BOOK REVIEW / Beating people is wrong: 'The Modern British Novel' - Malcolm Bradbury: Secker, 20 pounds

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The Independent Culture
OUT OF modesty or professional discretion, Malcolm Bradbury forbears to discuss his own fiction in this wide-ranging new survey of the form's fortunes during the 20th century. He restricts himself to a tiny, coy, walk-on part ('1959 saw V S Naipaul's Miguel Street, Andrew Sinclair's The Breaking of Bumbo, even the first novel of the present author') and then trips across to the wings, blushing, leaving the stage to just about everybody else.

This is somewhat ironic, for if anyone's oeuvre begs to be included in a literary Zeitgeist chart of this kind, it is Bradbury's. Whether dealing with the duplicities of extreme liberalism in the 1960s or the entrepreneurial, 'sado-monetarist' spirit governing the 1980s, his fiction has been a dedicated follower of intellectual fashion. His books might have been written expressly to make life easier for the author of The Modern British Novel.

Perhaps Bradbury would have felt less diffident about mentioning his own fiction if this new book had come clean about the fact that representativeness does not entail literary merit. That, though, would have opened up the question of value, which, to its great detriment, the book largely skirts. Thus, while it may belong to the tradition of such works as Walter's Allen's The English Novel and Tradition and Dream, the energy of judgement that gave some tautness and tartness to those surveys is dismayingly absent. You will trawl these pages in vain for a question as unexpected and jolting as that asked by Allen of Lord of the Flies, when he inquired why we should consent to see the behaviour of children as a paradigm of general behaviour. It's an alert, unacademic inquiry, such as a highly intelligent common reader might make; Bradbury's treatment of the book is, by contrast, professional to its deadened fingertips.

Instead of offering robust discrimination, The Modern British Novel keeps lapsing - as it pushes the story forward through Modernism and Post- Modernism - into lists of works that illustrate some common reaction to a particular moment. Take his discussions of the 'wounds of war' in post-1918 novels ('the wound of war was everywhere in the post-war novel, explaining the note of sharp generational change, historical weariness, wasteland vision and rootless psychological tension so plain in much of the best fiction'). It is characteristic that Bradbury draws up a register of the maimed (Septimus Warren Smith in Mrs Dalloway; Christopher Tietjens in Parade's End; Sir Clifford Chatterley in Lady Chatterley's Lover) as though symbolic wounds in literature were always doled out in a spirit of scrupulous fairness and could never constitute a form of victimisation.

At which point, you want to invoke the splendid scorn of William Empson: 'Chatterley . . . has always been spiritually impotent, and you are supposed to know this from a Symbol, that he happened to become wounded in battle. Surely one knows quite well that this is an infantile type of arguing in the author, tirelessly petulant and spiteful . . .' If Chatterley's paralysed condition pre-dates the castration that becomes its convenient symbol, then his wound has a dubious place in any list concerning the consequences of war. But since it occurs in 'a book that is, Lawrence tells us, dominated by 'the false inhuman bruise of war',' Bradbury lets it go unquestioned.

The tendency throughout is to take works at their own valuation and, though Bradbury sketches in some historical context at the start of each of the seven chronological chapters, he heads off into soggy abstraction so quickly that you could be forgiven for thinking that his argument was circular: novels reflect a perception of the world that has come from writers in the first place. One of the stated aims of the book is to substantiate the view that 'much of the most important writing of the century has come in the second half of it, and it is still coming'. But the terms in which the writing is discussed are so woolly, and Bradbury's stance such a slackly generous one, that his credibility as an advocate is impaired.

It is painful to watch favourite books reduced to a flavourless pap, and it is irksome to be talked at by a voice that seems at times to have forgotten it is addressing human beings: 'Post-modern ways increasingly entered British fiction, which grew far more open to the fantastic, the Gothic and the grotesque. So did the postmodern problem, which is an acceptance of the catholicity of all styles, along with a doubt and indeterminacy about their use and authority.'

This soporific drone is relieved only by moments of unintentional comedy, my favourite of which is the statement that 'The death of Proust that year (1921) had left an experimental vacancy.' Can we take it that the death of Barbara Cartland will leave a romantic vacancy? But then, an experimental vacancy sounds like something only a vacant experimentalist would apply for.