A prolific writer of short stories, literary criticism, television plays and series, Malcolm Bradbury (7 September 1932 – 27 November 2000) made no secret of the fact that fiction, and in particular the novel, was his true love:
“Like most comic novelists, I take the novel extremely seriously. It is the best of all forms – open and personal, intelligent and inquiring. I value it for its scepticism, its irony and its play.”
Often compared with his contemporary David Lodge, Bradbury’s novels are consistently darker in mood and less playful both in style and language. His first novel, Eating People is Wrong was published in 1959, the same year (and in the same week) he began his career as a professor.
Bradbury’s best-known novel, The History Man (1975) is a dark satire of academic life.
An excerpt from the novel is used by Lodge in his book The Art of Fiction to illustrate “Staying on the Surface”. Lodge writes:
“The novel consists of description and dialogue. The description focuses obsessively on the surface of things. […]
The dialogue is presented flatly, objectively, without introspective interpretation by the characters, without authorial commentary, without any variation on the simple adverb-less speech tags he/she asks/says, without even breaks between the lines of speech.
The “depthlessness” of the discourse is further emphasized by its preference for the present tense. The past tense of conventional narrative implies that the story is known to and has been assessed by the narrator in its entirety. In this novel the narrative discourse impassively tracks the characters as they move from moment to moment towards an unknown future.”
Bradbury’s 1983 novel Rates of Exchange was short-listed for the Booker Prize. The novel is set in the fictional Eastern European country of Slaka, a place that Bradbury revisited in a short book entitled Why Come to Slaka? (1986) a parody of travel books.
In Malcolm’s second novel, Stepping Westward (1965), novelist James Walker leaves his wife and child behind in Nottingham, England, having accepted a creative writing fellowship in the United States.
In almost all of Bradbury’s novels the most frequently recurring theme is that of the slightly naive, liberal innocent, usually an academic, hilariously abroad in an unfamiliar, and occasionally slightly threatening, context.
Walker’s observations on American life are informed by the author’s studies and travels in real-life (Bradbury completed a PhD in American Studies in 1962, and took up teaching fellowships at Indiana University and Yale). The character of Walker is based, to some extent, on the author himself:
“He was going bald; his stomach was potted; he wore a dotard’s knitted cardigan, and his suit made him look as if he’d been rolled over by a sheep.”
“… The typewriter cost, as I recall it, a hefty £5, and was amazingly slow-working, needing oiling as often as a steam locomotive. Many of its keys were out of alignment, giving my work just the sort of incriminating character that had Alger Hiss in trouble not long after. Even paper, recently rationed in wartime, was a problem: so expensive and scarce that most of my early work was done on the tattered backsides of other people’s previous writing. Carbon paper, which in those days had a sticky-toffee surface and a smell that clung after work, was more expensive still, but indispensible; the only other way of making a copy was hiring a scribe or Dickensian clerk.The ball pen would soon be invented, but writing was in the age of the steel nib, and the new technology was still to come. So writing was an underfunded, arduous, sometimes back-breaking form of secretarial work. It meant long days at the keys on a hard chair at an uncomfortable half-lit desk. It was grim, done in a spirit of parsimony (always reuse old paperclips), a climate of bohemian indigence and rejection. I can’t remember how long it took to recoup the cost of that typewriter, but it was several months of hard-written articles.A Bob Cratchit of writing, I dreamed of better things. But it was only in the mid-fifties, when I moved for a while to the USA, that I discovered writer’s paradise. Here, amid all the joys of American affluence, was everything the author needed; no wonder American novels were so good. There were glorious portable typewriters, light as a bird’s feather, with flowing silver lines, fingertip touch, easyfit ribbons. There were great stores filled with writer’s materials; every kind of paper, glorious yellow legal notepads, binders and folders, staplers and fixers, brilliant desk lamps, joyous filing cabinets, gunmetal desks on wheels that tracked round the room.A natural philanthropist, I had always longed to help my fellow writers, especially at home. Now I dreamed of yet greater inventions, every kind of fantastic authorial possibility. Suppose typewriters could be driven not by thumping fingers but electricity, diesel, steam? Suppose they could become an intelligent machine, holding a dictionary so that every literal could be noted and corrected? Suppose they could format, design, publish, copy?”