Puffed Wheat

James Wood

  • The Power of Delight: A Lifetime in Literature: Essays 1962-2002 by John Bayley, selected by Leo Carey
    Duckworth, 677 pp, £25.00, March 2005, ISBN 0 7156 3312 0

In their very different ways, the three most prominent Oxford professors of English since the war have all been populist pretenders. John Carey, scourge of Modernist ‘intellectuals’ and reliable dribbler of cold water on all forms of overheated aestheticism, comes across as the last defender of sensible English decency. Terry Eagleton, with his blokeish binarisms and comic’s patter, increasingly presents himself as the sensible Marxist alternative to toothless and ornate theory in America and continental Europe. And John Bayley, with his hospitable style and gift for canonical gossip, again and again attempts to defend the sensible common reader against academic criticism tout court – what he has variously called ‘the higher criticism’, ‘smart academic critics’, ‘the literary lads’, ‘the clever men at Yale and elsewhere’, and ‘the high-tech men’.

In their puritanism (Carey), suspicion of overprivileged aestheticism (Carey and Eagleton), and belief that literature is at its most powerful when disclosing life (Bayley, and to some extent Carey), all three critics are far more marked by F.R. Leavis than they would probably like to admit; they would all agree, for instance, along with Leavis, to a marked suspicion of Virginia Woolf, for interestingly similar reasons. All three men tend to write journalism which, at least when it is stalking the common reader, functions at levels below their best intelligence. Carey quickly becomes coarse and crowd-pleasing; Eagleton switches on his smooth-running dialectic machine; and Bayley unravels yards of delightful babble.

This huge new collection, which gathers essays from four decades, some of them wonderful pieces of work, shows that Bayley is at his worst when reviewing biographies of novelists, and at his best when reviewing poetry. His essays on Sterne, Austen, Hardy, Trollope, Dickens, George Eliot and others begin incisively and then drift sideways, as critical argument is forsaken for biographical chatter and a widespread sowing of the field with puffed wheat. There is always a remarkably serene sense of what an author would and wouldn’t have liked – ‘Jane Austen would have endorsed it instantly, and with amusement’ – often combined with puckish non sequiturs:

This double focus is the real clue to Jane Austen, to her life as to her art … When an aunt gives the wrong advice, or a tiresome old woman is thoughtlessly snubbed, we apprehend with piercing clarity the dual nature of things, the heaven and hell in which we simultaneously live. The crack in the teacup opens, as Auden writes, a lane to the land of the dead. Jane Austen would have laughed at this view of her novels, or found it tasteless and incomprehensible, which is why the modern criticism of her novels often seems unreal in relation to their actual world.

Would the woman who wrote Persuasion certainly have ‘laughed’ at this fairly inoffensive dualism? And even if she would, why does it follow that modern criticism of her work is bound to this vague surmise of her own desires? Bayley’s ‘which is why’, posing as logical connection, is a very flimsy bridge. Bayley is properly keen to credit writers’ intentions, and to read their work in a spirit of accord with his idea of those intentions, but this is taking things too far.

Similarly, an essay on Chekhov soon inflates into gassy generalities. Chekhov, Bayley writes, probably felt that ‘an artist and consumptive cannot afford to get too involved with life.’ He continues:

D.H. Lawrence, fellow artist and consumptive, would have acrimoniously disagreed with him. Malice and revenge were a natural tonic and inspiration to Lawrence, although some of his best stories, particularly the early ones, have a remarkable affinity with Chekhov’s. Tolstoy got Chekhov wrong, too, observing of The Darling, which he much admired, that the author had intended to satirise his enthusiastic heroine for her giddy commitment to each lover in turn, but, by writing about her with so much sympathy, had in fact exalted her. Chekhov must have deprecated that. Exaltation of the life principle, devotion to the channels in which life flows, as Lawrence’s disciple F.R. Leavis put it, would have seemed to him cant, like all the other kinds of cant – political, social and moral – that his friends and contemporaries were talking in Russia, as elsewhere. Life had no special charms for Chekhov. It was neither as good nor as bad as people made out, and it had to be got through somehow.

No unbiased reading of Chekhov, whose great theme could be said to be ‘Live! – for you only have one life,’ could possibly suggest that life ‘had no special charms’ for him. Surely Bayley is familiar with Chekhov’s letter of 4 October 1888, in which he wrote, ‘My holy of holies is the human body, good health, intelligence, talent, inspiration, love and complete freedom,’ or his letter of 25 November 1892 to Suvorin: ‘A man who desires nothing, hopes for nothing and fears nothing cannot be an artist.’ In what way is this not a ‘devotion to the channels in which life flows’? But more interesting than the inaccuracy is the almost wilful flaccidity of the chit-chat: the largely irrelevant references to Lawrence and to Leavis, and the peculiar, bumpy mention of Tolstoy. As in the earlier passage, Bayley uses a phantom bridge for his non-connection: ‘Tolstoy got Chekhov wrong, too,’ he writes. Why ‘too’? Bayley seems to be referring to Lawrence, but Lawrence’s objection to Chekhov is a conditional figment of Bayley’s chat. His ‘too’ seems only to be smoothing over illogic’s crack.

Bayley’s essays drift rather than develop because – to shift figures – they get arrested in the realm of the evaluative. He has a superb ear for what is true and what is fraudulent in a writer, and it is a delight to witness him listening to the music of a style. But his almost freakish resistance to ideas and his hostility to systematic criticism condemn him too often to a merely connoisseurial employment of this evaluative sensitivity; his essays, as Eliot complained of Arnold’s, seem like ‘short flights or circular flights’, even when they are five thousand words long, because they refuse to press deeply enough into the subject, because they refuse to move argumentatively. His essay on Proust begins, sensibly enough, by insisting on Proust’s comic powers, and then quotes André Gide, who once said: ‘If I try to find the quality I most admire in this work, it is its gratuitousness. I don’t know of a more useless work, nor one less anxious to prove something.’ Instead of questioning Gide’s Wildean exaggeration, Bayley endorses it, because it aids him in his own softening of Proust:

Gide’s observation reminds us that it is pointless to get so worked up – as Edmund Wilson did – about Proust’s dogmas on love, jealousy or sex. These are indeed not intended to prove anything. We come to accept them, surely, as bees in the bonnet of an old friend, for it is one of the last secrets of Proust’s art … that the narrator-author is one of his own characters, whose foibles are as much their justification as their intelligence and esemplastic powers. If they want to bore us, or to impress us with their grasp of unmanipulated form and secret harmonies, let them: they have earned the right, and it is all part of the fun.

This is the same critic who writes of George Eliot as if her beliefs about religion and liberalism were rather silly and embarrassing:

more than a trifle voulu and heavy-handed … The fate of lawgivers and sibyls, in literature if not in life, is to have no lasting influence. George Eliot’s precepts can be said to have perished with her … her mindset and her philosophy of life seem so far off, so irrevocably in a past which has become and will no doubt remain totally a matter of history.

But even by Bayley’s standards it is breathtaking to see a critic simply plough Proust’s complex and majestic ideation under the jolly language of Arthur Quiller-Couch. Having stripped Proust of half his wealth, the rest of Bayley’s essay expires into biographical gossip – pauper’s criticism.

Bayley’s reviews repeat, at a lower level, the concerns of his more considered work. As Percy Lubbock was once the most Jamesian critic alive, so Bayley is the most Tolstoyan critic alive, and his book Tolstoy and the Novel (1966) is surely one of the most delicately intelligent works of criticism ever written about fiction. In Shakespeare, Pushkin and Tolstoy, Bayley finds a freedom and naturalness to be found almost nowhere else in literature. He delights in their healthy egoism; healthy because they have somehow managed to escape from egoism by sharing it with their characters. No one has written better than Bayley about solipsism in Tolstoy’s world, ‘the simpleness and naturalness of the great open world of self-conceit which Tolstoy knew so well, the world of War and Peace in which solipsism is in reasonable accord with mutuality’.

It is War and Peace, with its epic naturalness and its indebtedness to Pushkinian ‘lightness’ that clearly absorbs Bayley, much more than the more obviously European Anna Karenina. Bayley explicates, with marvellous tact, how ‘Tolstoy and Pushkin possess their characters though they do not control them.’ An example offered, and an example also of Bayley’s own sensitivity as a reader, is the way that Tolstoy hardly bothers to provide his characters with personal and psychological histories: ‘Tolstoy seems instinctively to feel that a character’s past life is a kind of reality, a reality which the author has no right to possess himself of. A novelist should not have it both ways, owning past and present: Tolstoy confines himself to what he can make of a character from the moment he creates him.’ Like Shakespeare, he can ‘afford to ignore the lesser writer’s necessary claim to every sort of access to character and motive’.

For Tolstoy, Bayley suggests, creation of character was not really a voluntary act, a willed thing; it was something he almost could not help, and his favourite male characters, like Stiva Oblonsky or Pierre Bezukhov, or even, in a way, Napoleon, share with Tolstoy this infectious, involuntary solipsism: they cannot help being themselves. It is the same with Tolstoyan comedy: ‘In general we feel about Tolstoy’s humour that he is not concerned with it himself, and probably rather despises the notion, but that it comes out from under his hand involuntarily when his narrative is at its best.’ This is very subtle, and similar subtlety is brought to bear on Tolstoy’s superlative use of detail. Detail is not lovingly fondled and fetishised as it is in Flaubert or Nabokov or Updike; it is always on the move: ‘At their best, Tolstoy’s details strike us neither as selected for a particular purpose nor accumulated at random, but as a sign of a vast organism in progress, like the multiplicity of wrinkles on a moving elephant’s back.’ At moments like these, Bayley seems to see literature from the inside, as writers themselves do.

Tolstoy, like Chekhov, makes most writers seem forced, hysterical, self-indulgently ‘stylish’. I have learned a great deal from Bayley’s commentary on Tolstoy and Pushkin, and am in large agreement with his derived Tolstoyan prejudices. Once one has read and reread the Tolstoy book, and Bayley’s superb comparative commentary on Pushkin, and his readings of Othello and The Golden Bowl in The Characters of Love (1960), one is inclined indeed to find the Tolstoyan law of creation the supreme fiction. And though Bayley’s sense of mimesis is obviously enough a realist one, it is not uncomplicated, resting as it does on two kinds of escape: the artist’s escape from his own work (the paradoxical escape of the generous, character-creating egoist); and the work’s escape from the world – the way in which great art creates its own rules and vision. Bayley writes approvingly of Paul Celan’s poems, which create their own ‘absolute vision’, and of the way Auden’s work is a magic that ‘completely enchants and dispossesses what it celebrates’. The great work of art, in Bayley’s ideal, seems to relate to the world as the great fiction-maker relates to his characters: it possesses the world and then sets it free. Ideal realism, for Bayley, is always edging away towards the satisfying self-enclosure of magic and the perfection of Tolstoyan epic. Bayley makes it easy for himself by dealing with Tolstoy’s essayistic interpolations on the philosophy of history essentially by ignoring them.

Bayley returns again and again to this exemplary double-headed escape. His interest in it explains his frequent warily admiring references to Lawrence, who offers a case-study in Tolstoyan egoism gone bad: a fictional world full of life and otherness, dominated by an author whose presence is always insistent, if not always unwelcome. Wordsworth is praised for the way that ‘in him mere human egotism did aspire, and not always without incongruity, to the quality and style of the sublime.’ Austen is favourably compared to Kundera; the latter is always oppressing us with his essayistic intelligence, while Austen’s fiction ‘has escaped from ideas and purposes’. (The Kundera-Austen coupling is one of several bizarre marriages in this book; Bohumil Hrabal would surely have offered the obvious alternative to Kundera: natural, comic, unself-conscious and Czech.)

Betjeman, Wodehouse, Austen, Anthony Powell and Larkin are all examples, for Bayley, of this kind of evasive magic, which is opposed again and again to what he calls ‘seriousness’. Any jobbing writer, it seems, can be ‘serious’ or at least can talk about ‘seriousness’. But the great writer, in the Tolstoyan or Shakespearean mode, is above or beyond such things. Larkin’s poetry, for instance, has ‘no trace of anxiety; it has no obligations’ to his literary influences, ‘disappearing into its own elsewhere, the romantic premise of simultaneous expectancy and disillusion’. Larkin is ‘the only sophisticated poet today who needs no sophisticated response from the reader; apparently not interested in art, its cosy responses and communal strategies, the poetry knows every sense of the difference between living in the world and looking in on it.’ In a fine essay on Czeslaw Milosz, a writer he understands sympathetically because of Milosz’s Tolstoyan healthiness, he writes – accurately, I think – that Milosz ‘is one of the few poets who does not give the impression of seeing something in his own special way. The self in his poetry is not impersonal but effortlessly manifold, like the emotions and sensations in its records.’

The problem is that Bayley’s determination to oppose this naturalness – which is clearly a modern version of Schiller’s lament for the naive over the sentimental – to all forms of brow-clenching artificiality becomes a tiresome and repetitive attempt to tease seriousness for being so serious, rather as Auden’s poet in ‘In Praise of Limestone’ is praised for calling the sun the sun. As one progresses through this book, so the world of earnest ‘seriousness’ grows and grows, like some terrible and endless party: it includes silly old George Eliot, and almost all modern criticism, and Proust when he is being intellectual, and almost all modern American poetry, which, in comparison to the selfless Milosz, ‘tends to be about itself only’ and always ‘needs the prison of its own self-creation’. Tennyson, admired here for being ‘essentially and continuously naive’, is employed to punish all modern seriousness: ‘For simplicity is very much the clue, the kind of simplicity which is opposed to “seriousness” … “serious” is still a cliché word which any novelist asked about his intentions, or any critic on the radio, finds it necessary to come out with to indicate that what he is writing or what he is praising seems to him good.’ And Beckett is absurdly teased, by being paired with Wodehouse:

There is also a certain resemblance between Wodehouse and a modern master like Samuel Beckett. Both are, verbally speaking, performing fleas, but with Beckett you have the illusion that you are, as Plum might have put it, getting the goods on life. Jeeves and Wooster never pretended to give you that. There is no ‘human interest’ in either writer.

In order to read the journalistic Bayley with profit one has to throw away about half of it, as the auntie in Chekhov’s Ivanov keeps on giving away gooseberry jam because she has made too much. Thus, Bayley is saying something true about Larkinian romanticism, but how can he plausibly maintain that Larkin is not apparently interested in art? The Beckett who goes in for vaudevillian routines and stagey puns might, I suppose, be lightly likened to Wodehouse, but why does Beckett merely give us ‘the illusion’ that we are ‘getting the goods on life’, and how can Bayley argue, in the face of Krapp’s Last Tape or Endgame or Company, that there is no human interest in Beckett? And how can Austen’s work be said to escape from ideas and purposes?

In fact, Bayley writes in a kind of code, in which the things that he disapproves of have around them the frigid crimps of invisible – and sometimes visible – quotation marks. ‘Seriousness’ almost always receives its visible marks, as, in the Wodehouse discussion, ‘human interest’ does. Likewise, Bayley really means to write that Larkin is apparently uninterested not in art but in ‘art’, that Austen’s work escapes not from ideas and purposes but from ‘ideas and purposes’, and so on. He would like to do the same thing with ‘intention’: in Gogol’s story The Overcoat, so he tells us in Tolstoy and the Novel, we are always aware of ‘the dead hand of intention’. This code can have its comic side, as when Bayley writes about Angela Carter. He seems to be praising her work, but the seasoned Bayley-watcher will know that he is really semaphoring his deep disapproval. In his essay on Austen, Bayley commends her lightness: ‘The light is the best foil for the dark: boredom, misery and despair are revealed the more sharply and effectively through a surface of serenity, comedy and good humour. Doing it the other way around is far more difficult, as many powerful and sincere novelists have found to their cost.’ Powerful and sincere, you understand, are not good things to be.

Again, the key is Tolstoy (and Shakespeare). Power and sincerity may be concepts which most criticism and many hundreds of writers have venerated, yet as far as Bayley is concerned, Tolstoy’s easy epic power reveals how unnaturally most writers employ them: ‘powerful’ and ‘sincere’ work is likely to be willed – voulu – and therefore ‘intended’ and therefore ‘serious’ in a bad way, too programmatically full of its own ‘ideas and purposes’.

One can agree with this great commitment to a pinnacle of artistic freedom while noting that its tyranny imprisons a fine critic. It is not really an exaggeration to say that for Bayley most modern literature, busy in its little hive of egotism and artificiality, can be written off: this is what explains the canny simple-mindedness of his stance, whereby Wodehouse and Barbara Pym and Mollie Panter-Downes are used to tease overweening complexity. Everything between Tolstoy on the one side and honestly unserious Wodehouse or Ian Fleming, say, on the other – Waugh, Greene, Joyce, you name it – will have for him something of the status of kitsch or poshlost, will be fundamentally untrue, in some way.

The problem for the critic is not just that the Tolstoyan or Shakespearean or Pushkinian ideal is an impossibly high one (even Tolstoy wasn’t always Tolstoyan in the best Bayleyesque sense, as Bayley’s admonitions on the dogmatism of The Death of Ivan Ilyich demonstrate). It is that, within the terms established by Bayley, the ideal is almost an unspeakable one, revolving as it does around a felt ‘naturalness’ the very articulation of which would bruise it. Hence Bayley’s coded language, which is the sign of his criticism registering the pressure of the unspeakable: we all know, his visible and invisible quotation marks insist, that ‘seriousness’ and ‘art’ and ‘purpose’ and even ‘ideas’ are a Bad Thing in the wrong hands (which is to say, most), but don’t ask me to explain exactly why. The critic whose burden of organicism most resembles Bayley’s is Henry James, who had a very sure sense of the novelistic ideal and a very sure sense of how many novels failed to approach it. James’s aestheticism, hostile to Tolstoyan looseness, is different from Bayley’s – which almost constitutes an aesthete’s fear of aestheticism – but it too shapes itself around a kind of unspeakable ideal. James uses abundant and rich metaphor, as Bayley rarely does, to summon this silent vagueness into speakable analogy – the wing that so lightly brushes the theme, the novelist diving into the thick element for his pearl, and so on – but also writes in a Bayleyesque code, made up of words that are gently oiled into being with italics: polish, finish, palpabilities, immersion, saturation, tendresse.

To the necessary difficulty of talking about greatly natural freedom in art, Bayley brings another layer of unspeakability, this one less forgivable. Unlike James, he is apt to hide the seriousness of his commitment to a very demanding aesthetic under a fussy shawl of gossip and silliness. Deeply committed to artistic evasion – the escape of the author – he is also deeply evasive himself. In his journalism there is an old-fashioned Oxonian embarrassment about displaying seriousness (seriousness, of course, in the ‘good’ Bayley sense); he too often acts as if by hiding his actual beliefs they will somehow disappear and cease to be such a nuisance. The denigration of criticism (‘the high-tech men’), the refusal to be violated by an idea, the biographical chatter, the mockery of earnest ‘seriousness’, the palpable unwillingness to reread carefully a manuscript like the present one, which has more than twenty typos and errors (I stopped counting): it is dismaying to find so much redundancy so close to so much truth, as if the two needed each other to enable the latter’s selection, as in a suspects’ line-up.

Bayley’s apparently effortless cosiness may seem like a pose, but it is also an escape, an escape from his own actual seriousness about art, a seriousness which is almost religious. Bayley likes to quote Lawrence on how the novel is ‘incapable of the absolute’, something he himself clearly agrees with. Yet religiousness is an absolutism of a kind, and surely one should not be absolute about the non-absolute? This is exactly Lawrence’s contradiction, too, in a more vehement vein, in his fiction and criticism: being dogmatic about the importance of being undogmatic. Bayley’s solution, you might say, is to escape by being non-absolute about the non-absolute, by not insisting and bullying, as Lawrence does, but by playing a very English, very Oxford, role: the delightful, sometimes even dotty, common reader.

There may be also, here, something of the dilemma of the critic married to a successful novelist whose own writing on aesthetics closely paralleled her husband’s. For it is striking that Bayley’s criticism shares all the important Murdochian postulates, in her case derived from Aristotle and Kant, about artistic selflessness, generosity to free and uncontrolled characters, attentiveness and the like: but where she is prescriptive, he is evasive; where she is intellectual and philosophical, he methodically returns ideas to the novelistic and poetic sea; where she is theoretical, he cleaves to texts. There is something else: Iris Murdoch beautifully espoused the Tolstoyan ideal, but could not achieve it in her own creative work. The contradiction between her promotion of freedom in fiction and the thin control imposed by her on her own fictional characters was almost flagrant. Bayley was surely aware of this, and it may have given him another reason to avoid absolutism, to approach the cherished ideal by indirection. There is a certain repressed pain, I think, behind a sentence quoted approvingly by Bayley in his essay here on Robert Lowell. It is Lowell on Stevens, but it could be Bayley on Bayley: ‘There seems to be something in the poet that protects itself by asserting that it is not making too much of an effort.’