Portrait by VIC (Cristina Ioana Vianu)
Essays on MALCOLM BRADBURY in
British Literary Desperadoes at the Turn of the Millennium, ALL Publishing House, Bucharest, 1999;
The Desperado Age: British Literature at the Start of the Third Millennium,
Bucharest University Press, 2004;
At the Gates of Commonsense – Malcolm Bradbury (1932-2000)
British Literary Desperadoes at the Turn of the Millennium, ALL Publishing House, Bucharest, 1999;
Malcolm Bradbury begins as an ironist, for whom mocking fiction is the target, while the plot of the soul, the intricacies of character and the sophistication of psychological analysis lag way behind. His first two novels, Eating People Is Wrong (1959) and Stepping Westward (1965) make fun of universities (particularly academics in the English Department) and the occasional writers they invite, who almost always put their foot in it. Literature and the academic background seem to be incompatible in Bradbury’s humour.
The novelist confesses:
‘Like most comic novelists, I take the novel extremely seriously. It is the best of all forms – open and personal, intelligent and enquiring. I value it for its scepticism, its irony, and its play. My novels are all forays into various kinds of comedy...’
Eating People Is Wrong is ‘a comedy,’ too, as the author announces from the very first page. It is a mass of comic remarks and incidents, indeed. A provincial university, with a Department of English whose head is Professor Stuart Treece, imparts the joys of literature to a bunch of unlikable individuals – but we must not go farther than that, since, the title warns us, ‘eating people is wrong.’ Malcolm Bradbury just munches them a little, then spreads them on the page like a doubtfully amusing (or nourishing) paste.
Among the characters there is twenty-six-year-old Louis Bates, a ‘self-made’ student, whose father ‘was a railway man.’ He comes for education to a university college whose building was formerly the town lunatic asylum, grown ‘too small to accommodate those unable to stand up to the rigours of the new world.’
Louis Bates (as we learn in the end) was the inmate of a mental hospital before, and he ends by attempting suicide and going to another. During the interval in between, he studies in a building which ‘became an asylum of another kind.’ As Bradbury muses, ‘great wits are thus to madness near allied.’ The windows of this college still have bars over the windows and there is nowhere you can hang yourself, although Treece constantly feels on the edge of doing just that. He has a meaningless affair with his fellow, Dr. Viola Masefield, and, though he is forty, he has another one with his twenty-six-year-old post-graduate student Emma Fielding. Neither means much to him, or he is (Bradbury is?) unable to reveal any emotion at all. Stripped naked of all humanity, Stuart Treece roams aimlessly towards the last page like the caricature of a despondent Don Quixote, who has been deprived of his windmills and feels useless and used.
Not unlike Oscar Wilde, Malcolm Bradbury focuses on humorous sentences more than on human beings. A sociologist called Jenkins returns from a Chicago University, where he had a Rockefeller scholarship, with the thought: ‘...soon it won’t be necessary for us to go to America. It will all be here.’
The black son of a tribe chief in West Africa is called Eborebelosa, and declares himself prisoner ‘in the toilet’ when we first hear of him. We never get to know much about him, or about anyone for that matter, anyway. The truth of the matter is much fiercer: Eborebelosa was sent over to be educated at the expense of ‘a terrorist society devoted to driving out the British.’ Treece, we are told, ‘was quite prepared to help Mr. Eborebelosa be a terrorist, if that really was his fulfilment,’ but the latter kept hiding in the lavatories. On top of these two heavy pieces of ammunition, Eborebelosa also falls in love with Emma, who – far from black terrorism – is writing a thesis on ‘the fish imagery in Shakespeare’s tragedies.’
Another instance of witticism is the dialogue between a Herr Schumann (who has come from Germany to study English language and literature) and a nun. The nun tells him ‘pleasantly’:
‘It is very good of you to come to England, of course, since you were fighting it only a few years ago. It is very civilized of all of us to forget this so easily. I think we are all very developed persons.’
The words were uttered in the 1950s, when the plot takes place. It is the period when people were beginning to take driving tests, so Treece failed his, although he was just driving a bicycle with a small engine attached to it.
Bradbury seems to be fascinated by the iron curtain. He always has at least one character fleeing from communism. It is Tanya, in this book. She is a lecturer in Slavonic languages, she is ‘of Russian stock’ and also possibly a lesbian, who has taken Viola ‘under her wing.’ She is not described at length, but then, no characters is. Malcolm Bradbury hardly touches the shell of his heroes and withdraws in awe. And we soon understand why. Each of them has a terrible skeleton in the cupboard. Some unconfessed abnormality. Louis Bates his madness, Treece his inability to feel, and Emma suspects herself of ‘eating people,’ thus explaining (rather feebly) the title of the novel:
‘...Emma collected people. When, a little time ago, a song came out with the line ‘Eating people is wrong,’ Emma felt a twinge of conscience; she agreed with the proposition, but was not sure that she exactly lived up to it.’
The reader himself would be tempted to eat Bradbury’s people if there were any available, but the author (deliberately?) starves his visitors.
The novel is a small, confusing world devoid of any rules. It is just as the German student Herr Schumann puts it, in an Oscar Wilde-like statement:
‘I like the English. They have the most rigid code of immorality in the world.’
Louis Bates, for instance, is also confused in the Wildean manner. He falls in love (he thinks) with Emma, who does not want him, so the author concludes:
‘...sometimes the opposite sex were just too opposite for him.’
Literature itself is described as bewildering, pointless, narcissistic:
‘...nowadays all the novels you seem to get are about what’s wrong with other novels.’
Bradbury’s novel is indeed a kind of tacit argument with other manners of writing. Like all contemporary Desperadoes, although he conceals the attempt, he hopes to found his own, inimitable trend. He is entertaining to a point, then falls short of getting serious, which, we feel, he would very much like. When Treece tries to take a trip into his own inner world, it sounds wildly, though unwillingly, comical:
‘He knew that he always expected too much and would never be satisfied in this human world.’
Peter Ackroyd is entrancing. Bradbury may wish to grip the reader’s imagination in his first two novels, but he fails to do so. There may be too much self-awareness in what he writes. He is a writer who wants to forget he is writing and create out of instinct, but sophistication stands in his way. Actually the whole book seems to prepare the arrival of the young novelist Willoughby for a short visit. Here is how Treece, who puts him up, introduces him to the Department and students:
‘Ladies and gentlemen,’ he said, we’re delighted to have with us Mr. Carey Willoughby, who needs no introduction from me. He is one of the so-called novelists of the new movement – I mean one of the novelists of the so-called new movement...’
Everyone in the book, after two hundred pages of nothing happening, seems to be ready for a revelation. If we can’t have lives, emotions, a plot, then at least the intricacies of tricky writing, reflections on new texts might do. But Willoughby refuses the invitation. ‘There is no movement,’ he declares. Treece feels as betrayed as we do. Nothing new to talk about? No trip into new techniques, new views? He attacks Willoughby with a question that is meant to threaten all Desperadoes:
‘...do you write more than you read or read more than you write?’
Willoughby blushes and the author in him whimpers:
‘You have no friends in this game. In this game you just have to have merit. And I never did have much of that.’
The reason may be, as he later states, that he tries to write about ‘life and how it’s lived,’ but ends up recording ‘why it can’t be lived properly any more.’ Deficient lives, deficient texts, and authors in disarray. It would be interesting to know whether Willoughby speaks for Bradbury as well, when he concludes that his novels have no ‘proper endings’ because
‘I’m not trying to butter up my public,’ said Willoughby. ‘With my sort of book there’s no resolution because there’s no solution. The problems aren’t answered in the end because there is no answer. They’re problems that are handed on to the reader, not solved for him, so that he can go away thinking he lives in a beautiful world. It’s not a beautiful world.’
As if to prove the truth of this belief, Treece falls ill, goes to hospital, is visited fleetingly by Emma, then
‘She went away, and he lay there in his bed, and felt as though this would be his condition for evermore, and that from this he would never, never escape.’
Nobody is involved with anyone else, and nothing leads to anything. Suspense is killed. Bradbury tries to write as uneventfully as he breathes, and we follow him empty-hearted, stripped of all expectations. The uneventful text falls like a veil. We cannot see the outline of literature because of it.
Stepping Westward (1965) begins by reassuring the readers that everything in it is pure invention, which is not true by any means. Several motifs remind us of the previous novel: the Slav émigré (Jochum), the writer confronted with the life of a university (James Walker), that strange emptiness of what Alasdair Gray might call ‘unlove’ (Julie Snowflake). One major theme is added, namely the reverse of James’ view: England trotting towards America, Europe put to shame, yet redeemed by Walker’s final choice to stick to it as his only way out.
The town of Party, whose university (called Benedict Arnold) invites James Walker to come and spend a year on a writing fellowship, may be given an imaginary name (very suggestive, too), but its people and surroundings, its daily life are more than real. Bradbury himself spent a year teaching at Indiana University. He views America tongue in his cheek. Walker’s voyage across the Atlantic is in fact the result of the devilishly cunning Bernard Froelich’s plot. The latter coveted the position of Head of the English Department, and manoeuvred Walker’s being invited, as well as his subsequent behaviour to his purpose, which is finally fulfilled.
The British jobless Walker (with three novels to his name) leaves behind Elaine, his wife of eight years, his seven-year-old daughter Amanda, and a desert of hopelessness, in order to become a creative writing fellow across the Atlantic. He is a Don Quixotic Ulysses, and, as he sails to America, he appears to Jochum – his fellow traveller – a ‘Henry James in reverse,’ the
‘European innocence coming to seek American experience.’
At first, James Walker experiences ‘all the menace that the Englishman feels when he steps off his island into the void.’ Soon he meets Jochum, a Slav émigré who teaches at Party University, where Walker is going. They travel together on the train, then the boat. He also meets the very young student Julie Snowflake (paradoxical name in more senses than one), later on he reaches America and is befriended by Bernard Froelich and his wife, Patrice (who even sleeps with him, with her husband’s blessing), and Walker’s first reaction is to write home, to ask for a quick divorce, for freedom. There is only one rub: the ‘loyalty oath,’ which Americans sign. Walker feels he cannot promise loyalty to another government than his own. He is labelled a communist after he talks about freedom during his first speech at the University; everyone interprets the freedom he praises as freedom not to sign the oath. He was anticipated – actually manoeuvred by Froelich – as the ‘English genius, the man who was to change Party.’
Dr. Jochum disagrees with Walker’s misunderstood protest and, after Walker’s actually innocent speech, he resigns. As he confesses, he has a deep reason for loyalty:
‘I was another refugee. Who was to pick out Jochum? My books were not translated. I had written no distinguished novels. But America gave me what I did not have; that was a country. So that is why I am grateful.’
He is an émigré from Poland. Walker’s speech on ‘The Writer’s Dilemma’ ends in a speech on freedom from marriage, parenthood, commitment, England. This is misunderstood as freedom to disagree with the American government.
Obviously, the peak of the whole novel is this comically misinterpreted speech. Walker begins by analyzing the contemporary writer’s status:
‘The writer today is talked of as an outsider. He is called disoriented and disgruntled. But was he ever the inside man, the loyalist, the patriot? Was he ever oriented?’
Walker has no idea what he should talk about. He, owner of a B. A. , talks to academics, PhD’s, people who expect a lot of him, the ‘angry young man,’ as Party welcomes him in an article which states that the angry British writer lost his anger in Party. Walker clamours he was not angry to begin with. He does not feel he is anything, not even himself. The character Bradbury is trying to create strives desperately to acquire identity. He ventures to say:
‘I have come to America,’ he said, ‘to be called a writer, to feel like a writer at all. (...) I came here for the chance to be uncommitted. (...) I came to be loyal to being a writer.’
The audience disapprove. Tremendous upheaval follows. Papers rave:
‘British Author Lashes Loyalty Oath.’
Students withdraw from his class. The town ‘is really out against him.’ Jochum, an ‘old campaigner for loyalty,’ supports the oath. Bernie Froelich is in favour of the university opposing the oath. Jochum, Walker’s first American friend, leaves. Walker feels terrible about it. It suddenly dawns on him why he finds himself in Party: it was Froelich’s machination all along. He brought him to the Department, used him as a bomb, and then, taking advantage of Bourbon’s (the Department chief’s) imminent resignation, Froelich becomes Head. His plan has worked. Bradbury is a master of satire, here as everywhere.
‘Trapped in being Walker,’ the British novelist sails back home before the first semester is over. He spends Christmas vacation travelling West with Julie, and in San Francisco he makes the decision of going back home. The first American city he saw, New York, is the last one as well. He leaves the town of Party, as well as the premises of the novel, before we have managed to be even mildly interested in or even properly introduced to him. He stays an enigma, a blank hero, running away from his unknown friends, the readers. The hero of a satire, not a stream of consciousness novel.
The last chapter of the book, like the first, describes a meeting at Benedict Arnold University. The new English Department Chairman, Bernard Froelich, has been elected by the department after Harris Bourbon resigned. The reason of the resignation is summed up by President Coolidge:
‘Now we all know that Harris boobed a bit in not making enough enquiries at the start, and letting our writer last year get way out of line...’
The academic machinations are laid bare, as ugly as they can be. Froelich, who had actually persuaded his fellows to bring Walker a year before, now dismisses the writing fellowship (it has already served its purpose: he is Chair), and suggests putting the money ‘into a literary quarterly edited from this campus by the staff of the English Department.’ The hidden reason is that his own book has already been refused by four publishers and, since now he has reached the status he coveted, he does not need a book any more, but a review in which to publish what he wrote as articles.
Froelich thinks of Walker’s ‘cryptic letter of resignation written from San Francisco,’ which basically stated, ‘You have made me destroy a man.’ He could not care less. His immorality is compulsion-proof. He has what he wanted, now we know what Walker’s journey to the (Brave?) New World was all about, and we feel cheated. How dry, how unrewarding, how inhuman, too. How masterfully stairical. Fortunately, the characters are mere sketches, so we do not need waste much sympathy. Whatever Bradbury had in mind to achieve in Stepping Westward, it certainly was not to lure readers. We are frustrated, starved, repelled. America is painted in disagreeable colours, but England is not a much better refuge. We have nowhere left to go, but shut the book.
Rates of Exchange (1983) starts by claiming:
‘This is a book, and what it says is not true.’
It is a humorous description of the People’s Republic of Slaka, a communist country. Malcolm Bradbury is so busy mocking at communism that he completely misses the human tragedy behind the iron curtain. Just like Anthony Burgess’ Honey for the Bears, Bradbury’s Rates of Exchange remains disagreeably shallow to the very end. The author’s note proposes an agreement:
‘...as the literary critics say, I’ll be your implied author, if you’ll be my implied reader.’
The book may have aimed at implying a lot, but it sure fails to say much. It satirical aim is, on the other hand, amply fulfilled and totally fulfilling.
Dr. Angus Petworth, British professor of linguistics and dignified emissary of the British Council all over the world, is mysteriously invited by the Ministry of Culture in Slaka for a lecturing tour. Even at the end of the book, after three hundred pages, we hardly get to know anything about this character. We merely hear him talk and accompany his discomfort. Whatever Bradbury ever saw in his characters is very hard to tell, since he most certainly does not share any deep knowledge with us.
On the other hand, the author’s humour is not rich enough to keep us occupied all through his fairly long novel. The plot is mostly picaresque: incidents come and go, in a linear report of more or less enjoyable adventures. Slaka is
‘that fine flower of middle European cities, capital of commerce and art, wide streets and gipsy music.’
In many ways, it reminds us of Bulgaria. Backwards, frightening to poor innocent foreigners, indoctrinated and lying through its teeth, this country could, yet could not be any communist land. Which means that Bradbury did perceive a number of details correctly, but he was denied real understanding. He describes puppets, not real human beings, and if he, as a writer, is satisfied with that satirical approach, I suspect so must we be. We have no choice, anyway.
Slaka is ‘in the Soviet orbit,’ and a member of the Warsaw Pact. As far as externals are concerned, Petworth notices quite a lot: ‘secular materialism is the official state philosophy,’ everything is a triumph of ‘proletarian endeavour’ or a heroic achievement of ‘socialist planning,’ everything is the ‘best in the world.’ The country is full of ‘apartment blocks for the workers,’ there is a ‘Park of Freedom,’ ‘friendship of all peoples’ is repeatedly celebrated, there even exists a certain Grigoric, who
‘resolutely delivered the nation over to the Soviet liberator in 1944.’
We must not forget the ‘Museum of Socialist Realist Art.’ The novelist’s sense of observation is remarkable. Unfortunately, he looks for inessentials (his way of surviving), and the real meaning slips through his fingers.
Dr. Petworth is ‘forty and married, bourgeois and British.’ He teaches at a Bradford college. The plot of his Slakan trip is almost primitive: he visits two universities, meets Plitplov (very likely a security agent, who claims to have been instrumental in inviting him to Slaka), struggles daily with his guide, Marisja Lubijova (whose name reminds us of the Slav verb ‘to love,’ and who is also a security agent, in all likelihood). He also meets the novelist Katya Princip, who briefly and dangerously makes love to him in her bed-sitting room, and then indirectly (through Plitplov) asks him to take her manuscript of a future novel out of the country – a very illegal thing to do – in order to be translated into French and published abroad. Which he tries to do, but fails, owing to Customs complications in Frankfurt.
Constantly confused, just like other characters, Petworth floats on the surface of incidents and takes refuge into humour. He visits Slaka in 1981. He knows that travel is ‘the ultimate neurosis,’ yet practises it extremely often. His life seems to be measured by these trips to all continents, at the bid of the British Council:
‘...he is a man who has spent his life circling around and away from domestic interiors, hovering between home, where he sits and thinks, and abroad, where he talks and drinks.’
The whole novel is about the ‘fascination and the void of foreignness.’ He even knows he is not a good traveller, but enjoys the commotion, the unusual, the secretly forbidden. He is thrilled by airports, those ‘dangerous holes in all societies,’ even more so in the Slakan world. He slips into a ‘state of foreignness, which is a universal country.’ Bradbury places Petworth in a category that he ironically labels as:
‘...in the rooms, the professors come and go, talking of T.S. Eliot.’
There is no British Council office or representative in Slaka, but Petworth is instructed in England, before he leaves, not to bring any papers out of the country, ‘however compassionate the story.’ For the sake of Katya Princip, he breaks the rule, but hazard makes his attempt fail. As it turns out, Katya Princip is not exactly a woman of firm principles or a real dissenter. She has had three husbands (one of which was a high party official, who committed suicide after her first novel was published), and is very close to a professor who is the head of the Academy, as well as to mysterious Professor Plitplov. Revolutions are done and undone, politics tilt this or that way, and Katya Princip steers her boat as best she can –which is not bad at all. She uses every person who crosses her path, Petworth included. As Plitplov puts it,
‘one must be here an artist in relations to survive.’
In a very confusing way, Petworth is warned by his guide against Plitplov, and by Plitplov against his guide. It looks like everyone is afraid of a huge conspiracy directed at each one in particular. Bradbury senses correctly this feeling of collective mistrust and chooses to make fun of it. Which is one way out, though not the most intelligent one.
The humour of the book is mostly linguistical, as Slakans torture English in the most inventive ways. One joke comes directly from Plitplov, the man who boasts he has ‘had a finger in the pie’ in the Ministry inviting Petworth. Plitplov turns up or leaves the scene at the most unexpected moments, he turns out to be doing simultaneous translation for a congress (which might point to his being a security agent, after all), he knows everything about Petworth both in Slaka and in England. Plitplov is the perfect image of the secretive pets of the regime. Here is his joke:
‘We have here a saying: why is Slaka like the United States? Because in the United States you can criticize America, and in Slaka you can criticize America also. And in the United States you cannot buy anything with vloskan, and in Slaka you cannot buy anything with vloskan also.’
The joke is on the edge between the dangerous and the harmless. It is true, too. The fact that Plitplov has the courage to tell it points to his ambiguous status.
The slogans Lubijova feeds Petworth sound artificial. No guide would indoctrinate a westerner in that primitive language:
‘...in my country, here we always put our work before our homes (...). That is why we make such a good economical progress.’
Everybody knows they are lies. Even Petworth realizes the lack of consumer goods, the fear, the pressure, the humiliation. But Bradbury does not choose to enlarge upon that. Does it seem a trifling or merely an unknown matter? Satire wins over compassion and narrative depth.
One funny sentence reveals the author’s real political horizon. Lubijova, in her broken English, explains that Grigoric, the ‘Liberator,’
‘set us free to the Russians after the war, and planned our socialist economy.’
Katya Princip seems to be more at ease and unafraid to approach Petworth. She has the courage to tell him:
‘Here, if they do not like what you write, they let you drive a tram.’
Then she adds that she drove one herself at some time. Probably before she had discovered that
‘In Slaka, sex is just politics with the clothes off.’
Thereafter, she prospered. Fair-haired, many-husbanded, well befriended and graciously conniving, she is Petworth’s great disappointment. He goes back home to his dark wife, and is even deprived of the beauty of dreaming of a pure, selfless, loving Slakan novelist. He feels at the opposite pole from Miranda, with her ejaculation, ‘Oh brave new world that has such people in it!’
The borderline between consenters and dissenters is narrow and very confusing. Katya could be a dissenter, and yet... She describes herself quite aptly:
‘Yes, I have some protection,’ says Princip, ‘It is best always to have some protection. But I am not reliable, you know. I have friends in America who make to me some telephone calls. I go abroad perhaps too many times, and meet wrong people. I am not polite to those apparatchiks. So often they like to watch me.’
She shows Petworth that Slaka
‘is not a nice world and everyone must take care for themselves.’
Which she does very well. Is she a security agent, is she not? This uncertainty is one of Bradbury’s major satirical devices.
The title of the book, Rates of Exchange, springs from the five different rates of exchange of hard currency into the national coin (vloskan), but actually aims at the way westerners and communist subjects connect. They do not seem to have much, or anything in common. The five rates of exchange are in fact five arbitrary paths of the mind, and none is reliable, realistic.
Bradbury has a gift for significant names, suggestive of the opposite of the word incorporated in them. The British representative of the Embassy is Felix Steadiman, a man who hardly knows where he is or what to do with himself, and blissfully stammers into the funniest word combinations. Petworth’s first name is Angus, which reminds us of anxiety, his constant mood. His guide is Lubijova (lubov is love), the most unfeminine and unlovable creature ever. Katya Princip can be accused of anything but owning firm principles. Plitplov is suggestive of the noise of a fish out of water: his quality (spy? communist? conformer, merely?) makes him extremely ill at ease. Picnic is the name of what Lubijova most determinedly calls an ‘agent’ at the Faculty of Germanic Languages (the name seems to belong to the Romanian faculty of Bucharest, which Bradbury has also visited). The whole novel is certainly no picnic and, come to think of it, to someone who knows communism from the inside, not much fun.
There is one remarkable sentence in this book that is worth remembering. Katya Princip utters it:
‘It is a state of mind, you know, to be watched.’
The whole novel is pervaded by a feeling of guilt, which the same heroine explains:
‘...we do not know ourselves at all. We all feel a bit guilty to exist. And this they know very well. To be is the crime we commit...’
She means to say that life under communism is an endless line of experiences under pressure, that the inhabitants of a communist country are psychically afflicted with well-grounded fear. It is a subtle observation, one of the few trips into human interiority of this book.
We get to know next to nothing about all the characters. Petworth is the most enigmatic. He manages to be the main hero with no inner life, no special deeds, just passivity and blankness to boast of. Marisja Lubijova takes us by surprise. Very close to the end of the book, we find out she was once married to a medical student, whose father was ‘high in the Party.’ As a doctor, the boy went to Vietnam ‘to help those people against imperialism,’ he fell ill and died there, leaving behind a wife and a small son. When the widowed mother is not a guide, she says, she finds a ‘line,’ and brings ‘good things’ to her son. Life is not exactly a bed of roses, and Petworth at least notices that.
The secret network of relationships and favours perplexes and scares Petworth. Plitplov explains:
‘...in my country many things are possible if you know a someone.’
Which also applies to Petworth’s guide, who gets places on the plane for them to fly back to Slaka when political turbulence unexpectedly appears:
‘...this flight. I know the stewardess who takes it, I teach her some English. And she is mistress of the captain, so we get a place. Here it is always best to know somebody.’
Half of Petworth’s tour is cancelled because of a mysterious political riot and radical change. The same as the author, his hero cannot make head or tail of it. The president changes. Past history is worse than forgotten, it is denied. Orwell’s Minitruth is very effective here. It makes the book somewhat repetitive, because real events did not take place like this.
It turns out that Petworth stopped short of going to Provd, a place where, Steadiman tells him (in his usual stammer),
‘they were shoe shoe shooting people.’
Petworth got lucky and returned to Slaka instead, missing all the action, hoping for a passionate time with Katya Princip. She had promised him the end of a story about ‘Stupid,’ but it turns out, eventually, that Petworth knows that story better than anyone. It is his own story of his Slakan trip. The linguist goes back to his wife none the wiser, and we leave the book none the happier, or at least more amused, for having been patient with it.
Much more amusing from the linguistical point of view, which is the main source of humour in Rates of Exchange, too, Why Come to Slaka (1986) is a ‘guidebook and phrase book’ translated into English by Dr. Plitplov, with an introduction by Dr. A. Petworth, published in the People’s Republic of Slaka. The contents reminds us of the recent political change. We find in the book a ‘message from the Slakan head of state,’ ‘Comrade-General I. Vulcani,’ a chapter on geography and history by ‘Professor-Academician Rom Rum’ (Katya Princip’s protector), another on ‘the languages of Slaka’ by Katya Princip herself. This small book concentrates whatever was funny in Rates of Exchange, and it reads quickly and easily.
Here are several illustrations of Bradbury’s humour. The head of the state lets us know:
‘Dialogi’ is the great spirit of amity and concorde. ‘Dialogi’ means the desire for true intercurse – an intercurse where each partner is an equal and no one is on top!
The citizens of Slaka will do anything to please tourists:
‘See their loins, girded to the task of giving you pleasure!! Know our motto: please come to us, and we promise, one day we will come to you!!’
That day has now come. The Slakan chief of state unwillingly foretold:
‘...our many fine travel-workers who exist only to turn your turstii dream into harsh reality.’
Later on, we find a description of the Slakans which is, again unwillingly, very true:
‘...modern Slaka is a young nation proudly on the march, its eyes firmly fixed not on the day after yesterday but the day before tomorrow!!!’
No history, no sense of time, constant dangers (even ‘magnolias bloomb’), and an incurable hunger for hard currency are all marks of Slaka. In Going to the Bank, here is what we read (in English version, since the Slakan one is, of course, entirely imaginary):
‘There are many rates of exchange
The diplomatic rate
The business rate
The congress rate
The tourist rate
Yours is the worst’
The reader’s rate of exchange trades time for a few smiles. Does it make the book worth our while? I am inclined to say that the mere fact that Bradbury approached the hidden face of communism redeems his case. He did not go very far or very deep into the matter, but – at least – he tried.
The one book that gives Bradbury the status he probably always hungered for, that of an ironist of the intellect, is My Strange Quest for Mensonge, Structuralism’s Hidden Hero (1987). As one who has put Structuralism and Deconstruction both behind and aside, subscribing to intelligible criticism, I am delighted with Malcolm Bradbury in this small book. It ought to be forcefully fed to many academics. It offers such relief from the incomprehensible theories that lead nowhere, the babble of minds which have lost all love of and sense of everyday language. It mocks at all those who attempt to deprive literature and criticism of relaxed, unpretentious readers, who merely want to enjoy a text, not hack it. It is subtle humour for a very good cause. Actually, Mensonge may be Bradbury at his best.
The first thing we see when we open the book, before the title itself, is the large photograph of a bald head seen from behind, and below it we learn that this may be Mensonge’s only extant image. Even the name of the photographer is followed by a question mark. This whole book is a friendly question mark, meaning to say: Which way do you want to go? For those who want out of the intricacies of devitalizing deconstruction, it certainly is a good and enjoyable book.
The first page quotes Michel Foucault (‘What Is an Author?’):
‘What difference does it make who is speaking?’
It is not unusual for Bradbury to invent words, thoughts, situations. Nothing he says here is to be taken seriously. That is probably what should make deconstruction addicts very, very angry. That must be why this tremendously funny little book is not better known.
In statement after statement, the whole ridicule of the deconstructionists’ code is more severely admonished. At one point we are told:
‘...thanks to Deconstruction, truth is very much an open question.’
Bradbury hates the snobbish occultation of understanding, but he knows that fighting it openly might only breed more addicts, so he chooses the flirtatious, roundabout way:
‘...Structuralism–Deconstruction, in keeping with the times, is clean absurdism or cool philosophy.’
He warns us, in his ambiguous mockery, against
‘the age of the floating signifier, when word no longer attaches properly to thing.’
He describes new but ‘confusing’ opportunities, which we learn quickly to recognize as poison. Whoever has been up the blind alleys of these two trends cannot miss both the fun and the satisfaction of no longer having to worship a god of mis-, or rather non-understanding. ‘Isms’ used to be the target of T.S. Eliot’s ridicule. He once wrote:
‘Leavisitism finds literature living and leaves it dead.’
Good pun, which makes those of us who prosper in the comprehensible feel revenged. Maybe this is why even the term Postmodernism leaks meaning so rapidly, losing popularity more and more.
Apparently, the author of Mensonge (Bradbury himself) professes to praise Mensonge and his co-Deconstructionists. He declares, tongue in his cheek, that we must feel challenged when it is proved to us that language ‘is not working.’ We do not feel elated. We are scared stiff. We know exactly what we want to do when he continues:
‘In brief, Structuralism and Deconstruction are and remain important because they have quite simply disestablished the entire basis of human discourse.’
We want to turn our backs, stuff our ears, block our minds in the face of a future when
‘it will be necessary to re-write everything.’
Bradbury calls that vista an ‘increasingly difficult world.’ He tries a history of its beginnings, with Saussure, concluding:
‘Hence there is langue, which is more or less what allows us to talk, and there is also parole, which explains why nobody bothers to listen.’
To prove his point, he rushes to Paris, where, he reminds us, in his very pro-Deconstructionist mood,
‘Hemingway wrote his one true sentence, Pound cut The Waste Land down to size, and Joyce met Beckett and generously asked him to translate Finnegans Wake into French, an act of friendship most of us have been fortunate to have been spared.’
The alleged apologist of Deconstruction goes on with his outline of the (privately considered fatal) movement, and expresses his devotion to it in immensely funny sentences, all the more so as they are supposed to be highly serious:
‘...far from thought being written in language language was writing thought, and not doing it well.’
He mentions among the leading new gurus ‘the psycho-analytic Structuralist Jacques Lacan,’ who actually explained:
‘I think where I am not, therefore I am where I do not think.’
We are confronted with a revolution after which thinking might not survive, but enthusiast deconstructionists could not care less. They achieved their ultimate goal, turning everything into ‘creative misreading,’ and Bradbury is sincerely amazed that they
‘need a lot of critics to help them misunderstand.’
He captured the mood of the time in a sentence such as:
‘The wind of change was blowing everywhere, and the day of the modern reader who did not read a book at all was born.’
It is more than obvious that Mensonge is a nightmare, a dystopia of criticism, as he advises us to bear the burden, to
‘comprehend the significance of his non-significance.’
Actually, Mensonge has hardly ever been seen, heard, acknowledged. He is the core of mystery. He neve wrote anything, yet his book was published and vanished. He is the author who denies himself: the deconstructionists’ dream come true. Bradbury resigns himself to commenting:
‘It also had considerable appeal for British critics, who had always taken the view that all authors were dead anyway, or if they were not then they should be.’
This criticism meticulously sets about deconstructing ‘the author as a person.’ The death of the author, prerequisite for the birth of the reader, is explained by the Deconstructionist author, who gets all the attention, while the original book is dead and buried. The Deconstructionist takes all the credit. He becomes the author. Bradbury calls this an ‘illogicality,’ but he actually means fraud. He explains that Mensonge’s
‘non-presence is exactly what constitutes his authority, or rather, precisely, his lack of it.’
The whole praise of Mensonge springs from an ‘aesthetic of silence,’ which only applies to literature proper, not to Deconstructionist criticism, which is highly talkative, as a matter of fact. Creating a whole new language is no easy thing.
Unlike other Deconstructionists, Mensonge claims to be a ‘totally absent absence.’ He is extremely moral in his non-existence. That is why Bradbury considers him to be
‘...the ultimate case of Deconstructionist integrity – the man who has out-Barthesed Barthes, out-Foucaulted Foucault, out-Derridaed Derrida...’
His book ends by proclaiming ‘the absent absence of Henry Mensonge’ – which could also mean an unbearable presence. Entitled La Fornication comme acte culturel, it was published by the ‘Imprimerie Kouskous in the Rue des Timbres – Postes,’ Luxembourg, and it is rumoured to have been printed on paper that destroys itself. The book can hardly be found, anyway. There are also rumours about a manuscript, Non-Mensonge par Non-Mensonge. Actually hardly anyone has read (and no one can quote) the work of this ‘elusive non-author.’
There are faint rumours that La Fornication is due to be printed in its English translation, and
‘...will appear in due time from the West Coast Marxist-Feminist Gay Collective Press, under the title Sex and Culture, with a lovely cover, in their ‘His-and-Her-Meneutics’ series.’
It becomes more and more obvious where Bradbury’s sympathies go, and that he is having the time of his life denying it in the Deconstructionist manner. The future of ‘la nouvelle critique’ in Bradbury’s description is hilariously menacing, wildly ironical, though apparently favourable to Deconstruction pushed to its furthest achievement:
‘What everyone was waiting for, everyone needed, was the coming of the centreless centre, the presentless present, the writerless writing, the signless sign that would draw everything together and put it into its true lack of relation.’
The ‘supreme negation’ has Bradbury splitting with laughter, yet hiding this heresy under the cult of Mensonge (lie). The great man declares:
‘This is not the book I did not write, (...) and I refuse to acknowledge it as not mine.’
Consequently, La Fornication is ‘the greatest unread work of our times,’ which is a relief, after all. As a title in the (imaginary) bibliography states, we have read a ‘Fabula Rasa.’
Unlike Bradbury’s other novels, which relied mostly on humour, the writer’s deep-rooted need to be approved of and indulged, gratified by the reader’s laughter, Mensonge has an intellectual point to prove, a theory to ‘deconstruct.’ Malcolm Bradbury is sick and tired of the meaninglessness and pretentiousness of all critics who claim they can create a new meaning and dispense with all traditions, that of the author included. His book proves the uselessness of incomprehensibility.
Mensonge may very well be Bradbury’s best claim to the status of a literary Desperado lost in a world of Deconstruction. He starts out as funny, and ends in bitter reprimand, veiled in irony. A Desperado who melancholically looks back and rejects any misuse of language. At the gates of commonsense, he strives and smiles. If we follow him, we do the same.