BOOKS / Irony in the Soul: Decade-watching: after four books in 40 years, Malcolm Bradbury's novel for the 90s reflects history on the cusp

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MALCOLM BRADBURY once confessed that he felt as if he were 'slowing down history'. Throughout the political and intellectual chess game of the Cold War, Bradbury was there with his note-book, meticulously marking down the state of play. In 40 years he published just four novels, each a detailed satire on the ideas of the day. Critics began to talk of Bradbury Decades.

His new novel, Dr Criminale, is a pre-emptive take on the Nineties, but also a look back (in surprising tranquillity) over a low dishonest century, in which intellectual disgrace seems to stare from every thinker's face. Spanning this dark century and dominating its thought has been Bradbury's charismatic middle-European hero, Dr Bazlo Criminale, a multi-disciplined writer and thinker. As the novel progresses, Criminale is revealed to be both brilliant and tainted - a fellow-traveller and involved in shady transactions with Communist regimes. The book was written in record time in order to capture the hurtling events after the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. With history on the hoof, it was Bradbury who had to catch up.

The reporter on his way to interview Bradbury is mindful of a passage in the new novel where the narrator, a young journalist on the trail of Dr Criminale, is quoted a Criminale joke: 'What is the difference between God and Bazlo Criminale?' Answer: 'God is everywhere, Criminale is everywhere but here.' The crack originally appeared as a graffito at the University of East Anglia, where Bradbury is Professor of American Studies. Bradbury's own mixture of ubiquity and elusiveness, with his regular excursions on the international conference circuit, was its butt.

Defying reputation, Bradbury is in residence at his Norwich home at the appointed time. His face has a chameleon quality - partly captured by a lurid John Bratby portrait hanging in the room - seeming to switch from haggard late middle-age to enthusiastic boyishness at the glint of an idea. In smart casuals - beige trousers, dark blue shirt - he crouches forward on the sofa, shuffling his pipe from hand to hand, the model of the well-heeled don. Beside him, contemporary fiction, in the form of an alphabetically ordered bookcase full of recent first editions, stands to attention.

Bradbury describes Dr Criminale as the book where he has tried to reach back across the collapsing ideas of the post-war world. 'For 45 years, since the beginning of the Cold War, we were fixed in a particular mindset, and almost everything that went on in that period, including its fiction, has been about that historical order. I wanted to capture the moment when you felt that a mental order had begun to disappear - history on the cusp.'

Each of his novels has dissected the modish idea of its day: the anxiety of post-war liberalism (Eating People Is Wrong, 1959); Fifties radicalism on either side of the Atlantic (Stepping Westward, 1965); the manufactured Marxist revolution of the Sixties and Seventies (The History Man, 1975); the 'sado-Monetarism' of the Eighties (Rates of Exchange, 1983). He takes his stimulus not from something that happens to himself, but from 'something that happens in the outside world'.

Bradbury has a gift for intellectual ventriloquism. In his first novel he caught the voice of a Shelleyan madman/genius in the woefully immature mature student Louis Bates. In the novel which made his name, The History Man, there was the Marxist sociology lecturer Howard Kirk, scrawling abuse on the essays of students he accused of 'sentimentalising' society. Dr Criminale captures the aphoristic slickness of the preening intellectual - 'The changes in Russia become incontrovertible only when the rouble becomes convertible,' he quips to a reporter - it was a voice that came to Bradbury at yet another international conference.

Criminale's character is an amalgam of intellectuals past and present: echoes of Eco, signs of Derrida, hints of Althusser, Brecht, Lukacs, Mann, Sartre - even David Lodge's Maurice Zapp. The figure who springs to mind first, though, is Paul de Man, the master of deconstruction at Yale, who was discovered to have written anti-Semitic articles in his native Belgium during the war. Criminale's oeuvre is broader than De Man's, and his misdemeanours subtler, but the central dilemma remains: how to square the shady life with the brilliant thought. 'The two things must go together,' answers Bradbury, 'but there is something in the mind of the philosopher or theorist which is capable of detachment, achieving an independence. A thinker may think in codes that are greater than the codes that produce a local political situation. Criminale is a man who has thought higher than many of his deeds.'

There may appear to be more than a hint of sophistry in this reply, but then Bradbury argues that, in this perilous century, 'silence, exile and cunning' have been the necessary weapons of intellectuals under repression. Criminale, through whatever dubious means, at least gets things done, and in the name of ideas: 'To think greatly is to err greatly,' argues a fellow academic. In Bradbury's earlier novels, liberalism is seen to lead to inertia: the virtuous tend to be impotent. Criminale's pragmatism and shiftiness are a compromise that Bradbury finds appealing. And Criminale's belief that philosophy is a form of irony is one with which Bradbury, whose literary career has been spent ironising ideas, identifies.

Bradbury's sympathy with his central character in part accounts for the mellow tone of the book. There are signs of a renewed, if guarded, personal and political optimism. The previous books 'were about the 20th-century painting itself into a corner', written in times of bitterness and depression (he has described himself as manic-depressive). But glasnost has thawed the Bradbury soul.

His anxieties now seem to be more about personal misrepresentation than global annihilation. Last year his British Council anthology, New Writing, took a critical drubbing. Articles have appeared suggesting that he runs, through his successful creative writing course at East Anglia, a literary mafia. To some sections of the press Bradbury has become not just a don, but the Don. The writer who began as an outsider in the Fifties - a railway man's son, red brick university - on turning 60 has become an establishment figure for the new generation to pot at.

'I hope not, but I think it could be true,' he says. 'I certainly perceive myself as very much outside the establishment, and don't want to be in it. There's a falsified image of me as someone who's always running around literary parties selling students to publishers. What, in fact, I do - as any teacher does - is to write letters on behalf of students, if I think they're good. But there's no magnificent manipulation.' There may also be a weariness with the campus novel, a form which he and his friend David Lodge did much to create, and which has risen and fallen in rough synchronism with British higher education. Bradbury is anxious that his new novel should not be dismissed as a Nineties Small World. Its conference-hopping plot, however, may invite cynicism from those who believe the only difference between the campus novelists' cure for a stagnant plot and the celebrated solution of Raymond Chandler is that in their books a man walks through the door holding an invitation to an academic conference rather than a smoking gun.

Bradbury also fingers a new generation of critics, who are to writers like him and Lodge, what his own generation was to Bloomsbury - 'you needed a stalking-horse to declare your difference'. But, like the narrator in Dr Criminale, they are concerned with 'the reviewer's performance, the statement of an attitude, rather than the big book'.

Bradbury himself is now happier writing fiction than criticism. He says: 'I think we will look at this period in criticism as one of unravelling rather than making, and wonder why it took us so long to unravel so little.' Critical theory became an obstacle to writing: 'I was deeply involved with Deconstruction, and the idea of the Death of the Author, until I realised that I was one, and that I was alive and well and living in Norwich.'

Does this flight from critical theory signal a Criminalesque betrayal? Bradbury admits to passing similarities between himself and the doctor in their taste for academic gallivanting and their unquenchable desire to teach, as well as a certain evasive fluency. But he does not think he has compromised himself: 'It's not disloyal to seek to go beyond Deconstruction's current position, where it's extremely hard to talk of the ethics both of life and of fiction.'

If the Death of the Author would spell disaster for Bradbury, so would the Death of History. There are hints of Fukuyama's theory in Dr Criminale - the Doctor himself argues that homo historicus, the individual who finds a meaning or intention in history, has died - but Bradbury does not believe that the big ideas are all played out. 'We are in a parallel situation to the end of the 19th century, when all that seemed to be left were fragile sensations and impressions. Then new ideas swept across Europe, resulting in terrible ideologies and two world wars. I think there will be new ideologies, but probably they'll take unpleasant fundamentalist forms. As an eternal liberal I fear that.' Already 'a novel that is about the Nineties as they approach the year 2000' is germinating.

The race with history is speeding up.

'Dr Criminale' is published on 14 September by Secker at pounds 13.99

(Photograph omitted)