Changing places

23rd June 1995 at 01:00
Dangerous Pilgrimages: Trans-Atlantic Mythologies and the Novel By Malcolm Bradbury Secker amp; Warburg #163;15,0 436 20330 8

All artists are expatriates. Not accepting what they know, they try to imagine something better; not appreciating where they are, they journey somewhere else.

As a result, the history of literature has been written on the backs of countless baggage-claim checks. So much so that Gertrude Stein once argued that most writers require at least "two countries, the one where they belong and the one in which they live really. The second one is romantic, it is separate from themselves, it is not real but it is really there."

For writers, the grass is supposed to be greener on the other side of the hill, because the only way they can truly understand their native country is by being out of it. So Henry James went to Europe, where he bemoaned America's "absence of forms." And Aldous Huxley went to California, where he "did" magic mushrooms and communed with many great, un-English spirits. D H Lawrence went to Taos, Paul Bowles to Tangiers, Gertrude Stein to Paris and Lowry to Mexico. According to our cultural mythology, it doesn't matter where artists end up, because they're supposed to be nations unto themselves. Which is, of course, another way of saying that most of them spend too much time alone in their rooms.

There have been an awful lot of books written about these people, and Malcolm Bradbury has now written another. His purpose, he claims, is to describe how Americans and Europeans have been "inventing" one another for years. When Americans want culture, refinement and history, they head East.When Europeans want freedom, raw experience and wild love, they head West.Paradigms are established and routinely swapped on the international marketplace of cultural ideas - cowboys for aristocrats, serial killers for gothic demons, carpetbaggers for Euro-trash. Literature isn't a world unto itself, but just another age-old system of commerce.

Bradbury starts out with a rather heady premise, but his book quickly unravels into a lot more capsule-summaries about the same old people - Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Henry James and so on. Most disturbing of all, though, is Bradbury's reluctance to pay very close attention to the way individual writers actually represented the expatriate life of their imaginations. When Bradbury discusses Poe, for example, he barely mentions Poe's vision of moldering, hyper-intellectual Paris in his Dupin stories, such as "The Murders in the Rue Morgue" or "The Purloined Letter." Bradbury also spends most of his time discussing James Fenimore Cooper's frontier romances, while never really scratching the surface of Cooper's authentic "expatriate" novels - Homeward Bound, say, or Home as Found.

Bradbury tends to sketch many large, blowsy generalisations along his way.Whenever he stops summarising plots and bios, he usually ends up saying things like:

"If, in history, we owe much of our experience of the modernizing process and the shaping of our present condition to this transatlantic traffic, so,in literature, we owe much of our sense of the modernities and the styles of art to the great barter of forms, images, dreams of the mind which has travelled across the same geographic space."

Bradbury knows how to write better than this, but lately he seems to have been dipping too heavily into those books with the word "postmodern" in their titles. He phrase-drops a bit like "modernizing process" without trying to explain how that process works, or "our present condition" without taking a very sharp stab at what our present condition might be.

It's simply hard to figure what Bradbury is on about in this book. He argues that our "transatlantic mythology" pays unfair attention to its Euro-American connections, but then he completely ignores just about all prominent exceptions to the rule - the Bowles (Paul and Jane) in Tangiers, say, or Peter Matthiessen in Africa, or the countless Latin Americans who fled their various repressions for Paris.

Finally, though, Bradbury doesn't articulate one clear, definable thesis to add to the fine books that have gone before him - R W B Lewis's The American Adam, for example, or even Henry Nash Smith's Virgin Land. Those books took nearly 40 years to prove themselves outdated. But having arrived just this month in the bookstores, Bradbury's large book already smells a lot mustier.

Scott Bradfield is assistant professor of American and English literature at the University of Connecticut.

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