CUTS By Malcolm Bradbury Harper & Row. 143 pp. $10.95
Malcolm Bradbury, who writes immensely witty and penetrating novels about the academic life, has written yet another one. Well, not precisely, for "Cuts" is about an academic who departs the "distinctive world of intellectual contemplation, quietude, mannered eccentricity, and indifference to sad and foolish reality" in which he is at home and enters the real world, with startling and disenchanting results; as Bradbury well knows, though, you can take the boy out of the academy, but you can't take the academy out of the boy.
His name is Henry Babbacome and he is a lecturer "in the department of Extra-Mural Studies" at an undistinguished university in the British provinces. He is also a novelist whose three published books, he says, fall "somewhere roughly between Eco and Endo," with "the semiotic preoccupation of the former and the formal exactitude and precise imagery of the latter"; reviewers have described these books as "obscure but glittering with wit," "busty and bouncy with Beckettian overtones" and "paradigmatically intertextual and parodically postmodern."
None of which would seem to bode for popular success save for a quirk of fate. Eldorado Television, "one of the smaller and more remote of the independent programme companies," is up for renewal of its franchise and is in the market for a writer to do "some high-quality drama" designed to polish its reputation. An agent is consulted and after much cogitation comes up, oddly enough, with Henry, who is thereupon wined and dined and seduced, both literally and figuratively, and taken into the corporate embrace of Eldorado.
So all of a sudden Henry is at large in "a very mixed and funny sort of world, the modern world of today, and probably quite engrossing if you could find a way of writing about it, without getting too involved in reality, which of course did not exist anyway." He is determined "to maintain his integrity, because integrity was all a great writer had," so at first he turns in scripts that are of a piece with his novels. But when these meet with bewilderment and indifference, he quickly finds himself happily beavering away at a "tale of reassuring characters, traditional and solid houses, established customs, sunlit lawns, sentimental feelings, flowing nostalgia and an all too happy ending" -- a tale, that is, straight out of "Masterpiece Theatre."
In the process he learns much about how writing is done for television, in "an endless hubbub of noise, activity, interference and recrimination," the end result of which is a script called "Serious Damage." It is read by Sir Luke Trimingham, an old actor looking for one more star turn, whose verdict is nothing if not emphatic:
"A completely untalented piece of hackery, a purely mechanical artifact without any quality or any substance. A tissue of faked emotion and falsified eloquence. Entirely lacking in moral truth, or any kind of real human seriousness. Utterly failing to extend the medium or advance the possibilities of our dramatic arts by the slightest jot or tittle. Confirming the viewer in the most banal sentiments. Flattering him in his folly, his vanity, his vulgar nostalgia, his natural avarice, his barbaric cynicism. Oh, yes, I liked it greatly."
So off they go for production in Switzerland, where any number of improbable events occur, each more amusing than the last. "Cuts" is deliciously malicious satire that takes on not merely academia and television but also Margaret Thatcher and the like, with their penchant "for getting rid of the old soft illusions, and replacing them with the new hard illusions." Like Bradbury's previous satires -- those best known to American readers are "The History Man" and "Rates of Exchange" -- it has a core of "real human seriousness," of respect for the serious man, even if he is a bit of a fool and a naif, lost in a world of avarice and triviality.
"Cuts" is published as the latest addition to a relatively recent undertaking called "The Harper Short Novel Series," which to date consists solely of imports from England and elsewhere; another new volume in the series is "Nights at the Alexandra," by the distinguished Irish writer William Trevor. These books have indeed demonstrated that less can be more, but in the case of "Cuts" more would have been more; the only thing wrong with the novel is that there isn't enough of it.