Liar's Landscape, by Malcolm Bradbury

Vanishing virtuoso
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The Independent Culture

"What is the difference between God and Malcolm Bradbury? None. Both are said to be everywhere yet are hard to see." So scrawled a student at the University of East Anglia, where Bradbury taught for three decades, frustrated at the difficulty of meeting his tutor. The elusive Bradbury was indeed everywhere. Teaching in Vienna, judging the Booker, adapting for television Cold Comfort Farm, Tom Sharpe's Blot on the Landscape, Kingsley Amis's The Green Man; writing episodes of Inspector Morse and Dalziel & Pascoe and his own TV dramas, journeying to conferences, turning out critical books, reviews - and his own fiction.

His energy was prodigious. It was Bradbury radio producers phoned when they needed someone promptly to elegise the passing of a famous writer. He never turned down an invitation. Amazon boasts 55 books by him, to some of which he contributed only forewords. He was consistently eloquent, and I once watched him in seminar argue two antagonistic cases, one after the other, with no hesitation and with equal force.

Though much envied as the leading tele-don, he was a famously gifted teacher, good at listening, and prodigiously generous to other writers. Such generosity is rare. He started, together with Angus Wilson, whom he admired, the creative writing MA at UEA: a pioneering, much-imitated course. In it he taught a faddish postmodernism that he claimed UEA had branded. His best apprentices, happily, paid little attention.

His own fictional output was small. Publication was an ordeal, sometimes an anguish. Unconfident, he polished and re-wrote many times. So for each decade he wrote one big novel: from Eating People is Wrong (1959) to The History Man (1975) to the admirable To The Hermitage (2000), where he finally escaped the confines of campus fiction.

He died in 2000, aged 68, and now his son Dominic has collected his non-academic writings for those who already know and love his work. Here are unpublished short stories (very good), bits of memoir (touching and fascinating), an unused TV script, drafts for the beginnings of novels. Liar's Landscape names the novel he wanted to write about Chateaubriand.

Provenance is given only for a few of these, their order is unexplained, and nor, when an article is triggered by a publication, are we given details. Frustrating for students: perhaps the paperback may make amends. For the lay reader, this matters less. It is excellent to have brief accounts of his childhood, as an anxious evacuee to Macclesfield in 1940 or travelling in wartime Scotland with his admirable father, a railway clerk and Methodist lay preacher. Disconcerting themes recur: he finds foreigners funny, especially trying to speak English; he loves in-jokes.

You feel that, family and friendship apart, he really lived to write. Nothing counting for more than his passion for taking the pulse of the age and setting it down. He will probably best be remembered for The History Man, in which Marxist Howard Kirk defeats the liberal values Malcolm treasured. Kirk lives because Bradbury, while despairing at what he represents, delights in his trendy horrible-ness.

Like Kirk, his author was fussed by fashion, anxious to possess the style of the age. Nothing dates faster, Bradbury knew, than chic. After the Berlin Wall fell, he jokily discloses here, Kirk went on to write "A Brief History of Football", escaping in the end, like his shape-shifting maker, all definition.

Peter J Conradi's life of Iris Murdoch is published by HarperCollins

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