restricted access Unsent Letters: Irreverent Notes From a Literary Life (review)
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Reviewed by
Malcolm Bradbury. Unsent Letters: Irreverent Notes From a Literary Life. New York: Viking, 1988. 221 pp. $16.95.

Unsent Letters is Malcolm Bradbury's letter to the world that never wrote to him: a collection of letters of the Moses Herzog "Dear Nietzsche" type, written not to the famous dead but to the famous never alive—Nabokov's Charles Kinbote, Bradbury's own Nathalie Pelham Barker, for example—and the famous still alive—Rushdie. The collection is collective, representative, all-purpose, intended to post(pone) any and all issues that Bradbury or his correspondents may address. It is itself one large "Wissenschaft" letter, that representative missile from abroad that the desperate scholar sends: "If your books are funny, please tell me where, and send me your ontology of the comedic and your theoretiks of the humoristic, and how you like to compare yourself with Aristotle, Nietzsche, Bergson and Freud." [End Page 385]

Bradbury founds his ontology of the comedic and theoretiks of the humoristic in irreverence, particularly toward the pretensions of academia, as his epistolary lay-person's guide to conferences, complete with a sample multipurpose conference paper, and his university novels, Small World and Changing Places ("My professor hints me that you and David Lodge are the same person"), bear witness. If Malcolm Bradbury did indeed write the texts that claim him—and not David Lodge—as author, his writing includes short stories, verse, plays, criticism, and novels; his novels are Eating People Is Wrong, Stepping Westward, The History Man, Rates of Exchange, My Strange Quest for Mensonge, and Cuts. One of the unsent letters, "Inspeak: Your Streetwise Guide to Linguistics and Structuralism," written to a Semiotic Enquirer, purports to answer those questions raised by his most wicked satire yet of the postmodern condition of the university, the fin de siècle philosophies of posthumanist scepticism, in My Strange Quest for Mensonge. But the very presence of the new philosopher who calls all in doubt, Henri Mensonge—indeed, the very representation of his voice in the text of the letter or the letter of the text—give the lie to the ontological necessity (or anti-ontological necessity) of his absence in the novel itself. By his absence Mensonge remains the purest instance of the death of the author, living proof of Roland Barthes's famous comment that "linguistically the Author is never more than the instance writing."

Barthes, who apparently meant by his phrase "the death of the author" something not quite identical to the Ayatollah Khomeini's literal reading of the term, claims that the literary author—the kind of author who goes around signing copies, claiming authority and wisdom for the books he or she likes to think she or he wrote, and suggesting indeed that the text has accurately presented "reality"—is an invention of bourgeois mercantile capitalism. Given the politics of the time this review is being written, the opening remarks of Bradbury's "The Man with the Grey Flannel Head," a letter addressed to "Mr. Rushdie" about refusing to prostitute art to commercial and political pressures, seem uncannily prescient:

In the literary circles in which I twist and turn, there is . . . a good deal of anxiety expressed about how a writer can make a reasonable living these days. . . . One [solution] is that any sensible government should realize that great art is a great national investment . . . . Suggestions to this effect have been made to Mrs. Thatcher, President Reagan and indeed all the major world leaders, but so far none of them has got round to sending an answer. Other people, more philistine in disposition, take the view that authors themselves should take responsibility for ensuring their own survival . . . .

Would that we appreciate the function of criticism at the present time and our letters to the world—unlike the politicians' answers—not remain unsent. [End Page 386]

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