“Doctor Criminale” by Malcolm Bradbury

The original idea of this blog was to provide somewhere for me to record the books and articles I read. I forget things so easily: I know I’ve read “Catcher in the Rye”, for instance. I see it on my bookshelf sometimes, and the spine has creases. It’s definitely been read. But I can’t remember a single thing about it. Not one event, character, idea, sentence. Nothing. So my idea with this blog was to write things down. Then in five years’ time, when I’m trying to remember if I’ve read “Doctor Criminale” by Malcolm Bradbury, I’ll be able to look back and jog my memory. I have been busy lately and have got very behind, so I’m going to try to catch up with reviews of some books I’ve read lately… especially because as my own book gets closer to publication, this blog may well become slowly transformed into a vehicle for shameless self-promotion. So, “Doctor Criminale” by Malcolm Bradbury:

The cover described the book as a “bracing comedy of ideas.” That’s what hooked me. I’ve always struggled with the idea of how to deal with ideas in fiction in a convincing, readable way. I thought this book might provide an answer. It didn’t. The parts of it that dealt with ideas were few, and not the best. Most of it was a mildly amusing satire on academics and the pompous conferences they attend. Even these parts made me cringe in places: satire, when not fresh, can so easily become caricature. Thus the German delegates are all serious, the Italians are flamboyant and a bit ridiculous, the Africans are always laughing and wearing colourful clothes, etc. And the women all want to have sex with the main character, a literary journalist who shows no sign of being particularly charming or irresistible in any way. Perhaps, if you’re writing a “bracing comedy of ideas”, you think you have to throw in a little hanky-panky to keep the readers’ interest up through all the discussions of Heidegger. But to me it felt a little sleazy, and detracted from the credibility of the story.

I guess I shouldn’t read so much into book blurbs. “With grace and wit its author deconstructs fifty years of European thought and history” was another promise that caught my eye. But, again, he didn’t. The part I did find successful was the point that thinkers must make compromises with history, and the perspective on postmodernism as being a kind of cop-out – having seen the thinkers of the past fall into the trap of following the wrong ideas (communism/fascism), postmodernists don’t support anything at all. Ironic detachment and scepticism don’t help the world at all. Better to have an idea, even if flawed, a la Criminale, than not to have any ideas at all. Better to construct something wrong than merely to deconstruct and not offer anything new.

The writing style was fine, if a little wordy for my liking. I hate when characters are sitting on a train reviewing the story so far and speculating at length about the motives of other characters. It feels as if I am being prodded: “look, look, you probably missed it, but this is what you should be thinking about at this point!” I think if the story is well told, the reader can be trusted to realise what the important questions are. Another slight irritation was the author’s tendency to shoehorn Oscar Wilde type bons mots into the narrative, e.g. “Writers are sometimes inclined to let their work do the talking; photographers have to let their talking do much of the work.” Or: “There are no travellers now, only tourists. A traveller comes to see a reality that is there already. A tourist comes only to see a reality invented for him, in which he conspires.” A lot of these little flourishes were quite clever, really. But they irritated me because they broke the narrative spell: they made me forget about the characters for a few seconds, look up from the page and remember that I was reading a book by a man called Malcolm Bradbury who was trying quite hard to sound clever.

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