Wednesday, March 07, 2007

Reading group: Doctor Criminale by Malcolm Bradbury

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.


Jim's Words Music and Science said...

Sorry but I think your group missed the boat. First, Eastern Europe constantly juxtaposed inappropriate bedfellows, like the poets in prison, and the poets not in prison but who maybe once were or will be again, so this switching of tone that bothered you (and I know that inappropriate tone can bother me, too) was actually an accurate and important part of the setting. Life in Eastern Europe in those days should bother us! Second, if you read Djinn by Alain Robbe-Grillet and other books of this genre (or maybe you have, sorry), you will recognize that the lack of resolution regarding the good Doctor is exactly postmodern, not a postmodern joke. So, what Bradbury did was (attempt to) inform us all about postmodernism with the help of humor and satire, and simultaneously write a perfect postmodern novel. I don't see this as one trick at all! I see it as a brilliant fusion of the text on literary theory with question of whether text exists at all and if any text can be true without having an infinite number of truths (one for each reader, because we are all the authors). Or something like that. Or am I confusing deconstruction / poststructuralism and postmodernism here? I sort forget (but I just looked it up- I'm cool!), but at the time I read Dr. C, maybe 10 years ago, or whenever it first came out, it was all very clear. Thanks for posting on a favorite author of mine! Tried "Rates of Exchange" yet? Brilliant! Jim at

Elizabeth Baines said...

But if you are writing about postmodernism via satire and in a postmodern way, aren't you inevitably making a postmodern joke?

What I meant by my shorthand 'postmodern joke' was rather precisely what you are saying (I think): that Bradbury is critiquing postmodernism via satire while exercising it.

I would never make any non-postmodern rules about evenness of tone, and I'd have found it exciting if the changes of toe had worked, but I'm afraid they didn't for me - my failing maybe.

Jim's Words Music and Science said...

is ok, we are not having to agree on everything. Thanks for the response. I believe that the ugliness of life in a totalitarian state was a topic MB could not let go of lightly, all of the time. Yet people did have academic conferences and visit from all over and drink and flirt amidst the secret police and listening devices.

I see a lot of these tone switches with Bradbury in Rates of Exchange. Maybe they will work better for you in this example (which is much shorter, if I recall correctly). The manipulation of language is hilarious (he invents a mittel european language that suffers almost daily political consequences). There is a serious subtext, too, but it does involve the British Council, so the earnestness of purpose overshadows actual purpose (sorry). I was up all night, so tell me if I make no sense. I seem to be using puncuation rather randomly.

I recently read To the Hermitage (at the same time that I read The Eight, and they have a lot of historical characters in common, if nothing else, which turned out tobe amusing and educational). I found in heavy going at times, but always rewarding. I couldn't necesarily tell who was speaking in some of the dialog, which was frustrating. Then again, I left England in 1982 after a five year stay and my language skills have steadily declined since. Ah, but this is not about me (as my wife might say), so I'll sign off. Best wishes!

Elizabeth Baines said...

You have definitely whetted my appetite for Rates of Exchange!