Criminale , tendencies
Malcolm Bradbury’s latest novel is a ' whistle-stop tour of Europe,
blowing the whistle on Europe’s V pseuds. Philip Parr spoke to the man ,
behind Dr Criminale.
It was a good day to meet Malcolm Bradbury. His first novel in ten years, Dr Criminale, had been greeted by the lukest of lukewarm receptions. He had been criticised for throwing up questions about Europe but offering no answers; criticised for writing a ‘serious’ novel that contained far too much comedy for its own good; and criticised more than anything else for dressing his leading character (a young literary journalist) in a green shell-suit and sending him to wax cynical at the
Booker Prize awards ceremony.
Since those premature, ill-considered reviews appeared, the Booker panel has been lambasted for lack of imagination, and the trans-European express which was steaming merrily towards integration was heading straight for a big French cow loitering on the track. Bradbury seemed, simply, to have been ahead of his time. The
shell-suit still grated, though.
‘It’s about the only thing that seems to get a mention,’ says a genuinely bemused Bradbury. ‘This is a very complicated book and yet everyone is talking about that outfit. It’s a comic novel and a _
Malcolm Bradbury, who parodies just about every section at the intelligentsia certain amount of exaggeration is part of the point. I think one of the problems is that the book has tended to be reviewed by journalists from that . generation who tend to think that here is an older writer pushing into their territory.’
The problem may not be that Bradbury is entering the young fogies’ territory but rather that he is parodying them. Indeed, Dr Criminale parodies just about every sector of the
intelligentsia — jet-setting philosophers (Criminale himself), American feminists, corrupt European
commissioners and dubious Viennese professors to name but a few. Then there is Francis Jay (and his shell-suit) who tracks Criminale across
Europe. Stereotypes to a man and woman, but, as
Bradbury says, this is comedy. ‘At the moment we’re having a bit of trouble,’ he
says. ‘A few years ago, one of the interesting
things about British fiction was its comic tradition.
' Now there’s a kind of poetic solemnity which is associated with British ﬁction, and if you don’t write in that manner, you are betraying ideas, or
v the novel. I most certainly don’t agree with that.’
But, through comedy, Bradbury is tackling
' issues, big issues — the cyclical nature of history; Europe’s fraught attempts at unity; the death of philosophy. ‘The book is Oedipal,’ he explains, ‘a
father (Criminale)-son (Jay) relationship. At the moment there are people who are history-less — the previous generation’s lives were shaped by the Cold War but the present generation doesn’t seem to have anything to shape it at all. If Marxism is dead, what isn’t? And what is the fresh idea? That has been such a huge issue right across Europe on both sides of what used to be the Iron Curtain. What do we have in this age to make us feel confident, certain, ethically-reinforced so that we could stand up for something we valued?
‘These days, we are very short of philosophies, ideologies and ideas.’ Bradbury continues. ‘There is what seems to be an enormous factory of theories but no ideas. In the New York Times magazine every couple of years there is a piece called ‘The Philosopher King?’, and they come up with some new thinker. Criminale is in that world and may be the one with the great idea. But, like everybody, there is an irony irrhis life — he is both dreamer and clown, idealist and fraud. At the moment we seem to be in an age of demythologising, which is another point of the book. Feet of clay seem to be
the most important thing.’ After his treatment at the hands of the non-shell-suit-wearing literary critics, Bradbury certainly seems to have a point. Dr Criminale is published by Seeker and Warburg
The most striking thing about Michele Roberts’s Booker-shortlisted Daughters 0i The House is its vivid evocation oi physical sensations and objects. There can’t be many novels which describe the preparation at tarragon sauce so precisely that you could cook it irom the page. Fewer still where the young girl making it leaves her pertect liaison oi egg yolks and olive oil, has a vision oi the Virgin Mary in the woods at the bottom at the garden, then dashes back to do the washing up.
Not surprisingly perhaps, the setting is France. Contained by the round oi domestic activities which typliled llle tor Frenchwomen in the 50s, Therese and Leonie —couslns oi identical age - weave rich lmaginings lrom the scraps ol wartime secrets let tall by parents
Michele Roberts: ‘I used to absolutely yeamto be holy.’
and servants, and irom the lragmented objects concealed in the redolent iabrlc oi their old Normandy house. Their story unlolds in retrospect when Therese returns to coniront Leonie and the lamily home alter twenty years in a closed religious order. Having once
grappled with the hall-truths oi the older generation, as adults they have to coniront the webs oi secrets and lies they themselves hid in as girls.
Roberts cites numerous inspirations tor the novel - childhood holidays in France, her desire to atone tor the iasclsm prevalent in France long belore occupation and to explore how people cope with death - but that which she emphasises is the autobiography ot a young religleuse, also Therese, written at the end at the 19th century. ‘lt’s a documentation at her sanctity, but also her hysteria; a memoir oi childhood lull oi silences and clrcumlocutions. Clearly she is trying to deny certain suiierings she went through and, initially at least, the pursuit oi God seems a llight irom reality.’ The novel is convincing in conveying the appeal oi piety to a turbulent adolescent, perhaps because Roberts draws on personal experience: ‘I was such a priggish little girl,’ she says. ‘I used to absolutely yearn to be holy, the holiest prlg In the world.’
She has since rejected Catholicism, lindlng lt incurany patriarchal, but her
desk is as an alter: a huge plaster Madonna in lace and beads looks down as she punches away at the typewriter. ‘I resent the way religions corrupt and exploit human symbols. I think all human beings need to symbolise. it’s part oi being alive. Symbols are tounded in the lite oi the body, i think; they express our hunger, our sexual desires, our need ior human contact, even our need to dream.’
Here is the clue to Roberts’s lush descriptions oi physical objects, dismissed as mere leminlne clutter by a couple at male critics. in equating the symbolic potential at everyday things and the paraphernalia sanctllied by the Catholic Church, she is denying any division between the realms oi spirit and matter: ‘For me, the word God is about lmminence, lnnateness; it’s certainly not about "up there", or separateness.’ Roberts may have been written oli by some as 1992’s token woman, but with this richly colouriul novel she has more than earned her Booker placing. (Catherine Fellows) Daughters oi the House is published by Virago at £14.99.
The List 25 September — 8 October 1992 67