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Malcolm (Stanley) Bradbury Biography

Malcolm Bradbury Comments:

(1996) I suppose my fiction—six novels and a volume of short stories, as well as many television scripts and film screenplays, and three "television novels"—roughly follows the pattern, the styles and cultural and moral concerns, that have run through British fiction over the now five decades over which I've been writing. I began writing fiction in the 1950s when, in the period after the defeat of fascism, and in the aftermath of the Holocaust and the nuclear bomb, the novel in Britain moved back toward social and moral realism. In the wake of those events, there was also a strong concern with the problems affecting liberal and humanistic values. In fact if my books do possess one consistent theme (I believe they do), then that is their concern with the problems of liberalism, humanism, and general moral responsibility in the late 20th-century world.

In my earlier novels (Eating People Is Wrong, Stepping Westward), the central characters are concerned if confused moral agents, liberals not in the political but the moral sense, trying to do a reasonable amount of good in a difficult world, generally with comic, ironic or near-tragic results. I wrote Eating People is Wrong when I was 20 and was a university undergraduate, fascinated by the liberal universe of academic life, a place of often confused humanism and idealistic goodwill. I revised it a little later to make it more a retrospective general portrait of intellectual life in the British 1950s. With Stepping Westward, the result of several years in American universities as a graduate student, and about an American campus in the troubled years of anti-liberal sentiment that came from the witch-hunting of Senator McCarthy, I became interested in the different transatlantic meanings of liberalism, and I also began to explore my sense that humanism was in conflict with the hard realities of cold war politics and also with an age of materialist obsessions, self-seeking, and desire.

That theme is treated with a far harsher irony in The History Man, set in British academic life in the aftermath of the student revolutions of 1968. Its central character, Howard Kirk, is a radical sociologist who believes he is the spokesperson of a Marxist revolutionary process—history itself—that will still sweep away everything in its path; he tries to seduce his students and his colleagues into his bed and into the radical future. It is an ironic and a somewhat dark novel, as its liberal characters become incompetent in the face of inhumane theory and ideology. My next novel, Rates of Exchange, written at the beginning of the 1980s, is somewhat more hopeful. Dealing with various visits to Eastern European countries and my feeling that the rigid grid of the Marxist state was being increasingly undermined by the playfulness of language and the enduring power of the human imagination, it is set in an imaginary Eastern European state, Slaka, which is undergoing a language revolution. Its central character is a magical realist novelist, Katya Princip, who uses fiction to break free of ideology—and who in a later incarnation (see further on) becomes president of the country after it finally throws off its Stalinism. Like a number of British novelists I had also by now become fascinated by the opportunities of television drama in Britain. My next book, Cuts: A Very Short Novel, deals with this. A comedy about the making of what proves an abortive television series in the monetarist years of Mrs Thatcher's 1980s, it is about cuts in two senses: the cuts to British services that happened in the New Conservative 1980s, and the filmic technique of cutting.

Since some of these books are set in or around universities, I have often been thought of as a "campus novelist," and described as a progenitor of what is now called "the university novel." This is true to a point: I was a first-generation university student fascinated by the strangeness of the academic and intellectual world, and so made it fictional country. I have also spent most of my adult life teaching in universities in a number of countries; I am a professor of American studies and a teacher of creative writing, though now part-time; I have written a good deal of literary criticism, and been influenced by it. So my first book is set in a British redbrick in the 1950s, when it was a place of social change; my second is set on American campus near the Rockies at the start of the 1960s when it seemed a place of liberation; my third is set in a British new university as the 1960s died and the 1970s began, and radical hopes were beginning to be replaced by hard economic realities. I see them more as books about their decades, their themes, ideas, emotions, hypocrisies, intellectual fashions, and preoccupations; a university environment means that I can write about historically self-conscious and self-critical characters, the types who most interest me. I most see myself as a comic novelist, mixing satirical and ironic social and intellectual observation with play and parody. If I started writing in a time when the British novel was both thematically and technically provincial, I have tried to break out of that and become a more cosmopolitan, international, and technically elaborate writer. In Rates of Exchange, for example, I sought to find not only a larger subject matter, the question of what ideology we seek to live by in the late 20th century, but also a different language; in fact much of the novel exploits the technique of using English spoken by non-native speakers as its tone of voice.

My books have thus changed considerably over the years (and will continue to do so), but so has British fiction, which during the later 1960s and 1970s grew far more cosmopolitan and technically varied. As writer and critic, I have been very interested in postmodern experiment and found many of my more recent influences abroad. From The History Man onward, my books became harsher in tone, more elaborate technically, and they challenge some of the traditional ideas of character, realism of presentation, and moral confidence with which British novels have so often been written. Rates of Exchange thus deals with the problem of the British writer who uses a language deeply changed by its modern role as a lingua franca, and a world where stories become less reassuring and more ambiguous. This probably makes some of my later works rather more ironic, parodic, and less companionable, though I also think it makes them better. During the 1980s, for various reasons, I also found myself using the form of what I think of as the "television novel," that is, novel-like forms and ideas written and produced as television series. I liked television's immediacy, its rich techniques, its fast narrative pace. Anything More Would Be Greedy, a six-part series for Anglia Television, is about a group of students growing older, richer, and ever more cynical in Mrs Thatcher's entrepreneurial Britain; while The Gravy Train and The Gravy Train: The Economic Miracle (forthcoming) are both four-part drama series for Channel 4, dealing ironically with the European Community as it reaches toward the great late 20th century dream of European integration. The second series is once again about Slaka, after the fall of the Berlin Wall, and its attempts under President Katya Princip to join the mysterious entity of "Europe."

So my concerns and interests have widened. My sixth novel, Doctor Criminale, is a comedy about a tainted philosopher who has been a powerful intellectual influence during the Cold War period, and is now being seen as the philosopher of the Nineties. It's my attempt to deal with the great transformation that came with the end of the 45-year Cold War era, and to capture the climate as the new century, indeed a new millennium, approaches. I have continued to write regularly in a wide variety of media—books, television, film, and radio—and both in fiction and non-fiction, especially literary criticism and, increasingly, journalism. Having now retired from university teaching—mostly recently the teaching of creative writing—and working as a full-time writer, I am, though, returning ever more refreshed to the novel. I still think of it as my primary and essential form—an ever-changing form that inevitably alters a good deal in history for any writer who isn't chiefly concerned with perpetuating the popular genres or simply providing entertainment.

I view my books as works of comic and satirical observation, which amongst other things explore both the decades in which they're set, and the changing moods and modes of fiction. Socially they explore the moral 1950s, the radical 1960s, the cautious 1970s, the entrepreneurial 1980s, and now the nervous and increasingly cynical 1990s. In form they shift from moral comedy to harder irony, where the comic more nearly touches the tragic. I stay fascinated by fiction's fictionality, and regard all our forms of exploring knowledge as forms of fiction-making, which is one reason why I regard the novel as central. Since it acknowledges its fictionality, and often explores its own method and declares its own scepticism, it stays at best one of our chief ways of discovering and naming the world. At the same time it depends on a sense of truth, a feeling for reality, a response to the authentic experience of individual humanity. And, if my books are satirical explorations of current confusion, pain, and inauthenticity, they hardly (as some critics have said) betoken the end of humanism. In fact the novel belongs with the spirit of "liberalism," in the better sense of that word: the challenging of ideologies, intellectual fashions and inhuman systems or theories through sympathy and the imagination. Which is why I think the novel is always under challenge, but is far from dead.

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