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Between Belles-lettres and Dumbbell Letters : UNSENT LETTERS Irreverent Notes From a Literary Life by Malcolm Bradbury (Viking: $16.95; 218 pp.)

September 25, 1988|Art Seidenbaum | Seidenbaum is The Times Opinion editor.

The title announces, describes and even warns the unwary--almost like a doctoral thesis. What novelist and literary critic Malcolm Bradbury delivers is delicious, bogus, bunkum foolishness. Neither an epistolary novel nor a collection of nonfiction correspondence, somewhere in between belles-lettres and dumbbell letters, these are unreal responses to a variety of unreal writers. But they represent the kind of real supplicants who query real authors for the most self-serving reasons.

Here are the beggars who want a publisher, a job or a good grade based on someone else's wit. Here are Bradbury's responses, composed with a needle for a pen.

Meet Hans-Joachim Wissenschaft, for instance; he's a graduate student looking for help on his thesis from a professional source. He greets his prey as "Dear Herr Doktor Professor Bradburg" and then apologizes: "Excuse please that I address you so, but I think in your country you do not mind such informality."

Discover Miss P. S. Bricktop, the novelist who admits to being so much smarter than the 35 publishers who have sent a total of 1,225 rejection slips over the course of her career. "You will be pleased to know," Bricktop writes, "I have just completed seven more novels and I enclose them with this letter." What she wants is a reader, editor and respondent who can tell her how to become a published author. What Bradbury gives her is the secret: "A good writer is someone with a mind so fine that no idea can violate it, someone on whom no impression is lost, and someone who has a relative, friend or lover who happens to work in the editorial department of one of our leading publishing houses."

Pity another woman who wants to know whether she should marry an author. Bradbury, in his dearest Abby voice, answers: "Remember, it takes a person of distinctive psychological traits--obsessive, narcissistic, egotistical, self-excoriating--to become a writer in the first place. If that person is successful, other qualities will be needed as well--probably including jealous combativeness, paranoia and profound self-love. Nor is life in the presence of literary creativity the load of fun it may sometimes appear. There can be much pleasure gained from watching a potter pot a pot or a painter paint a painting. But writing writing is an activity that goes on largely within an inaccessible location, the writer's own head."

Recognize the writer lured onto the lecture circuit by a letter promising warm reception and even passionate audience. Bradbury composes a thank-you note from the writer after the dreary fact, "I have always been stimulated by the presence of 10 or fewer people in a totally airless room" and then turns on the host himself, "I was very touched that you as chairman should trouble to wake up from the deep sleep that engulfed you."

Sympathize with the young English scholar trying to apply his Ph.D. in academic endeavor. Bradbury tells him times are tough but suggests that the man might follow other Britons, like himself, to America where the campuses and appetites look larger. A conference, he advises, such as the annual end-of-the-year Modern Language Assn. meeting, is like a singles bar for scholarly pickups. Yet he warns, "It will not be all cider and roses. Flying off to a conference on Christmas Day can be a lonely business . . . and the discovery that all your fellow passengers are historians, political scientists and nuclear physicists all going to their professional conferences will probably produce the dismaying feeling that there are too many of us."

Conferences, in fact, claim a whole separate chapter of correspondence. They have become the excuse, Bradbury writes, for self-congratulation, for sitting by the seaside and for teamwork rather than singular performance. "There is no moment more fundamental to any area of commerce," he suggests, "than the moment when it is clear that this organization is of such importance that it needs a conference."

Disappointed novelists or academics often look to journalism as a second or third choice. Bradbury discourages them, too: "At one time journalism was an attractive profession. Compared with acting, the work was steady. Compared with Abstract Expressionist painting, it was clean. Compared with music, there was no instrument to learn. Compared with television, there was not much technology to fall over. . . . None of these things is now true."

Supplicants ask about literary collaboration, about the delights of autobiography and the allure of nostalgia. Bradbury disabuses everybody, including the man hungry for reminiscences about the 1950s: "When I really think about it, what I mostly remember people doing in the '50s was remembering the '30s."

Between the lines of these loony letters, Bradbury is addressing the fatuity of group effort and the idiocy of asking another human being to do your work for you. Authors, academics and literary agents will find a horde of old friends, under aliases, pressed among these pages. Straightforward people may be less amused, not realizing the literary life is really a literary bent.

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