Richard Bradford has written more than 20 books of literary criticism and biography. This latest one is a compendium of writers’ feuds and resentments. Reading Literary Rivals is a curious experience; from the quotations and bare facts you can just about make out a version of reality, but it’s fighting so hard against the author’s interpretations that it’s sometimes obscured altogether.
It feels as if Bradford has done his research with a baleful monocle pressed to his eye, giving a ghastly pallor to everything he reads. When Dickens read Thackeray’s review of his work, he wrote to thank him, but when Professor Bradford read the same review, he saw nothing but mockery and malice. Nabokov and his friend Edmund Wilson disagreed about communism. A letter from Nabokov to Wilson about the Russian Revolution was, Bradford says, ‘a magnificently calculated act of vengeance’.
This was nothing compared to the devilish motive behind Lolita. Wilson had written a book with a similar theme, but it wasn’t any good. Nabokov apparently decided to teach him a lesson: ‘It is unsurprising that Nabokov never openly acknowledged a link between Lolita and Wilson’s book,’ Bradford argues. ‘For one thing, it would be churlish to thank someone, even implicitly, for their part in a literary masterpiece that was designed to cause them pain.’
His endlessly grim analysis of friendship gets the professor into all sorts of tangles: he admits that ‘by all accounts Nabokov and Wilson’s exchanges were amicable, but one suspects this was as much a performance as a reflection of sincere affection’. Bradford ascribes some fiendish characteristics to Wordsworth too, arguing that he cynically exploited Coleridge’s fragile state of mind to turn him into a thankless assistant. It means he then has to explain away their decision to go travelling together. Many of the relationships he describes did have moments of tension, but Bradford never sees the roses for the thorns.
The struggle against the evidence may have led him to some rather clumsy writing. He doesn’t mind stating the obvious — ‘Nabokov’s inverted commas are obviously designed to remind Wilson that he is quoting him verbatim’ — but he prefers bamboozling sentences like this: ‘To pinpoint Mailer’s equivalent on this side of the Atlantic we need to look back almost two generations and stifle an impudent snigger.’
Now, for most people, stifling an impudent snigger is quite a rare sensation. If you’re going to tell readers that’s what they’re doing, you need to make absolutely sure they are. Unfortunately, it’s never quite clear why a comparison between the drunken escapades of Norman Mailer and Dylan Thomas brings it on for Bradford, or indeed why he goes to such lengths to find a British equivalent for Mailer in the first place.
In spite of being weirdly nasty about A.N. Wilson, accusing him of believing he has access to his subjects’ state of mind, Bradford goes in for a lot of that kind of thing himself. Discussing Kingsley Amis’s novel The Green Man, he writes:
Throughout, there are parallels between Allington’s life and that of his creator, but, instead of obligating [sic] his fictional avatar to face up to questions of who he was and what he had done, Amis shifts the focus to Allington’s battle against an agent of Satan….. Was this a case of Amis allowing his worst features to pervade the novel, but then stopping short of confronting them? Or was he, with disarming frankness, comparing his own lack of control with things that defy understanding and credibility?
Perhaps. Or was it just a good joke? For Bradford there’s always more to it, and it’s usually sinister; Amis’s ‘plots offered him hiding places, endless substitutes for candour’; Philip Roth is ‘the most celebrated practitioner of art-as-avoidance’. It’s odd for a man who’s read so much Kingsley Amis to so seriously miss the point: novels are not therapy, thank goodness; otherwise they wouldn’t be funny.
There are glimpses of interest; it’s good to know, for example, that as a child Henry Fielding wrote a letter to his grandmother describing his brother as a ‘shitten brat’, and that Dickens lingered over Thackeray’s grave ‘watching with haggardly eyes every spadeful of dust that was thrown upon it’. Literary Rivals is frustrating because Bradford has done his homework; he quotes some fascinating exchanges, and if he could just have taken off his horrid monocle, he might have seen the humanity as well as the sniping in the books and letters of his heroes.
Available from the Spectator Bookshop, £12.99 Tel: 08430 600033
You might disagree with half of it, but you’ll enjoy reading all of it. Try your first 10 weeks for just $10