiction and meta-fiction. Is No, Not Bloomsbury a giant footnote on Cuts? Is Cuts a mere lantern slide in the series of lectures called No, Not Bloomsbury? Is the author in danger of disappearing up his own critical apparatus? Indeed, is the person in the dust-jacket photographs really Malcolm Bradbury at all, or is it the eponymous hero of a university novel called Malcolm Bradbury?

Of course, there’s no one more in on this kind of joke than Bradbury himself, and any reviewer who insists, even momentarily, on some lumpen distinction between life and art will be playing straight into his hands. He thrives on these duplicities and ambiguities, on the fictitiousness of reality, on the seriousness of comedy, on the strange commerce – or, to borrow his own phrase, the ‘rates of exchange’ – between such apparent opposites. It is also one of the themes, perhaps the major theme, of his comic fiction that the plight of the liberal humanist can be expressed in terms of a discomfiting oscillation between practice and theory, between what is and what should be.

This is to a large extent his justification for setting so much of his fiction within the confines of the campus. Eating people is wrong, he tells us in his essay ‘Campus Fictions’, grew out of his experiences as an undergraduate at Leicester University, and was ‘about the relation between the disinterested liberal values by which I had been drawn, and the environment of ordinariness in which they were actually lived’. By the time of The History Man, reflecting the turbulent changes of the late Sixties, the university could no longer be seen as the ‘innocent pastoral space’ which it represented to an earlier generation of writers like E.M. Forster in The Longest Journey and Evelyn Waugh in Brideshead Revisited. It was now ‘a battleground of major ideas and ideologies’, a place which reflected – and in some degree resisted – the gale force of social and intellectual change. ‘In short,’ he concludes, ‘for me the university is the landscape of humanism, a troubled modern territory at the centre of our difficulties, and that is largely why I have kept on writing about it.’

All well and good. He has his reasons, as one would expect with such a clever, conscious writer. He can argue that his self-mirrorings have an intellectual purpose well beyond mere self-regard; that he writes university novels about university people not just because he conveniently happens to be a university person, but in order to get at the ‘centre of our difficulties’. For all this, one wishes he would get himself out of this circle and into what one might call, in a moment of laughable naivety, the ‘real world’. He did so to some degree in Rates of Exchange – the central character, Petworth, is an academic lecturer, and thus another refraction of Bradbury’s own situation, but the Eastern European locale is well off the beaten campus track – and that is probably why it’s his most satisfying book to date.

The opening chapter of Cuts – or, in the filmic terminology the book adopts, the opening ‘take’ – is a delight. It begins with some punning and playing around the word ‘cuts’:

It was the summer of 1986, and everywhere there were cuts ... They were incising heavy industry, they were slicing steel, they were – by no longer cutting much coal – cutting coal. They were axing the arts, slimming the sciences, cutting inflation ... It was a time for purpose, for realism, for burnishing and cleansing, for doing away with far too much of this and a wasteful excess of that. It was a time for getting rid of the old soft illusions, and replacing them with the new hard illusions.

This swiftly moves into a marvellously acute piece of contemporary pulse-taking, a threnody on Thatcher’s Britain: Aids and the Big Bang, cuisine minceur and jogging executives in Adidas sweatbands, Perrier water and ‘neat edgy clothes’, river-view flats in Wapping and silver Porsches. And, above all, money: ‘The people who used to talk art now talked only money, and they murmured of the texture of Telecom, the lure of Britoil, the glamour of gas. They got out of Japan and into Europe, out of offshore and into unit trusts. In money, only in money, were there fantasies and dreams ...’ He has done this sort of thing before, particularly in the visions of London and the world of ‘sado-monetarism’ at the beginning of Rates of Exchange. But then he was talking about 1981, and he is exact and contemporary enough for five years to make a difference.

Thereafter we move into the story, which is ultimately a disappointment. There are some lovely jokes in it, for Bradbury is always funny. There are nominal jokes – the voracious head of productions called Cynthia Hyde-Lemon; the trendy catering firm called Gnosh; the university sponsorship scheme which gives us the Westland Chair of Anglo-American Relations, the Kingsley Amis Chair of Women’s Studies and the Durex Chair of French Letters. There is descriptive humour – the TV company’s board lunch, for instance: ‘the board members, in their big-prowed business suits, all of them old-looking, even when they were not, and the favoured television executives, clad in the studied informalities of their calling, all of them young-looking, even when they were not.’ But the story itself, conventional enough in its greenhorn-makes-good format, does not seem comic at its heart. Or what comedy there is in it seems uncomfortably close to the locus classicus of the greenhorn-makes-good story, Waugh’s Scoop. Indeed Bradbury gives his power figure, the head of Eldorado TV, the name of Lord Mellow, which I assume is a conscious echo of Lord Copper of the Daily Beast. In this world, remember, you don’t nick an idea from another writer: you refer to him, refract him, and use him as a sub-text. Bradbury has written a critical study of Waugh, and an essay in No, Not Bloomsbury called ‘Evelyn goes to Hollywood’. We are back in the rat-trap again, where the mirrors turn inwards.

Cuts is slim and slight – intentionally so, in this era of ‘cuts’: another joke or meta-joke. It is a contemporary comedy of humours, written with panache and wit. Perhaps it is churlish of me to wish it was something more, but I do.

In a wider context I am indeed being churlish, or at least nit-picking and mote-spying, for when one considers the thousands of books published each month, Bradbury’s offering, however slim, shines like a good deed in a naughty world. The next time I go into W.H. Smith’s, and struggle through the serried piles of coffee-tableware on sale – the Pop-up Book of This, the AA Book of That, and the Wonderful World of the Other – I shall remember to go down on my knees in thanks that someone as complex and humane as Bradbury is also accessible and amusing enough to be ‘commercial’, and has filled some small cranny with intelligence, amid the glossy tundra of vapidity that is the contemporary book industry.

A more precise contrast, and one that saves me from having to visit Smith’s, is to be found in the form of The Last Romantics, a novel by Caroline Seebohm. It tells the story of four privileged young women whose lives converge at Oxford in the early Sixties, before leading out into the bigger, badder world of marriage, America, disillusionment. As the title might suggest – and the jacket illustration of our foursome a-punt, with dreaming spires in the background – this is a very different kind of ‘university novel’ from Bradbury’s. The mood is nostalgic and ‘mistily sad’, the narrative soap-operatic. The four women, narrating in turn, are well enough drawn, but the supporting cast – brilliant willowy Edmund, working-class Marxist Alan, aristocratic Lady Fanthorpe, and so on – are cardboard. The Sixties setting is painted by numbers: dolly-birds and miniskirts, boys that look like ‘Terry’ Stamp, much twisting to early Beatles songs. At its worst, the book’s assertions are either palpably absurd (‘Someone once said that 75 per cent of all Englishmen are homosexual until they are 25’) or just plain wrong (‘An extravagantly framed photograph of himself surrounded by the 1956 English World Cup Team’ – there was no World Cup in 1956). The blurb compares the book to Brideshead Revisited, but the comparison is odious. To paint a nostalgic portrait of Oxford, you need more than a load of old Commem Balls.

A much more subtle treatment of a similar theme is offered in The Magician’s Girl by Doris Grumbach. This also follows a group of women, three this time, and also uses a university – Barnard College in New York – as the place where their disparate lives are knotted together, briefly but with lasting effect. The flavour of bygone New York is pungently caught: the women grow up in the Twenties, and meet at Barnard in the late Thirties. Bohemians and radicals, poets and professors, Jews and WASPs: the characters converge and entwine, and Ms Grumbach’s taut, lucid style manages to convey both the populous, edgy feel of college life in New York, and a sense of the silent chill spaces that lie between, and within, people. ‘Visitors, tourists, explorers crowd into every faraway corner, creating spoilage or restoration, like imitators copying old masters in museums. The old place is “improved”, so that it becomes common, even comic. The last frontier, the only remote place, is the interior of the self.’ The pages are full of little spaces too, by virtue of an odd lay-out for dialogue, which uses gaps – five or six letters wide – where there would conventionally be paragraph breaks. I can’t quite see the point of it, but I suppose it saves paper. Perhaps, in this time of ‘cuts’, we’ll soon be doing away with the trusty but wasteful paragraph.