Reading group again and Jenny's choice: Doctor Criminale by Malcolm Bradbury, the story of the search by young journalist Francis Jay for a famous but elusive 'Mittel European' philosopher, firstly for a proposed TV programme and later to satisfy his own fascination.
Jenny said she had chosen this novel, set in the late eighties-early nineties, because she taught in a university at that time and witnessed for herself the conference bonanzas described in the book, and the worship of starry academics - plus the fact that she had also taught in Hungary for some of that time. She found the book very true in its merciless satire of these matters as well of British television and Thatcherite Britain and the East Europeans' emulation of the last. She had therefore enjoyed the read, but found that in spite of all the chasing about there wasn't much of a story since at the end we never actually find out the truth about Doctor Criminale. I said that, while the book makes a great deal of fun of Postmodernism, isn't that a postmodern joke of the book? And that the other joke is that while Postmodernism is considered a flowering of Western intellectual thought, it is the Eastern Europeans, supposedly innocent of it intellectually, who are its true practitioners in that through political necessity their politics and indeed identity are fluid in a way the Western characters don't understand.
At this point we had a discussion about what Postmodernism was, and whether or not you could define it and the notion that if you could it wasn't Postmodernism anyway, after which nearly everything that was said was followed by a joke about Postmodernism. Everyone (apart from John who couldn't read beyond page 50) agreed that the book was brilliantly written - Bradbury's choice of diction on every occasion apt and urbanely sly - and for much of the time extremely funny and always clever. However, everyone also agreed that it was basically a one-trick book, and that it could have been much shorter, and that the characters never amounted to much more than caricatures, which though some pointed out was a postmodernist point, left the book soulless.
I also said, to the agreement of others, that I found the tone uneven, with situations presented as hilarious larks only to turn dark in the light of later events in a way which made the earlier tone, in retrospect, inappropriate - after which, the book would tip into farce again.
Hans said: so what do we think, then, that Bradbury was for or against Postmodernism? and Jenny said, 'Above it all', at which Trevor (I think) said that he thought that was disgusting, for an author to be above it all. I said that satires are always to some extent above it all, but I did agree that they don't necessarily have to lack soul. Clare said, Well, actually, Malcolm Bradbury was a show-off with all that history and theory, and everyone nodded.
And having thus despatched a giant of modern literature, we broke into several conversations, about every other topic under the sun, which seems to be our (somewhat postmodern?) habit of late, and Jenny, Clare and I discussed the girls' weekend away in Paris we have planned.
Our archived discussions can be found here, and a list of all the books we have discussed here.