On the Salieri Express

John Sutherland

  • Doctor Criminale by Malcolm Bradbury
    Secker, 343 pp, £14.99, September 1992, ISBN 0 436 20115 1
  • The Promise of Light by Paul Watkins
    Faber, 217 pp, £14.99, September 1992, ISBN 0 571 16715 2
  • The Absolution Game by Paul Sayer
    Constable, 204 pp, £13.99, June 1992, ISBN 0 09 471460 6
  • The Troublesome Offspring of Cardinal Guzman by Louis de Bernières
    Secker, 388 pp, £14.99, August 1992, ISBN 0 436 20114 3
  • Written on the Body by Jeanette Winterson
    Cape, 190 pp, £13.99, September 1992, ISBN 0 224 03587 8

Britain’s two leading campus novelists have long broken out of the small worlds mapped in Eating people is wrong and The British Museum is falling down. David Lodge’s latest, Paradise News, crosses at least ten time zones from Rummidge, over the Pacific Rim, to Hawaii. Doctor Criminale clocks up fewer frequent-flyer miles, but short-hauls hectically. The narrative opens in London, flies to Vienna, boards the Salieri Express for Budapest, then chuffs on to Milan, from where it cruises to a luxurious island on Lake Como, then to Lausanne. A brief interlude on Lake Geneva is followed by a long jaunt to Buenos Aires. A climax is reached in Brussels, ‘the heart of our brave new Europe’. An epilogue follows in ‘Schlossburg’, Southern Germany, site of one of the four conferences that feature in the novel. At Schlossburg, Henri Mensonge, scheduled to speak on the totally deconstructed self, fails to arrive: Bradbury loves a donnish joke. It all winds up with a postscript set in Norwich. At a staid University Teachers of English get-together George Steiner, Frank Kermode and Seamus Heaney do their party pieces and a novelist – the author of Doctor Criminale, we must suppose – reads from his upcoming work, ‘whose ending he seems not to know’. The publisher’s blurb laconically informs us that Bradbury lives in Norwich and ‘travels a good deal.’

In form, Doctor Criminale is an old-fashioned quest novel. Francis Jay, a young British journalist – trained in deconstruction and cultural politics at Sussex – is left high and dry when his paper (evidently the ill-fated Sunday Correspondent) folds. Following a disastrous Booker ceremony at which he comports himself on camera ‘worse than Howard Jacobson’ (‘impossible,’ someone interjects), Francis is recruited by Nada Television to research a European man of letters with a mysterious past and a desperately unconvincing name – Dr Bazlo Criminale. The aim is to produce a series, ‘Great Thinkers in the Age of Glasnost’. Criminale is a Post-Modern novelist, critic, political theorist, and privy adviser to the world’s great men. Roger Scruton has done the eminent Doctor for Frank Kermode’s ‘Modern Masters’. Alas, Criminale reflects no credit on that worthy series. He is revealed as the most treasonable of clerks, a compound of Waldheim, de Man, Harry Lime and Lukacs. Thematically, Doctor Criminale shapes up as a kind of post-Maastricht version of Henry James’s international theme: English ingenuousness discovers corruption beneath the seductive surfaces of European civilisation. For all his postgraduate knowingness about Barthes and other purveyors of the higher froggy nonsense, Francis is revealed to be a Forsterian liberal humanist at heart. He learns that you must go beyond the text into history, without expecting to find anything nice at the end of it all. Doctor Criminale’s very topical message is that Europe is a more dangerous place than the innocent English imagine: ‘an ugly twisted growth, hung about with deceits, obscurities and betrayals’. (The blurb informs us that Bradbury is a Commander of the Order of the British Empire: he can now wear his decoration with a Thatcherite pride).

Doctor Criminale is not a campus novel. But Bradbury’s literary origins are evident in the frequent flights of high-literary pastiche: The Magic Mountain, the search for Corvo, Kafka (Francis Jay temporarily becomes Franz Kay) and Borges are alluded to. Magic and dirty realism are invoked. There is much virtuoso play with modern critical theory, in which Bradbury exhibits prodigious expertise while at the same time suggesting that it’s all something of a con. The narrative hops from literary conference to literary conference, allowing Bradbury the familiar bag of campus novel tricks which he handles so well. The central action (and the first encounter with Criminale, who is artfully withheld for the first half of the novel) takes place at the international conference centre Villa Barolo on Lake Cano. Here the brightest intellects in the world gather to discuss ‘Literature and Power: The Changing Nineties: Writing after the Cold War’. In addition to Bradbury’s invented personages the conferees include Martin Amis, Günter Grass and Susan Sontag (she skips one of the later conferences in the narrative, on the grounds that there is something more interesting going on in Northern Italy).

Bradbury’s Villa Barolo is funded by the American Magno Foundation – offspring of an empire enriched by pharmaceuticals, oil and, one guesses, corporate crime. Magno’s sexy chairperson flies into the conference by private 727, which is smile-worthy but not plausible from an aeronautical point of view. Barbed description is lavished on the appointments of the Villa Barolo. Martin Amis is Martin Amis and Sontag is Sontag, but Barolo – the ‘smiling face of American capitalism’ – is transparently the Bellagio Study and Conference Centre, also known as the Villa Serbelloni, handsomely located on fifty acres of wooded promontory on Lake Como. The Centre is run by the Rockefeller Foundation and offers facilities for its scholarly visitors only slightly less mouth-watering than what young Francis Jay describes, as their brochure (available from the Bellagio Centre Office, Rockefeller Foundation, 1133 Avenue of the Americas, NY 10036) will confirm.

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