John Bayley

John Bayley was Warton Professor of English at Oxford from 1974 to 1992.

Gide’s Cuttlefish

John Bayley, 17 February 2000

The best thing on Stendhal in English is an essay by Lytton Strachey in which he remarks the way the author denovelises the novel while skilfully retaining all its traditional apparatus. Stendhal’s imagination is a kind of parody of Scott’s: his sensibility is itself its own journal and his own memoir. Reviewing Stendhal’s last book, The Charterhouse of Parma, when it appeared in 1839, Balzac noted admiringly that the novel ‘often contained a whole book in a single page’. But that book is not one which Stendhal would have bothered to write, and no audience would have been concerned to read it.‘

From the recollections of the Roman centurion who tells his story to the children in Kipling’s Puck of Pook’s Hill, we learn that a Libyan cohort, the Thirds, were stationed as part of the garrison on Hadrian’s Wall, and that when crisis comes and the ships of the Winged Hats attack out of the north, these troops were faithful and resolute: they ‘stood up in their padded cuirasses and did not whimper’. They must have felt the cold, poor devils, as did the two Indian Army corps, more than a hundred thousand men, stationed in Northern France during the damp and bitter winters of 1915 and 1916. But those troops, too, stood to it and did their duty.‘

The Politicisation of poetry can sometimes bring back to vivid life the poet’s original outlook and preconceptions: it can also misunderstand them. A poem that comes off, and takes off, does so in terms of its own language, irrespective of ideological impulses and overtones. Time, as Auden observed,

Show a primitive man a submarine, or a sophisticated one an elephant, and both have to have time to get used to the experience before they know what it is they are seeing. So it probably is with the experience of battle. The participant does not know what happened until he can work out in the language of his head (or of his tribe) some way of formalising it. Asked back in England what the retreat to Dunkirk had been like, a languid young officer is said to have replied: ‘My dear – the noise, and the people.’ As good an impression as any that could be devised from (in his case) normal social experience. The fragment of Beowulf known as ‘The Finnsburgh Episode’ provides a standard formula for expressing the shock-horror impact of a surprise attack on a heroic society. The Battle of Maldon is justly famous for the Homeric way it puts appropriate sentiments – which in its context also sound vivid and convincing – into the mouths of soldiers on the verge of death and defeat.’‘

At the height of one of the IRA bombing campaigns, a sergeant in the Irish Guards, on duty outside the barracks, was asked by some British civilians what he thought about the campaign. He didn’t think about it: he had received orders about security but was indifferent to the cause of all the fuss. A professional soldier from Limerick, he got on with his job. A chastened Kipling, who had once held that everyone must have the strongest views about everything where race and nationhood were concerned, would none the less have respected the sergeant’s attitude. Time and again in this history he emphasises that ‘a battalion’s field is bounded by its own vision.’ Still more so, by implication, its views of the matter in hand.‘

Our Founder: Papa Joyce

John Bayley, 19 February 1998

Joyce’s prose is ‘beautifully written’, as they used to say. Written, like his poems, in the old style of the Nineties. Paradoxically, it is not composed but spoken. The voice that echoes through it, the voices rather, and the tones, are those of the old artificer, the father of the tribe, Simon Dedalus, John Stanislaus Joyce. Like the violins of Cremona, Dubliners, Ulysses, Finnegans Wake are the products of a joint concern, a family undertaking. Joyce himself was frank about this. As long as he had escaped he could still be in the bosom of the family. As long as he remained in Trieste or Zurich or Paris he was able to take the part of maestro, conducting the chorus of voices in the parlour of the grandest house they had once lived in – 23 Castlewood Avenue, off Belgrave Square, Rathmines – or in the back kitchen of some much more modest establishment. As Richard Ellmann emphasised in his biography, Joyce employed his father till the very end, requiring the particulars of the ‘Star of the Sea’ church when Pappie was at death’s door. In his last remembered words the old man replied to another of his son’s queries: ‘Tell Jim he was born at six in the morning.’ Unknowing, John Stanislaus died the begetter of what was to become the greatest of all enterprises in modern Irish mythology.’‘

A Subtle Form of Hypocrisy

John Bayley, 2 October 1997

On the jacket of Playing the Game is a portrait of the man who played it: a portrait by William Strang (1859-1921), a Late Victorian artist now much undervalued. He did what is by far the best portrait of Hardy, and his special ability seems to have lain in pleasing his subjects and their public by making them look suitably grave and important, even a shade portentous, while at the same time revealing hidden traces of weakness, perhaps of meanness. Newbolt’s is a close little face, the small mouth primly clenched over an aggressively cloven chin, the brows knitted in a frown which seems to tell less of imperial visions than of inner worries and embarrassments. It is the kind of face to whose owner a bank manager might think twice before making a loan. No wonder Newbolt felt uneasy when he went to look at the portrait exhibited at the Tate. ‘Had a good laugh,’ he none the less gamely recorded.

Such a Husband

John Bayley, 4 September 1997

The two most interesting letters in this selection are not by Meredith: a fact suggestive of the Meredithian tendency to evade evidence or embodiment of a personal sort, and disappear into the airier world of ideas about him – his own or those of others. His personality, like that of his creations, is of a gaseous nature. Max Beerbohm once wrote a memorable little sketch of a visit to the Sage of Box Hill, and of hearing Meredith’s voice addressing the air as he approached, and recommencing the conversation as he walked away. In mid-century Meredith dazzled his friends and public, but the bubble eventually burst. Had there ever been anything in his coruscating characters and their sprightly utterance? Even old loyalties turned a bit sceptical. In her Memories of George Meredith one of his fans, Lady Butcher, recalled how he had thrilled her with his first inspiration for One of Our Conquerors, as they walked together on Box Hill.’

Anything that Burns

John Bayley, 3 July 1997

Five years ago the formidable chairwoman of the first Russian Booker Prize remarked of one of the entries that she’d never been so disgusted in her life. There was an American judge on the panel, also a woman, who looked surprised. Conditioned as she and I were to the novel in the West, we had scarcely noticed what seemed to us rather quaint attempts by younger Russian novelists – aspirants for the prize – to shock and repel their readers. The new sexual and scatological candour in Russian writing was for us run-of-the-mill stuff, obviously copied from Western colleagues.’

So wrote Yeats of Swift’s Latin epitaph for himself in Dublin Cathedral, and it had been an epitaph well earned. The fashionable aspect of social indignation was to come later. To the heroes of the Irish revolution, twenty years after the American, it was nothing of the kind. In his poem ‘September 1913’ Yeats was convinced that Ireland in his own time had ‘come to sense’, and had nothing to do now ‘but fumble in a greasy till’. Was it’

In Memoriam: V.S. Pritchett

John Bayley, 24 April 1997

It’s often said that the short story today goes with poetry. But the trouble with bringing poetry in is not only that the ‘poetic’ is a bad thing in prose but that it implies a degree of consciousness and concentration which the very best stories don’t seem to have. William Gass rationally observed that the story ‘is a poem grafted onto a sturdier stock’ but Borges decreed that ‘unlike the novel, it may be essential.’ That has an ominous sound.

Our Boys

John Bayley, 28 November 1996

Lionel Tennyson, the Poet Laureate’s second son, had what might be called an interesting marriage. Interesting from our point of view, however difficult from his own. Like everyone who married a Tennyson, Eleanor Locker had been in their circle since childhood. After her mother’s death her father married an American million-dollar heiress of unbending Quaker principles, and became Frederick Locker-Lampson, one of the arch little poets whose presence embarrasses the later pages of Q’s first attempt at an Oxford Book of English Verse. Eleanor sounds a jolly girl, unremittingly flirtatious before and after marriage, and a source of some anxiety to her august in-laws, and particularly to Emily, the Poet Laureate’s wife. Lively Lionel, who had romped with her since childhood, fell for the flirtiness as she grew up and wrote her a rather touching little poem.

Look here, Mr Goodwood

John Bayley, 19 September 1996

A learned, indeed an erudite little book; but also one that is so absorbing, so readable, so quietly and deftly humorous, that it shows up all the dull pretentiousness of nine-tenths of the stuff that gets written nowadays about Eng. Lit. A fascinating and major paradox is involved; but what would be the point of the author displaying it when a fabulous gathering of fictional puzzles will do it for him? The best critic, like the best novelist, leaves the reader to decide. The paradox remains, however. On the one hand, the novelist must tell the truth, and want to tell nothing else: on the other, he has the irresponsibility of a creator whose fondness for his creatures is no guarantee that he will not kill them or save them at a whim, show them up or let them down. You want a happy ending? Dickens, Hardy and above all Thackeray will oblige, however much with tongue in cheek. Dickens and Hardy will do it, while taking the opportunity, in letters or prefaces or afterthoughts, of making clear that it goes against their artistic consciences. Thackeray will exhibit the absurdity of novel-writing with a shrug and a smile of apparent shamelessness.

Seeing Things

John Bayley, 18 July 1996

The jacket photograph is revealing. A rather apologetic looking man, in sensible but unpretentious tropical attire, stands between two tremendously authentic indigenes, complete with bows and arrows and wearing only a curl of string round their penises. He looks like a sales rep, come to show them a new line in tupperware. But Norman Lewis has always maintained a low profile when it comes to exploring. His admirable series of travel books and travel novels, informative, neatly written, and full of a dry detached humour, make Lawrence of Arabia or Bruce Chatwin, even Wilfred Thesiger and Freya Stark, look like the most tremendous show-offs, auto-destructive as wildlife films on TV.

Fat and Fretful

John Bayley, 18 April 1996

The only time L.P. Hartley met E.M. Forster they did not get on. Too much politeness, and mutual wariness. And what a comedy in contrasting physiques: Forster sharp, quizzical and birdlike; Hartley plump, vacant, moustached and apologetic, half walrus and half melting snowman, pipe in mouth. But underneath they had a great deal in common, and chiefly the mysterious, almost unconscious knowledge of their own powers as natural artists. They knew how to put themselves and what they wanted to say into an artifice that would enhance and dramatise by disguise, to the point where disguise itself became the object of art. Homosexuality may have been at the core of this knowledge, but more important was the instinct to personalise sexuality, so that it referred to themselves alone, a pure individualness in which the disguises of art could rejoice and revel, displaying themselves in their own way and in their own tongue.

Come along, Alcibiades

John Bayley, 25 January 1996

The point of modern theatre is not ‘to hold the mirror up to nature’ but to shock, surprise and excite. (Shakespeare was a playwright from the accident of his time: his true talents are only marginally theatrical.) Every contemporary playwright seeks to develop the idea of theatre itself as far as it will go, in one direction or another. Familiarity, hard to avoid, is still an asset, just as it was in the days of matinées and tea-trays, with the butler coming to answer the phone as the curtain rises, but today’s familiar device is to cause a predictable bewilderment, to embarrass, disturb or offend. Fifty years ago, or even further back, the play had already become a highly specialised form of artistic gamble, a piece of newspeak. For each generation of theatregoers some new piece of rough magic may either lose or win an audience: hard to say which until it happens.


John Bayley, 30 November 1995

Many years ago, before soundbites and even before That Was the Week that Was, I found myself pushed by the late Brigid Brophy into taking part in an early TV quiz show. In those days such things were done in a touchingly amateurish way, with make-up persons fussing about and everyone, even the cameramen, looking highly nervous. It was a literary guessing-game, done almost like charades used to be at a country weekend. An actor read out a bit of poetry or prose, and sitting in a semicircle we attempted in turn to give it a date, a context, the name of an author. By today’s standards the whole thing was élitist to a suicidal degree. We were lemmings of literature, evidently bent on the destruction of all we stood for. The idea was to show off by not showing off, to be languidly erudite, wittily and unobtrusively learned. High culture, wide culture, men of letters, like Aldous Huxley, who indeed was then still alive … It was the exact opposite of Brain of Britain.

Performance Art

John Bayley, 16 November 1995

In 1948 I was sitting in my college room trying to work when Kingsley Amis opened the door and looked in apologetically. We must have been conscripted at the same point in the war, but being older he had already been up at Oxford: now he was a graduate, starting a BLitt. Since he was already quite famous in university circles I knew who he was although we had never met. I remember being impressed by his clothes. In those days after the war clothes were drab; grey flannels as common as jeans today. Those who wore smart jobs, like Ken Tynan in the purple-dyed battledress he had cadged off some ex-army student, did so very consciously. But Amis wore his brown tweed jacket and cherry-red polo sweater without giving the impression of having taken any thought about them. He was seeking contributions for Oxford Poetry. As editor he printed long pieces of his own, strangely dithyrambic, almost Swinburnian, and about some never-never land of Audenish fantasy. A far cry from the crisp and sexy stuff he was learning to write with Larkin, then a junior librarian at Leicester.

Maschler Pudding

John Bayley, 19 October 1995

On 23 April 1977 Philip Larkin came to lunch at Barbara Pym’s cottage in Finstock, near Oxford. She and her sister had only been living there a short while, after Pym’s retirement from her post in Fetter Lane as assistant editor of Africa; and it was Larkin’s first and, as it turned out, his only visit. After her years in the wilderness, Pym’s novel Quartet in Autumn had at last been accepted for publication: Larkin and David Cecil had independently named her as their choice of ‘most undervalued writer’ in the 75th-anniversary number of the TLS. As Pym’s diary records, they had kipper pâté to start, after sherry; and then ‘veal done with peppers and tomatoes, Pommes Anna, and celery and cheese (he didn’t eat any Brie and we thought perhaps he only likes plain food). He’s shy but very responsive and jokey. He left about 3.30 in his large Rover car (pale tobacco colour).’ The faded paint of the car looked just as she describes it; the car itself was not in fact a Rover but a very second-hand Austin, the largest model – Larkin being well over six feet tall – and was liable spontaneously to catch fire. Changing gears was not his thing, and he valued its automatic gearbox, unfortunately of an early and unreliable type. These matters are in Larkin’s letters, which take the same pleasure in small fact as Pym’s diaries. How common-place it would be if all we could read about in that diary entry was their current books and poems, and how each was getting on with them, and what they thought about literature today. The occasion would not have been memorable. As it is, it is. And largely because of the food.’’

Aromatic Splinters

John Bayley, 7 September 1995

Poetry, it must be said, has become very finicky in our time. Housman thought it impossible to do, except that very occasionally it turned out to be there. Emily Dickinson would not have agreed with that at all. She threw herself into it, as if into a clear river on a hot day. The impression of relief and ecstasy in her first lines and couplets is remarkable, but she rarely keeps things up. She is in good company: Shakespeare when writing a sonnet also takes a perfect swallow dive, and scrambles out somehow in the final couplet as if its awkwardness amused him after the thoughtless pleasure of that first leap.

Into Council Care

John Bayley, 6 July 1995

When Bookering last year I found most of the novels fitted into one of two categories, which I began to think of as ‘Conscious Modern’ and ‘Pattern Naive’. Pattern Naive, the larger category, pursued its course by holding onto an image of the novel which suited its own version of individuality: the novel, in this sense, being something that was always around – a way of turning life back into convention rather than into a sense of the present moment. Authors in this genre were full of other novels, but not disturbed by them: other novelists were a reassurance and a bulwark, like sitting an exam with a lot of other candidates. (E.M. Forster liked to imagine novelists from all periods all writing together in the same room.) Conscious Modern (nothing to do with the Modernist movement of course) was much rarer because harder to do. A good writer in this genre, such as Martin Amis, succeeds in raping the ‘now’ by means of a philistine main character, who brutishly makes clear the sourness and the nowness of our time. Modernity’s awareness of itself must hit the reader through the pretence of utter indifference to any other possibility. As a gimmick the Modern may fire an arrow backward, but must always shun the convention of consciousness running free in time – being ondulant et divers. This is as true now as it was in the days when the Modern was invented, and practised by novelists like Hemingway or Anthony Powell, both of whom significantly reverted, in their later work, to the older authorial convention of a time-free consciousness.’

When the Mediterranean Was Blue

John Bayley, 23 March 1995

His friends used to say that Cyril Connolly had been sent into the world for one purpose: to be talked about. He was an object of fascination to everyone who knew him. It was not exactly that he was a legend, or that there was anything romantic or Byronic about him. Though his funny face had great charm he was the reverse of handsome: John Sparrow, in one of his feline mots, remarked that ‘the trouble with Cyril is that he is not so beautiful as he looks.’ But he was a living repository of nostalgia, and of the most stylish sort of self-pity; and these, if properly served up, can be a potent ingredient of literary popularity. Everyone has something to look back on, and to be sorry for themselves about; and Connolly acted as a focal point for the regrets and frustrations of his literary generation. He was a mixture of Pan and Peter Pan. Clive Fisher, who has written a very good book on Noel Coward, was quite right to give this elegant study the subtitle ‘A Nostalgic Life’.

Perhaps only new countries can have a real past, peopled with genuine ghosts and filled with authentic records. Or it is countries other than one’s own that are so endowed? Any place that peoples the mind and compels the imagination is not likely to be our own: that past and place are founded, for our own self-preservation, on some variety of Larkin’s ‘forgotten boredom’. And only the best writers can deliberately reveal their own past as a foreign country, where things are differently done.

Diary: Serious Novels

John Bayley, 10 November 1994

Today’s intelligentsia does not seem to go for new highbrow novels; and middlebrow readers with the fiction habit who sometimes have to make do with them would probably prefer something more nourishing and comforting, as well as something that takes itself less seriously. For how seriously today’s novel takes itself was what one felt after getting through a record number – 130 – for this year’s Booker Prize judging. There were some that did not of course, and they came to be recognised and greeted as a spot of relief. But no wonder there seems to be an impasse on the fiction counters today. Whoever still buys and reads ‘serious’ novels would presumably prefer to be buying something else: Booker-type shortlisted novels are not going like hot cakes, and indeed the ‘serious’ novel today often seems rather a shoddy affair.’

Mr Toad

John Bayley, 20 October 1994

When Put out More Flags was published in March 1942, Alan Pryce-Jones reviewed it in the New Statesman, praising the writer’s ‘dead-accurate’ social sense and his vituperative use of ‘the unpopular weapons of economy and proportion’, and yet concluding that the book and its author were ‘fundamentally without humour’. A surprising charge: but, on reflection, surprisingly accurate. Waugh, in his black style, had no more humour than P.G. Wodehouse in his rosy style. Waugh deeply admired Wodehouse, and read and re-read him all his working life.

Make mine a Worcester Sauce

John Bayley, 23 June 1994

There is a definite but at the same time indefinable category of writer who can in some way be thought of as ‘English’, in inverted commas. The concept would only apply in the twilight of Empire, between 1900 and 1950, a mere fifty years of elusive but positive literary ‘Englishness’. Four possible candidates, varying in attainments, would be T.E. Lawrence, Robert Graves, Peter Fleming (perhaps both Flemings) and Richard Hughes. It makes no difference that Lawrence was half-Irish, the Flemings mostly Scottish, and Hughes partly Welsh. The presidential or father figure of the group would be John Buchan, another Scot, whose innings was over before the younger ones started to play, although he was still around as they became famous.

Der Tag

John Bayley, 26 May 1994

For Tolstoy and Hemingway, as for Homer, writing about war was the natural thing. They did not exactly worship the demands of ‘hateful Ares’, as Homer calls him; but they knew that war as hell was the proper field of the heroic, and thus of narrative itself. The story of what happens in a football match today is our equivalent of yesterday’s battle; and it can be established later, as game, in the same heroic sequence. Who is taking care of the left flank? What is General Grouchy up to, and how soon can the Prussians be in action? At the height of his description of the Battle of Borodino Tolstoy breaks off to imagine a spirit of the pities, who cries to the combatants: ‘Just a moment!’ and ‘Consider what it is you do!’ But having satisfied, as it were, the requirements of amazement and revulsion, Tolstoy the narrator, and the soldiers he writes about, go right back to the business in hand. That is the world’s business after all, as it is the tale of what happens in the world.


John Bayley, 24 March 1994

The sad ballad has always given satisfaction, whether it was a Last Goodnight, or seeing your love dressed all in white, but come back only from the grave. The Victorians revelled in it. Stephen Foster’s audience grieved for Jeanie with the Light Brown Hair, the lost one ‘who comes not again’. The big Romantics all had their more portentous versions, from Lucy ceasing to be, to Shelley’s solipsistic sad heart, filled with grief ‘but with delight/No more, oh nevermore’. Poe’s sardonic raven enunciated ‘Nevermore’ as a standard formula. Tennyson’s most popular poem mourned for the touch of a vanished hand.

Wet Socks

John Bayley, 10 March 1994

The high noon of imperial expansion towards the end of the 19th century produced an archetypal tale. Kipling’s version of it is ‘The Man Who Would Be King’, which like all Kipling’s early tales made a great impression on Jack London. His own version, ‘An Odyssey of the North’, concerns an Aleutian Indian whose betrothed is stolen from him by a Norwegian seal poacher, a giant with a golden mane and the blood of the Vikings, much the same as the hero of Kipling’s story, and also of Rider Haggard’s romances. Together with his faithful friend, the tale-teller and survivor, Kipling’s hero founds a fabulous kingdom in the wilds beyond Afghanistan, and meets his fate when his wish for a wife from among his native subjects makes them realise he is no god but a man, whereupon they kill him.

The Chop

John Bayley, 27 January 1994

Neither Genghiz Khan nor Stalin was physically brave. Both led from the rear, keeping well out of the way of any rough stuff that might be going on. The habit of directing matters through a staff (the Russian stavka) was probably an important ingredient in the military success of both; though Stalin, at least, had very little tactical sense, and was apt to interfere with the efforts of good generals who possessed it, often with disastrous results.

Pretending to be the parlourmaid

John Bayley, 2 December 1993

‘Serious’ has become a cant word in a literary context, in rather the same way that ‘fine’ (‘she’s a line person’) is the accepted fallback among clerics and do-gooders. As a general-purpose convenience word ‘serious’ is fairly recent: anything consciously Post-Modernist qualifies on grounds of technique; anything feminist or angry or otherwise committed, on moral grounds. Dr Johnson and his contemporaries would not have recognised our use of the word, nor would most 19th-century writers (Dickens or Tolstoy wanted to be ‘true’, not serious). Like ‘discourse’ it seems to have acquired its own seriousness from France, where ‘une somme sérieuse’ means a lot of money. In general, obviously, good writing is always serious; but a merely ‘serious’ poet or novelist, without any further recommendation, is seldom very good.

Beast and Frog

John Bayley, 4 November 1993

Death is something that happens to other people: and hence, it might be inferred, the popularity of biography. Those whose lives are recorded die in the last chapter: the rest of us live for ever. The point was made by Lucretius in his long poem On the Nature of Things, which was intended to cheer us all up. We have no choice but to live for ever, since death is something we can see but not experience: living is necessarily independent of it. In his study of Samuel Beckett, Christopher Ricks says that we desire both oblivion and eternity; but except in the insidiously artificial world of writers like Beckett, who make death a cliché within the life of language, neither of these wishes makes much sense. Dr Johnson would have pooh-poohed them. Life, for him, hoped to be preparation for a future life: a living for ever by other means. In the meantime we could do it most satisfactorily by travelling briskly in a post-chaise with a pretty woman.


John Bayley, 9 September 1993

The relation between daily living and fantasy life is unpredictable and often comical. A classic pattern would be failure or boredom breeding compensatory success stories. Some aspect of a job which is totally non-fulfilling in reality can be worked up by the imagination in order to satisfy private dreams. Conan Doyle started to invent Dr Watson and Sherlock Holmes while waiting dejectedly for custom in his own surgery. Not only do cases or patients turn up at the Baker Street sitting-room with dramatic regularity, but each presents its own fascinating problem, which only the fantasy couple are competent to solve. What bored doctor could ask for more? Yet sometimes things seem to work the other way round. A highly competent and colourful individual, leading a dramatically energetic business and love life, might indulge in daydreams that are sensational, even spectacularly so, but at the same time are sheltered and placid, full of cosy routines, just like sitting down to tea in the nursery.

Stand the baby on its head

John Bayley, 22 July 1993

What is the point of fairy tales? Morals, politics, economics? Yes, but that gets us nowhere. Poetry, fantasy, romance? Why not archness, whimsy, sentiment? The poetical fairy tale, even a wry modern one like Thurber’s ‘The Unicorn in the Garden’, is apt to be soft and sticky. The best are startling and mysterious but also commonplace. Before she died Angela Carter made a few notes for what was to be the introduction to her second collection of traditional tales. ‘The unperplexedness of the story. Fairy tales – cunning and high spirits.’ That comes as close as anything.’

Aardvark: in defence of Larkin

John Bayley, 22 April 1993

In 1974, with High Windows about to appear, Larkin lamented in a letter that critics would have passed the word around – Donnez la côtelette à Larquin – give Larkin the chop. Of course he was wrong. The chorus of praise swelled higher than ever: with each slim volume the certainty and authority of the poems and their unique feel of personality left readers dazzled. Larkin first; the rest no-where. And though no one said so – perhaps fellow-poets were too envious – they showed how indispensable rhyme-schemes as subtle yet as traditional as his could still be.

Becoming a girl

John Bayley, 25 March 1993

It may be off-putting to think that great artists create to excite themselves sexually; yet in some degree this is probably the case. At least with quite a number. Although the obvious danger would then be including almost every artistic effect under the heading of the pornographic (‘everything he does is so artistic,’ as Anthony Powell remarked of Lawrence’s gamekeeper, quoting a song of Marie Lloyd’s), it might be tempting to construct a General Theory of Pornography in Art along these lines. Lawrence himself, oddly enough, would not qualify; certainly not in the context of Lady Chatterley. One of the many not quite right things about that novel is the way Lawrence tries to distance sexual excitement from himself and his readers, making it a matter of the higher impulse: the feel in the blood and not the sex in the head. Being, in one sense, a better artist in this context than he wished to be, Lawrence none the less succeeded, as we know, in exciting many of his readers.

Mrs G

John Bayley, 11 March 1993

To an admirer who wanted to meet him on account of A Shropshire Lad Housman replied discouragingly that while most men might be more interesting than their books his book was definitely more interesting than its man. Conversely, there are good writers who are nonetheless more interesting to read about than to read, and Mrs Gaskell is one of them. Few Victorians would have been more agreeable to encounter, less likely to disappoint, intimidate, or merely bore. She was delightful company: not like an author at all, as many of her numerous acquaintance remarked after she had become well-known. These good qualities – vivacity, shrewdness, caringness, intent and intelligent curiosity about other people’s lives – lend virtue to her books, but also in the aggregate lend a kind of undeserved and unexpected dullness. Why this should be so is not at all easy to see, unless it is that unlike most novelists she made her books out of a busy, open, outgoing self: not a brooded, secretive, internal one.’


John Bayley, 25 February 1993

Food, like sex, is mostly in the head. Or, if that seems exaggerated, what about the thought that thinking about food is the modern growth industry? Restaurants, supermarkets, the media – all encourage display, which like the old underwear advertisements in the tube might seem pornographic if we were not so used to them. The Greens should make us sensitive on this issue, no doubt, as feminists did on the other one. The food in the head industry may be an insult to the Third World, but it also encourages contribution to aid programmes. No longer guilty about sex, we are uneasy about anorexia and bulimia, slimness and fatness, soft foodie dreaming …

Manly Love

John Bayley, 28 January 1993

Demurely feline himself, and also the blandest of experts at suggesting but never revealing his own private life, the English writer Edmund Gosse enthused on the resemblance of the aged Walt Whitman to ‘a great old Angora Tom’. The marvellous old poet, with his soft white hair and snowy silken ruff of beard, would have been delighted by the compliment. Philip Callow’s book is the most imaginative re-creation yet made of the poet’s daily physical being, and the photographs of the poet at all ages, from early manhood and the strange Piero Christlikeness of middle age to the bearded and Lear-like sage of Mickle Street, Camden, paralysed in his rocking-chair, admirably complement the text.

Look, I’d love one!

John Bayley, 22 October 1992

In a slight but revealing sketch, written well after his Soldiers Three tales and never published in his collected works, the soldiers Kipling invented are imagined discussing their author, and pointing out with tolerant contempt that he has simply got them all wrong. Kipling was well aware of the fact, and no doubt aware, too, that it was precisely because they were so well ‘done’ that Mulvaney, Ortheris and Learoyd – the three contemporary musketeers whose sentiments and background seemed so unflinchingly realistic – were in fact totally bogus. If they were not bogus his bedazzled readers would never have accepted them, as they did, as being completely convincing.’

Living with a little halibut

John Bayley, 8 October 1992

The novel and story depend a good deal on mystery. Pip has great expectations – where do they come from? – but more important, who is Pip, and what is he after? Everyone can be made to seem both banal and mysterious. The Sherlock Holmes tales exploit both the puzzle and the adventure, and the humdrum oddness of the society in which they take place: but writers who are cunning by nature or naturally fortunate know that mysteries are not there to be solved. Todorov said that Henry James’s stories mostly depend on a query and a riddle, which their endings formulate with complete artistry but without solving: the puzzle is itself the solution.’

Like ink and milk

John Bayley, 10 September 1992

The novel is a natural vehicle for superiorities. In an age which took competition for granted, the novelist possessed a means of distancing himself, morally, socially and sexually, from his contemporaries; and many of them seized the opportunity, D.H. Lawrence no less than Jane Austen. That establishing and disengaging of the self became in the 19th century more and more a part of the classic writer’s instinct, and merges with the novel’s own unique form of self-therapy. Dickens explores himself through it and Lawrence cures his sickness; Hardy assuages his Biblical ‘astonishment and fear’ at the horror of life: Jane Austen overcomes helplessness, malice and contempt.

Sprawson makes a splash

John Bayley, 23 July 1992

Housman liked athletic records of all sorts and seeing them ‘cut’, or broken, although he does not himself seem to have been much of a swimming man. In the verses on Hero and Leander he develops a contrast, as often in his poetry: in this case, between a classic place and story and a decidedly northern atmosphere – the sputtering torch sounds Scottish and the ‘nighted firth’ freezing cold, like the Forth or Tay. After a night of love Leander will have a hard job on hand, as demanding as all the other human duties in Housman. But the verse is oddly tender too: perhaps because ‘heart’, the right word as well as, for him, a more decorous word than ‘breast’, gives the relation more depth than if it were just a marathon competition in sex and swimming.’

Godmother of the Salmon

John Bayley, 9 July 1992

The worst of being dubbed Laureate today would not be the task of composing poems for royal and public occasions, but trying to make them sound like oneself, or even more so. Auden had no problem. When the GPO commissioned him to write some verses about the Royal Mail he was away at once, synergistically melding the public requirement into his own private fantasy, so that each took off from the other:

Bare feet and a root of fennel

John Bayley, 11 June 1992

On a fine summer’s day in 1892 in Massachusetts Lizzie Borden’s mother and father were killed by blows from an axe. Lizzie was tried for the crime on purely circumstantial evidence and Professor Welsh quotes from the summing-up of the prosecuting attorney:

Pine Trees and Vices

John Bayley, 9 April 1992

What an agreeable moment it used to be in horror films when the heroine arose from her bed in the old castle where she was staying the weekend and throwing a negligée over her nightdress began to wander with hypnotised stealth along the dark corridor. The camera and soundtrack dwelt for some minutes on the manifestations attending this rash pilgrimage – now a motionless suit of armour revealed by the moonlight, now the cry of an owl outside the casement – but nothing more spectral occured until … Invariably and with tremulous curiosity she opened the fatal door with a sepulchral creak; her hand flies to her lips and her eyes widen into blue saucers. A piercingly satisfying scream sometimes followed, sometimes not: and usually, in adroit anti-climax, the camera tracked to the smiling features of Vincent Price or Boris Karloff, dapper in antique costume or Victorian evening wear, surveying her discomfiture with sinister benevolence.

Gisgo and his Enemies

John Bayley, 13 February 1992

War and sport were once much the same thing: Homer understood the strategies of morale as well as any modern team manager. Polybius tells an anecdote about Hannibal and his staff just before the Battle of Cannae. When an officer called Gisgo commented on the large number of Romans opposite, Hannibal remarked that at least there was no one over there whose name was Gisgo. Obsequious mirth at the general’s not very brilliant joke, and the troops were reassured by the spectacle of the brass hats laughing. They might well have felt nervous, for at the last minute Hannibal had led his front ranks forward to make a convex line that bulged towards the enemy. These front-line men were Gauls, always, and with justice, apt to suspect that the Carthaginian command regarded them as expendable. So odd is battlefield psychology that their morale was probably raised even by this sense of resentment: they would show a thing or two to the high-ups who had been heard enjoying a joke. And so they did. They were pushed back, but their stubborn resistance acted like a cushion punched by the force of the Roman attack. Its convexity became concave; the legions were drawn into the cleft between the retreating Gauls and the heavy-armed Africans on the flanks, and tightly compressed. With no room to fight or even to breathe, they were suffocated like the crowd in a football stadium.

A visit to the exhibits at the Tate Gallery short-listed for this year’s Turner Prize shows how professionalism today runs not only artistic theory but art itself. There was nothing to take in except the theory of it. Animated discussion, even cries of pleasure and pain, were to be heard from the neighbouring exhibition of the strange and superb work of Gerhard Richter. But from the viewer of ‘the best that is being done by younger British artists today’ no ordinary expression of opinion seemed worthwhile, or indeed possible. Amateur appraisal had become pointless. I was reminded of a pamphlet called ‘Speaking for the Humanities’, issued by the American Council of Learned Societies, which stated that since the humanities are under threat they must be run by those who take them seriously – ‘by professionals rather than by amateurs’ – and by specialists who do not make the mistake of assuming an audience ‘both universal and homogeneous’.’

Just off Lexham Gardens

John Bayley, 9 January 1992

Towards the end of his life (he died aged 58) Patrick Hamilton was taking the cure in some Metroland establishment while Malcolm Lowry was being dried out in another not far off. That was around l960, and the two writers never met; but both had become something of a cult. Hamilton died two years later in more than averagely gloomy circumstances, back on the bottle again; and most of his reputation went with him; but there were always the faithful who remembered and read him, and a few years ago his young man’s trilogy from the early Thirties, Twenty Thousand Streets under the Sky, was republished.

Dry Eyes

John Bayley, 5 December 1991

A Jane Austen of today is barely imaginable: but it one nonetheless imagines her, and locates her in South Africa, how would she be exercising her art? Could she find any subject other than the one Nadine Gordimer writes about? A great, even a good writer does not find his subject, it lakes him over: he becomes it, and the world it has brought with it. But there exist situations in which this is necessarily not the case. Not only the subject but the way to treat it is handed to the talented South African writer in the most unambiguous terms. His success must be measured, not in terms of the world he has made by his art, but by what his art reveals of a particular world.

Out of Ottawa

John Bayley, 21 November 1991

Frank Kermode observed in a recent article that critics are always being needed to rediscover work that, for whatever reason, has gone silent, Good literature is more silent than one might suppose: it waits mutely on the shelves, it cannot attract attention to itself, and in the conditions of our own or any other time it could wait till judgment day without being found and proclaimed. The finding and proclaiming, on an organised basis, might be part of the business of university English schools. On the other hand, there is nothing quite like doing the thing for oneself: opening the book in a shop or library and becoming riveted at once.

Singer’s Last Word

John Bayley, 24 October 1991

A story no doubt originating in Norway goes over the ground about persons of different nationality required to write an essay on elephants. The Englishman of course writes about hunting them, the French about their love-life, the Swede about elephantine manners and etiquette, the Dane about the ivory business. The Norwegian produces an essay on Norway and Norwegians. A laborious jest with many permutations, but it serves to show that a people likes to think that while other countries have their own characteristics they have what really matters – themselves. And for a people to write about itself can be both inspiration and good business.

In one of George Eliot’s Scenes from Clerical Life a lady addicted to reading tracts skims rapidly over references to Zion or the River of Life, but has her attention immediately caught by any mention of ‘pony’ or ‘boots and shoes’. A reader of modern biographies can see why. The best things in them are usually the facts, the objects, the unexplained and inexplicable things that cluttered up the lives of the august and famous, as they do everybody else’s, and now find a place in the story. The greasy trilby hat Ford Madox Ford put to dry in Jessie Conrad’s oven, provoking the only outburst of wrath ever seen on the part of that placid lady; the ‘good sandwiches’ which the soon-to-be-cast-off Hadley Hemingway promised to make for her husband’s outing to the races at Longchamps; ‘black-eyed Susan’, the New Mexican cow beloved by D.H. Lawrence: these are the things that stay in the mind when diagnoses and depreciations are forgotten.

Diary: On Retiring

John Bayley, 25 July 1991

On the outside of Christopher Wren’s Observatory Tower in Greenwich a ball still drops down at exactly. 1 p.m. every day to indicate just what time it is. Captains in the Pool of London, the largest port in the world, used to spy it with their telescopes before they sailed, and adjust their chronometers. Ships and port have vanished, but the daily rite of time and precision is still enacted. This nugget Of information from Michael Young and Tom Schuller’s Life after Work is both moving and symbolic. Greenwich was the chosen area of their enquiry into what happens to us after we stop clocking in. As one with a year or so to go, I found their survey gripping.

The Last Georgian

John Bayley, 13 June 1991

One of the many excellent photographs Barry Webb has assembled shows Blunden going out to bat with Rupert Hart-Davis, in a match between Jonathan Cape and the Alden Press. That was in 1938. Blunden looks miniature, a frail determined Don Quixote with eagle nose and jaw, who had persuaded the burly Yorkshireman as they set out for the crease together not to wear batting gloves, which were unsporting. No gesture was involved, but a certain amount of quiet conviction. John Betjeman and Joan Hunter-Dunn would have approved: indeed Betjeman was a great admirer of Blunden’ s poetry. His English Poems ‘was the first book by a living poet I remember saving up to buy. I learned many of his poems by heart and can still recite them with then autumn mists, summer cricket matches, sounds of church bells and recollections of 18th-century romantic poets.’


John Bayley, 23 May 1991

Do we have ‘friends’, or do we just know various people? There is something a bit sticky and self-conscious about the idea of friendship. Anyone can be in love and proud of it, but to have a ‘friend’ – no, it really won’t do. ‘I’m your friend,’ said Myfanwy to John as they crouched in the ‘dark and furry cupboard while the rest played hide-and-seek’. Betjeman got that about right.‘We’ve always been the greatest friends’ – that is the kind of thing the lady says about her dentist or accountant, or a woman she’s known for years and years and doesn’t trust an inch. Friendship, like patriotism, is one of those things that has gone off the scale of expression. E. M. Forster managed to combine both in the stickiest sentence he ever wrote: the one about hoping he would have the guts to betray his country rather than his friend. We still have the crude but at least practical convenience of ‘girlfriend’ or ‘boyfriend’. But can the past, and its writing, restore sense and civility to the idea of friendship?’

Pork Chops

John Bayley, 25 April 1991

On a walking tour in 1866, just before his conversion, Hopkins visited Tintern Abbey, and paid it the highest compliment he could think of by saying it reminded him of the architecture of Butterfield, designer of Keble College. When we say X has no sense of humour it means he has one different from our own, but Hopkins’s idea of fun is very Victorian, very religious, very remote indeed....

Survivor, soldier of fortune, a tough mercenary who would be on hand in any campaign and whose washed-out pale-blue eyes might stare out with equal pugnacity and distaste from under a bowler, a bush hat or a steel helmet – that is the kind of image the old pro projected and presented. A 17th-century poet, writing an epitaph, would have given us a conceit about death being glad to have got him at last. A tender-hearted chap like Siegfried Sassoon might have shaken his head, on the other hand, and regretted that those who were young and hated war should have to die ‘when cruel old campaigners win safe through’.’

The Human Frown

John Bayley, 21 February 1991

Samuel Butler might be seen as one of those liberators who escort readers and admirers into a new airy sort of cell, and turn the key with an air of bestowing on them perfect freedom and emancipation of mind. So effective a freedom fighter was he, at least on one front, that his message and his books may now seem not much more than literary curiosities. He settled down in his own lifetime to being a well-known brand of licensed English eccentric, rearranging evolution and Shakespeare’s sonnets, proving that the author of the Odyssey was a woman, crossing swords in Shavian style with Bernard Shaw. An admirable, indeed an indispensable, literary sub-species, but not the sort who leave behind either little masterpieces or great works of art.

Anna of All the Russias

John Bayley, 24 January 1991

If he had been writing in Petersburg in 1910 or thereabouts Philip Larkin would probably have been an Acmeist. He would have been in protest, that is to say, against the portentousness of the Symbolists, like Blok and Bely, against their bogus pleasure in the idea of Apocalypse, and their bogus parade of the mysterious and the ‘unknowable’. In his essay ‘The Pleasure Principle’ Larkin observes that ‘it is sometimes useful to remind ourselves of the simpler aspects of things normally regarded as complicated,’ such as the writing of a poem. The poet becomes obsessed about his feeling for something: he constructs a verbal device that will reproduce this feeling ‘in anyone who cares to read it, anywhere, any time’. The third stage is the reader’s setting off the device successfully, without which ‘the poem can hardly be said to exist in a practical sense at all.’

Kitchen Devil

John Bayley, 20 December 1990

Emily’s fans were once legion, and as reverential as mystics or poets. Indeed many were poets, like Robert Bridges, who sang that she had ‘all passion’s splendour’. Writers of all sorts revered her, from the anonymous Late Victorian critic who enthused over the structure of Wuthering Heights to the novelist L.P. Hartley, who doted on her whole oeuvre and personality. The magisterial Dr Leavis observed, before directing our attention to George Eliot, that there is ‘only one Brontë’ – meaning Emily – and even Mrs Leavis was awed by Wuthering Heights. The only dissentient voice I can think of is Ivy Compton-Burnett’s, whose crisp verdict was that the book had received all, indeed more than all, the praise that was its due, and that it was high time to stop worshipping its author.’

Gladys whispered

John Bayley, 6 December 1990

Two cowboys in slouch hats and part of a (presumable) horse. ‘To me the window is still a symbolically loaded motif,’ drawled Cody. We are in Glen Baxter country, where the weekend shopping is done by electric launch through swamps full of piranha, and a very Thirties young man with brilliantined hair takes his beloved in his arms and gently squeezes her goatee. Romance in the Baxter context is seldom wholly, or even partially, satisfactory. ‘On the night of our honeymoon … Rebecca proved to be something of an enigma.’ The picture shows Rebecca in her underwear, over which she has thrown a mannish black dressing-gown piped with white, matching her three-quarter-heel shoes and an immense curtain negligently draped in the left background (or is it in front of her?). The open dressing-gown reveals a stylish Fifties-type corset, which happens to be made of flush-riveted duralumin panels, in the style of a Second World War fighter aircraft. A rather fetching glimpse of pantie at the centre, but the panties appear to be constructed out of chainmail, as are the stocking-tops and an undergarment visible through two louvres below the bust. Rebecca is absently swinging a spiked lead ball at the end of a length of stout chain, but the expression on the dreamy features under the unswept hair is seductive, even tender.

One Thing

John Bayley, 22 November 1990

In the introduction he wrote to the Magnus memoir of the Foreign Legion, D.H. Lawrence remarked that he hated ‘terrible’ things, ‘and the people to whom they happen.’ A reason for keeping away from Jean Rhys, but in any case they would hardly have appealed to each other. When she was young she liked adventurers, and married one, but later in her long life she preferred gentle and gentlemanly types who wanted to cherish her, though they seldom or never succeeded. As Carole Angier acutely observes, she gravitated towards men with ‘social confidence and inner uncertainty’. Adultery and promiscuity were, oddly enough, not her problems: she craved, or thought she did, ‘the twins freedom and safety’ (dissimilar twins, one might have thought) and the respectability of a married name. Her later spouses clung to her with suicidal fidelity at the cost of their finances, their health and sanity. They died worn out, but she kept going, on gin, whisky and Algerian wine, to die at a great age, famous at last, completing an early book called Smile Please.

Nothing nasty in the woodshed

John Bayley, 25 October 1990

Wittgenstein had a phrase about the ‘great heart of Beethoven’, the rider to which was that it would make no sense to talk about the ‘great heart’ of Shakespeare. So much the worse for Beethoven, might be the sentiment of a non-philosopher who did not share Wittgenstein’s passion for music. But his point has its ramifications. Like Tolstoy, whose didactic tales he revered as the best that mere literature could do, Wittgenstein was distinctly a non-Shakespearean. He distrusted and feared literature’s rich dishonesty, its endless begging of the question. Writers disappeared into their own dreams and vanities: their great hearts were not on display.

Art’ll fix it

John Bayley, 11 October 1990

When the great German archaeologist Schliemann exclaimed (if indeed he did so), ‘I have gazed upon the face of Agamemnon!’ he was not uttering a lie, nor was he being economical with the truth. His imagination was carried away by the soaring possibilities, in the world of fact, which his successful excavations had revealed. The imagination adores whatever can give the appearance of fact, as most good writers know. When Hardy tells us that the raindrops before a thunder-storm make spots on the road as large as nasturtium leaves, no reader is going to take him up on it. When Kipling tells us that a man’s blood on an Indian parade ground dries in the sun like goldbeaters’ skin, cracks lozenge-wise, and curls up like dumb tongues, we are too mesmerised to be sceptical, although, in his brief and sensible treatise on English prose style, Herbert Read very pertinently enquired if anyone had actually seen those ‘tongues’.

You may not need to know this

John Bayley, 30 August 1990

One of the ‘quests’ of Byronian romanticism was to find out which feelings come by nature and which ones can be cultivated as part of a personal repertoire. The relation between spontaneity and the will was found to be a complex one, and Byronic literature made the most of the fact. Byron himself is a dab hand at suggesting the real feeling that lies behind the assumed one, a ‘real feeling’ necessarily called in question by the fact that the revealer is revealing it. The Rousseau point of view – you may not need to know this but I need to tell you – is merely the converse of the darkly enigmatic self-tormentor, with his one virtue and a thousand crimes.’

He don’t mean any harm

John Bayley, 28 June 1990

Emancipation involves escape, but having got out of the Victorian prison, what then? The new world may seem wholly delightful, like Blake’s Beulah or Keats’s Chamber of Maiden Thought, or the land of sexual intercourse we entered in 1963, so why not stay in it for ever? Somewhere at the top of the forest a little boy and his bear will always be playing. But this soft magic may end up seeming as hateful and hypocritical as Victorian repression, a new sort of conformity from which the next generation will emancipate itself in derision and disgust. A.A. Milne’s favourite novel was Samuel Butler’s The Way of All Flesh, which came out in 1903, not much more than a decade before the begetting of Christopher Robin, in fact and in fiction. Milne may well have thought that he was destroying for ever that awful old father and son relationship, blowing away the tyranny and obfuscation, showing that age doesn’t matter, that nanny will give them sixpence each and they will always remain the best of pals. Things don’t work out quite like that. Did Christopher Milne or Ernest Pontifex suffer more at the hands of the elder generation? Hard to say.

Hugging the cats

John Bayley, 14 June 1990

Good writing, in prose or verse, can seem a sort of visible distillation, brandy-like, of the anima vagula blandula, the tenuous and transparent daily self that produced it. Another kind of good writing does not establish itself as involuntary personality, but as something the writer is just very, very good at doing. Such a dispossessed fluency seems available to everyone with a flair for catching a fashion. I suspect that a lot of people spellbound today in the intergalactic gameyness of an Ian McEwan novel feel that, yes, this is the thing – I could do this if I had the idea or the time, or, well, the talent. Good writing in this academic sense is, or seems to be, held in common.

Baby Face

John Bayley, 24 May 1990

Who said of whom: ‘I have talent but he has genius’? Evelyn Waugh had been reading Futility, which first came out in 1922, but his favourite Gerhardie novel was to be Jazz and Jasper. This almost forgotten work appeared in 1927, two years earlier than Vile Bodies. Its author wanted to call it Doom, a title not adopted until the 1974 edition. In 1947 it made a brief appearance as My Sinful Earth, and the 1928 American edition was called Eve’s Apples, the American publisher having decided, no doubt wisely, that the word ‘jazz’ had been ‘worn threadbare’ in crossing the Atlantic.

One for Uncle

John Bayley, 5 April 1990

A bolt-eyed, blue-shirted, shock headed hatless man … ‘Mrs Woolf? … I’m Graves.’ He appeared to have been rushing through the air at sixty miles an hour and to have alighted temporarily … The poor boy is all emphasis, protestation and pose. He has a crude likeness to Shelley, save that his nose is a switchback and his lines blurred … The usual self-consciousness of young men, especially as he threw in, gratuitously, the information that he descends from Dean, Rector, Bishop, Von Ranke etc etc, only in order to say that he despises them. I tried, perhaps, to curry favour, as my weakness is. L was adamant. Then we were offered a ticket for the Cup Tie, to see which Graves has come to London after six years. No, I don’t think he’ll write great poetry: but what will you?


John Bayley, 22 March 1990

Hazlitt has a modern feel about him. Among the poets of his age, dying young or turning, like Wordsworth, into pillars of the establishment, he represents a kind of muddling through, an honesty baffled and contingent, inconsistent even; not living in the world of romantic ideals and simplifying gestures but ground in the daily mill of intrigue and accommodation. Like many unworldly men, he was drawn inexorably into the haunts of worldliness, in the same way that he was drawn as a romantic lover to the most matter-of-fact and calculating females. He needed a milieu which hardly suited him, and from which he made efforts to escape, as he did from the women. He would be a likely character in a modern novel, and were he to appear, resurrected, among the newspapers and gossip columns of today he would be excited and disgusted and upset and at home. He would recognise that things were as in his own time. He would be familiar with Private Eye, though he would miss periodicals called the Black Dwarf and the Yellow Dwarf.

On the horse Parsnip

John Bayley, 8 February 1990

A not unmalicious fellow poet once said of Pasternak that he resembled a horse: ‘the same big awkward profile and large eyes that seem to look intently without seeing anything’. The horse-faced parsnip – Pasternak means parsnip in Russian. This is very endearing. What other great poet has the bigness and animal closeness of the equine, and words that plod like hooves with such delicate precision through twigs and grasses? The girls chanting the ‘candle’ poem at his funeral must also have longed to have given him a lump of sugar? One of the best little scenes in Dr Zhivago is the doctor riding home through the Urals forest, with his slow beast undulating under him, and ‘dry volleys of sound bursting from the horse’s guts’. As some of the photos in Evgeny Pasternak’s splendid book reveal, his father looks most at home wearing massive braces over his collarless shirt, like girths and a crupper.’

The big drops start

John Bayley, 7 December 1989

‘Few moments in life so interesting,’ Coleridge noted, ‘as those of an affectionate reception from those who have heard of you yet are strangers to your person.’ The occasion was his meeting in the autumn of 1799 with the Hutchinson sisters – Mary, Sara and Joanna – at their brother Tom’s Yorkshire farm. Coleridge laid himself out to charm them and succeeded. The middle sister, Sara, whom he would call Asra, to set her apart from his own wife Sara, became his prime female figure of worship and consolation. Mary was to have a long and tranquil married life with Wordsworth. Joanna continued to live with her brother Tom.’

Let the cork out

John Bayley, 26 October 1989

Stendhal, or Lieutenant Henri Beyle, as he then was, irritated his shivering companions round the campfire on the retreat from Moscow by chuckling aloud over a tattered copy of Voltaire’s Diatribe of Dr Akakia. But laughing at human folly is more often a comfortable activity reserved for the study and the reading-room. At one moment in Foucault’s Pendulum someone snaps his fingers excitedly and says: ‘It’s obvious. Reich was definitely a Templar.’ ‘Everyone was, except us,’ retorts his colleague. That is indeed the point. Hermetic investigation always reveals that every secret society and mystic body of lore, from the Masons and the Illuminati to the Elders of Zion and the Order of the Golden Dawn, turns out to have a higher or perhaps a subterranean unity. Freud of course was a Mason or a Templar too. The author and his reader, in a cheerful conspiracy of two, are the only people outside all this kind of thing.

Little Green Crabs

John Bayley, 12 October 1989

One of Proust’s friends is supposed to have said of him that beauty did not really interest him: it had too little to do with desire. A remark which is not entirely lacking insight. It might be said that the relation of the two fascinated Proust as they had fascinated no writer before him, and he perceived that the kinds of pleasure involved in the two concepts were indivisible. He was the brilliant analyst of sensations and experiences which the Victorians tasted and created without critical examination, and not the analyst only but the chemist who broke down this matter into its component parts, which have subsequently remained separate. A felix culpa in some ways, no doubt, but with disastrous results also, for the wholly unselfconscious energy which fused the pair in, say, the best poetry of Tennyson and Browning now becomes so well aware of what it is up to. Had he come across it, Proust would have been enchanted by Browning’s ‘Meeting at Night’, with its astonishing report of the concentration of desire:

The World of School

John Bayley, 28 September 1989

Dean Farrar, the theologian and Harrow schoolmaster who in 1858 brought out the best-seller Eric, or Little by Little, later produced the almost equally popular St Winifred’s, or The World of School. There are a surprising number of novels, mainly but not all English ones, which could use the same subtitle. The Waves, or The World of School, War and Peace, or The World of School, A Passage to India, or … ? Brighton Rock? Le Grand Meaulnes? A clear case would be Brideshead Revisited, where Brideshead is obviously the name of the school itself.

The Last Cigarette

John Bayley, 27 July 1989

In the context of modern culture ‘ordinary people’ are not seen as individuals but as representative embodiments of the right sort of social attitudes. Modernism also saw them in the mass, and disliked or ignored it: D.H. Lawrence, like Wyndham Lewis, made a principle out of such generalised contempt. As an ordinary person one would perhaps rather be despised by Modernism than recruited into the socialist pantheon, for there are at least two great writers, usually counted as Modernists, in whose work ordinariness achieves a highly individual and idiosyncratic literary status – James Joyce and Italo Svevo.’


John Bayley, 22 June 1989

There is a cartoon by Beerbohm somewhere showing a distended G.K. Chesterton banging the table with his fist and saying he’d ‘had enough of all this bloody nonsense’. It seems surprising now, but for peaceful humanitarians like Beerbohm Chesterton represented a very definite threat to the liberal pieties of the status quo. So did Kipling, whom Beerbohm really feared and hated. Gissing gloated that Barrack Room Ballads showed the real right savagery that was about to burst on the world: and that too now seems a surprising judgment. Yeats is more plausible when he hailed Jarry’s Ubu Roi as evangelist of the Savage God who was to come. But in retrospect the prophecies of apocalyptic brutality, the day when all civilised pretence shall have its end, seem, where the writers who made them are concerned, to have gone off rather at half-cock. Nietzsche is the first in that field: the rest nowhere.

Madly Excited

John Bayley, 1 June 1989

A best-seller is a classic that can only be read once. All best-selling novelists create their own version of romance, which must have the authority of seeming to be the real thing. In the cleverest ones the real thing usually does come in somewhere: a phrase describing a street, a scrap of dialogue, a character’s sudden gesture. The scrap of authenticity validates the whole. Male novelists are more disingenuous about their romance than women, dividing and dramatising it, pretending to discredit by exaggeration. Ever since Jane Eyre, the female best-seller has usually been honest enough to be Little Me. There is, nonetheless, a remarkable similarity in technique between, say, Margaret Drabble and Graham Greene. Both create an entirely coherent romance world, powered by variations on self-satisfaction, in Greene’s case masquerading as self-disgust. In both cases this is highly transmissible to the reader.

Not all that Keen

John Bayley, 16 March 1989

It is likely that The Cherry Orchard was suggested by Chekhov’s story ‘A Visit to Friends’, which he did not include in the collected edition, and which concerns a family in dire financial straits (Chekhov knew them) who pin their hopes on a shrewd and successful young lawyer friend. He will marry their daughter and somehow get them out of the mess. Naturally cynical and self-absorbed, the young man is nonetheless sentimentally attracted to the daughter. But it would be a mistake. Feeling a bit ashamed of himself, but not much, the young man gets up and sneaks off into the night.

The war is a long way back and young people take little interest in it, or in the feel of what was being said and written at the time. Lawrence, Yeats and Eliot go marching on, attracting obedient attention from each new generation of students, but this form of academic perpetuity does not extend to the writers who give each literary age its actual and particular flavour. Once it was Sir John Squire and Edward Shanks – obviously the most significant and influential voices of the time. During or just after the last war it was Connolly and Koestler and Spender, William Plomer, Alun Lewis, Dylan Thomas, Peter Quennell. Some still have life or fame or both, some not: but then, not now, was their moment.


John Bayley, 2 February 1989

Renato Serra, who died heroicaly in action on the Isonzo front in August 1915, wrote in his diary a week before that ‘war becomes like life itself. It’s all there is: not a passion any more nor a hope. Like life, rather sad and resigned, it wears a tired face, seamed and worn, similar to our own.’ All over Europe young men were finding out much the same thing, but this scholar and essayist, the friend and colleague of Benedetto Croce, put the matter unusually well. Like most young Italian intellectuals of the time, he was keen on sport, science, motor-cars, military conquest. He had written a penetrating study of Kipling, and a remarkable piece on the departure of a regiment for the Libyan adventure of 1912, an essay which combines patriotic fervour with a deep intelligence and self-questioning.


John Bayley, 19 January 1989

All poetry that really works has immediate vocal authority. It makes us attend. In a rather memorable and haunting poem, ‘The Masters’, Kingsley Amis stressed the point, substituting other activities for the poetic one, but really talking about the nature of the poem itself.

Phantom Jacks

John Bayley, 5 January 1989

As novelists often intimate, personalities only really get their chance in novels. There they can be built up, intensified, put properly on display. In real life, they fade into uncertainty like all other individuals, lose at moments their robust colouring, become not quite sure who they are. This is a problem for biographers, who have to overcome it by a cruder version of the novelist’s tactic: emphasising and re-emphasising their model’s trademark on every page.


John Bayley, 8 December 1988

The desire to put people right about other people is incorrigible, indeed obsessional. In his review of David Cecil’s biography of Max Beerbohm Malcolm Muggeridge allowed it to be a graceful job of work, but said it missed the real point about Beerbohm and his lifestyle, which was that he concealed his Jewish origins and was a crypto-homosexual. Of course! Something must explain Beerbohm – his dandyism, his diffidence, his talent nurtured under so exquisite a bushel, his sudden decision to leave England and live on the Italian Riviera, his tranquil, affectionate, but apparently sexless marriage – and what more cogent and plausible explanation could there be? Unfortunately, however, it is not true. Max, it appears, was neither gay nor Jewish. He might have been, and been just the same sort of chap, but as it happens he wasn’t.’

Female Heads

John Bayley, 27 October 1988

Since the 18th century, and the novel’s coming of age, inventing female consciousness has become an absorbing masculine activity, a sex-in-the-head game. It is in the male head that Clarissa scribbles and Molly Bloom muses. For many male novelists, like the Austrian Robert Musil, erotic self-metamorphosis becomes mystical, a kind of religious substitute. The sphinx has her mystery, but in the final and most subtle analysis it is that of having no secret at all. One of Musil’s most memorable passages, a kind of essay reverie, describes his sensations as he lies in bed in a hotel room, listening to his partner’s preparations. He cannot imagine what she is up to: what are these clinks, knocks, swishing and rubbing noises, repeated what seems an infinity of times? Like the noises of bird or animal in a nocturnal garden, these sounds assure him that she ultimately belongs, without consciousness or design, to a world in which he has no being. Yet all the time he knows she is ‘hurrying to join him’. Creating an imaginary fresco of King Candaules awaiting his wife on the nuptial couch, Anthony Powell observes that the expectant monarch has in him ‘something of all men’, his spouse absorbed in her own rituals ‘something of all women’. In the legend, Candaules dies for thinking his wife’s nakedness belongs exclusively to him, to show off as he pleases.


John Bayley, 29 September 1988

In A Dance to the Music of Time there is a journalist called Bagshaw, who was once a Marxist. Although he has long since lost belief, he retains an almost fanatical interest in the technical gyrations of the party line and the multifold shades of left-wing opinion. Bagshaw’s situation is in some degree that of all intellectuals. Enthusiasm may die, but sheer professional interest mercifully remains. I thought of Bagshaw when reading Frank Kermode’s lively little book History and Value, and I thought of him again while enjoying Richard Cobb’s Something to hold onto, whose title would itself have been greeted with fellow-feeling by Bagshaw.

A Question of Breathing

John Bayley, 4 August 1988

The Romantic era produced in abundance both self-dramatisers and self-esteemers. Despite their obvious relation, they are, and remain, two distinct species. In our own literature Byron is the prototype of the first, Wordsworth of the second. The great Goethe was, in his time, king and emperor of both, and highly revered for it. In love with their fates, condemned by these to some suitable agony, the dramatisers had a more spectacular but more painful time of it than those whom Keats rather unfairly refers to as ‘large self-worshippers’. They did not exactly worship but explored themselves: in a sense, they became themselves. A process especially important for women writers.


John Bayley, 2 June 1988

On 9 May 1933, A.E. Housman, Professor of Latin at Trinity College, Cambridge, and a scholar worshipped and hated for his meticulous standards and his appalling sarcasms on the unscholarly, delivered the Leslie Stephen Lecture on ‘The Name and Nature of Poetry’. In the course of it he quoted ‘O mistress mine, where are you roaming?’ and he quoted it as ‘where art thou roaming?’ He had omitted to verify his memory of something so well-known. He silently put this right on publication. Was one of his colleagues brave enough to draw his attention to the error, or did he correct it himself, perhaps with a faint inward smile?

Story: ‘Innocence’

John Bayley, 19 May 1988

At college I took a class in writing short stories. It’s a long time ago, but it stands out among the things that were happening to me at the time; and have happened, or not happened, since. The instructor always wanted us to be dry and precise. No gush please was his watchword. I was feeling pretty dry myself, so I thought I should be able to manage that. But what I mostly wrote, I remember, was not so much dry as limp.

England’s Chum

John Bayley, 5 May 1988

Power stalks the corridors as it has always done, and operates in the same ways, but it increasingly prefers to do so in a mean privacy. Shakespeare today would no longer have the feel of what happens there. The media have taken over the forecourt; and art, in the true sense, no longer has the entrée. Even the Russian novel cannot get in, as it was able to do without effort in the days of War and Peace and Resurrection, following the novels of Balzac and Scott. A contemporary novel like Rybakov’s Children of the Arbat uses the old tradition, alternating domestic and family matters with scenes in the Kremlin and among the Soviet bigwigs. But the result is unconvincing, with no naturalness about it, and the reason seems to be that art can no longer convey the association of power with style. Or perhaps style no longer goes with power, except in terms of making people up for the TV cameras?


John Bayley, 17 March 1988

A critic has a good nose for a natural writer, but he usually pays for it by not being able to write naturally himself. It seems likely that Philip Toynbee would have given anything to be a real novelist and a real poet, but in his ‘experimental’ novels – Tea with Mrs Goodman and The Garden to the Sea – and in the gargantuan poem Pantaloon which occupied him for so many years, the words seem always to be getting in the way, too keen to be doing their work, like dogs jumping up all over the reader and distracting him. No doubt he was too intelligent not to be aware of this, and it increased his troubles, for he certainly carried most of the stigmata of the artistic life: reliance on booze, bad temper, the compulsion to exploit, to be both rackety and self-preoccupied. This he doubtless knew too, and there is something more than touching in this comment from his journal:’

Up from Under

John Bayley, 18 February 1988

A famous passage in Henry James’s Life of Nathaniel Hawthorne laments the absence for the writer in America of every relation and institution which made writing socially viable – an army and a navy and a church and a court, and classes and village squires and evening parties. James’s view of the materials available to the writer may strike us today as somewhat old-fashioned and unenterprising, but there is a basic shrewdness in what he says. Without the ‘density of felt life’ which the artist almost involuntarily was vouchsafed in these materials he is thrown back on his own resources and ideas – his own emptiness, as it were. Hawthorne peopled that emptiness with symbolic situations from the New England past, but he could not get very far along that road. Conrad had the luck to possess a ready-made ‘dense’ world in a ship and its crew, from which he could later colonise and create land life. But the problem as James had perceived it did not go away.’

Last Words

John Bayley, 7 January 1988

His cousin Oliver Baldwin described Kipling’s story ‘Mary Postgate’ as ‘the wickedest story in the world’. It did shock its readers very much, but it is not entirely easy to determine just what the shocking element was, perhaps still is. Told with a subdued but cheerful elegance a little in the manner of Jane Austen’s novels, which Kipling much admired, it is a tale about a virtuous spinster companion during the Great War, whose employer’s nephew in the RFC is killed on a training flight. Having brought him up, Mary is very devoted to him. Later a little girl in the village is horribly killed when a house collapses, perhaps as a result of a German bomb. Further upset, Mary sets out to burn the dead nephew’s belongings in the garden incinerator, and finds in the shrubbery a wounded German airman, who pleads for help. She refuses it, and watches his death agony with intense pleasure, afterwards taking a bath and sitting on the sofa in a mood of relaxed satisfaction.


John Bayley, 10 December 1987

The artist Benjamin Haydon said of Keats, probably with affectionate disapproval, that ‘one day he was full of an epic poem! – another, epic poems were splendid impositions on the world, & never for two days did he know his own intentions.’ Haydon’s canvases have something in common with Keats’s more ambitious poems in that they lack the basic confidence of genre; they are trying to do something new according to an old recipe. It was a Romantic dilemma, and the fact that anything could be tried out made what might be termed a natural originality difficult to obtain. The many ‘modernisms’ of the 20th century found it much easier. In terms of style and genre, Wordsworth and Coleridge continued to rely on the 18th-century tradition of ballad and didactic poem, while Byron had successfully romanticised the more robust traditions of Dryden and Pope. Keats would read himself into style through a much more unstable and challenging model-Shakespeare.’

Other Selves

John Bayley, 29 October 1987

Invented stories contain a kernel of mystery because no one – probably not even the author – knows in what relation they stand to a possible fact. If Walter de la Mare had known a disquieting and dominating old lady, and written about her, he would not also have been able to write the masterpiece of ‘Seaton’s Aunt’. The process works another way, too. In his splendid stories John Updike creates a far more telling image of himself as a denizen of suburban America, and a participator in its ritual matings and partings, than if he had spelt it all out in the true first person, recounting his triumphs and disasters in the field of sex and family life. The moral seems to be that writers use themselves better in their novels and stories than in an autobiography, in which they simply put it all down, with various degrees of relaxation and garrulity. A memoir by Proust, instead of a novel by Marcel, is a depressing thought.’

Patrick Hamilton is remembered today, if at all, for the short pre-war novel Hangover Square, and the stage thrillers Rope and Gaslight. They are good of their kind, but they lack the feel of involuntary masterpieces which still attends their up till now vanished predecessor – the trilogy of novels brought together in 1935 as Twenty Thousand Streets under the Sky. The novels of this trilogy are like first love, whose obsessional joys and miseries are indeed their chief subject. After that, Patrick Hamilton had discovered his milieu and his métier, and he cultivated them professionally with a canny eye to commercial possibilities. Following the war years, and his successes on stage and screen, he returned to something like the early formula in his novel The Slaves of Solitude, with its heroine the lonely spinster Miss Roach. This was the new Barbara Pym country, and he did not quite make it his own. The same applies to an unfinished trilogy, set in Brighton, about a psychopath and potential murderer, Ralph Gorse. Haunting and memorable as its early part is, with the sense of something really nasty still to come, it remains on the level of accomplishment rather than inspired achievement. A long terminal illness forced the author to abandon it. He died in 1962.


John Bayley, 17 September 1987

If Robert Lowell had not been a Lowell would he ever have had the confidence to write the poems he did? It is impossible to imagine the scion of a distinguished English family using that family now as a basis for poetic composition. But all Lowell’s poems are about being a Lowell, or rather, more specifically, about being this Lowell. Only in the home of democracy, probably, could the personality of the poet as aristocrat be asserted today in this fashion.

Waiting for the next move

John Bayley, 23 July 1987

Almost every Russian classic which has stood the test of time turns out to have been written in response to some wholly ephemeral fashion of thinking and feeling in the society which produced it. Pushkin’s masterpiece, The Bronze Horseman, a Mozartian vision of jubilation and despair in St Petersburg, was composed not only in response to the widespread feeling of shock that followed a particularly severe flooding of the capital, but – more significantly – as a reply to the challenge offered by another poem: Mickiewicz’s satire on the town as the evil headquarters of imperial oppression, the icy giant of the North. ‘Naturally I despise my country from head to foot,’ wrote Pushkin, ‘but I am not going to let a foreigner get away with sharing that feeling.’ Here is how a Russian writes a poem about his own tyranny, he seems to say.’


John Bayley, 9 July 1987

The well-known speech in Dryden’s play Aurungzebe beginning, ‘When I consider life, ’tis all a cheat,’ has the emperor gloomily observing that we still expect from the last dregs of life ‘what the first sprightly running could not give’. The empress, however, takes a different line: keeping going is what matters.

Skinned alive

John Bayley, 25 June 1987

Amusing, and perhaps instructive, to think of great paintings whose voyage into mystery and meaning seems to depend, in the first instance, on a technical trick: a separation of planes so that the head of the principal figure lives in a different world from that of the body, and the rest of the picture. Rembrandt’s ‘Polish Rider’ travels serenely on a pantomime horse, deftly accoutred with his bowcase, his shapka, his shapely uniform of red and white. But the face is that of a beautiful woman, smiling quietly in some secret satisfaction, disembodied from the soldier’s quest. Botticelli’s Venus is a Peruginesque Madonna with no clothes, posed on a pagan shell. The formidable eyeballs of Piero’s risen Christ, separated from the cornea in their upward gaze, forbid any offering from the spectator of devotion or reciprocity. The smile of Leonardo’s famous portrait is wholly hermaphroditic. Most striking of all, the upside-down face of Marsyas, in his agony at the surgeon’s hands of scientific Apollo, expresses a refined and sexless being lost on the solitary verge of pleasure, while Midas-Titian gazes tearfully not at him but at some other terror.


John Bayley, 4 June 1987

Imprisoned though he is in that wonderfully self-satisfied French tradition of announcing and defining, Derrida must none the less be said to be spot-on about diaries. He says in Of Grammatology: ‘I can answer the threat of the other as other (than I) only by transforming it into another (than itself) through altering it in my imagination.’ I recalled these oracular words when browsing in the Faber Book of Diaries, a gripping compilation, with several diary entries from different centuries for each day of the year. The effect of variety, and of uniformity, achieved by Simon Brett’s use of this method, and by the breadth of his selecttion, is very striking.

Azure Puddles

John Bayley, 21 May 1987

Staying at about the age of eleven with a friend whose father was a doctor, I was put in a room where the only reading-matter was a medical textbook and the first volume of what was to become Compton Mackenzie’s quadrology, The East, West, South and North Winds of Love. I embarked on it with hope and confidence, but after only a few pages had to give up and turn for entertainment to the medical book. Considering myself a mature and experienced reader, I was much chagrined at this and confessed my defeat to no one – it was too shaming. Mackenzie’s novels were a household word at the time. Everybody devoured them. What was wrong with me? It is a slight consolation after this lapse of time to feel that I may have been right.’

Knives, Wounds, Bows

John Bayley, 2 April 1987

It was once observed by J.B. Priestley that the literary life in England was ‘a rat-race without even a sight of the other rats’. English authors on the whole prefer to work on their own and find their friends outside the confraternity – indeed, because of this preference, there is hardly such a thing as a confraternity. ‘Very bad – very good too,’ as Conrad’s Stein would say. With us, both the best and the worst writing seems unconscious that anything else is being written. Writing in America, on the other hand, is a joint pioneering venture, undertaken in a spirit, if not exactly of co-operation with other authors, then of mutual comment and criticism, malice or kindliness equally supportive. In the vast contingency of the American scene, writers must cling together.’

The Matter of India

John Bayley, 19 March 1987

In that great study of early narrative, Epic and Romance, W.P. Ker suggested that there were two kinds of story going in the Dark Ages, roughly defined in the terms of his title. In a European and, more specifically, a British context, he was inclined to think that Celtic stories dealt in magic and ‘wondrous matters’, while Anglo-Saxon poems and Norse sagas preferred the facts. There might be dragons and monsters on both sides, but a Nordic monster, like Grendel in Beowulf, was an altogether more convincing affair than his Celtic counterpart. Ker conceded that the two traditions often came together and got mixed up: but in keeping with the racial ideas of his time he argued for two distinct types of creative imagination.

In praise of Brigid Brophy

John Bayley, 5 March 1987

In his recent book Reasons and Persons the Oxford philosopher Derek Parfit is inclined to decide that persons have no existence, and that the motives to morality are for that reason clearer and more cogent. So-called personality is a matter of self-interest: bees in a hive have no moral problems. Examining their own world and using their own vocabulary, empirical and linguistic philosophers quite naturally and rightly come to such conclusions. Hume could perceive only a bundle of sensations, and Parfit finds in himself only a quantity of experiences. Death is that much easier to accept, because it is simply a matter of there being ‘no future experiences which will be related in certain ways to these present experiences’, and personal self-interest easily becomes ‘rational altruism’.


John Bayley, 19 February 1987

Charlie Chaplin was not hopeful when the talkies arrived in Hollywood. ‘It would mean giving up my tramp character entirely. Some people suggested that the tramp might talk. This was unthinkable.’ In his introduction, probably the most searching piece of Kipling criticism to date, Craig Raine quotes Chaplin’s words, and his further comment that the ‘matrix’ out of which the tramp was born was ‘as mute as the rags he wore’.

Yawning and Screaming

John Bayley, 5 February 1987

The past is there to be made use of, and everyone makes use of it in his own way. Christopher Hill and E.P. Thompson invent alternative Englands where radical social experiments were nipped in the bud by the entrenched forces of reaction, while T.S. Eliot’s successors imagine devout cavaliers preserving a unified sensibility in economic and spiritual matters. Apart from the therapy it offers against the perpetual unsatisfactoriness of the present, this construction of the past has the great merit of making sense and interest of the way things are at any given time. If it is a game of the intellectuals, a game which involves obvious falsification on a large scale, it is also one which limbers up self-consciousness, in players and spectators alike, and enlarges the scope of sympathy and inquiry.

Great Fun

John Bayley, 22 January 1987

In Northanger Abbey we learn that nothing very awful in the way of immurement or assassination of wives, or any such Gothic goings-on, can occur in an English village, because of its ‘neighbourhood of voluntary spies’. In this chilling phrase Jane Austen indicates the social benefits of gossip, and also implies with secret amusement that the moral benefits of novel-reading follow from the fact that the novel is a licensed vehicle for gossip. In the course of an intelligent and informal analysis of the concept, chiefly in its relation to literature, Patricia Spacks remarks on the absence of adolescent pregnancy in China, and connects it with the compulsory retirement, under the Communist regime, of men at 55 and women at 50. There is thus a vast reserve of voluntary spies whose socially acceptable – indeed more or less compulsory – occupation is to keep an eye on young love and nip it in the bud.’

A New Verismo

John Bayley, 8 January 1987

It seems likely that critics in the future will see the literature of our age as being peculiarly obsessed with a perverse version of mimesis. They will have no trouble in classifying its tendencies, and attributing them to the waning influence of classic 19th-century doctrines – realism, naturalism, verismo. They will also note that our own fashionable critics bent over backwards to point out that the whole thing was a con: that literature, of no matter what kind, can never in the smallest degree be like life but only like other examples of literature. The paradox may briefly amuse them. They may conclude that whereas writers – novelists particularly – were instinctively conditioned to make reading seem like living, critics were programmed in the opposite direction – to point out that all was artifice.


John Bayley, 4 December 1986

Evelyn Waugh never wanted to be a writer, still less a novelist. That may explain both the weakness of his books and their remarkable and continuing popularity. Readers love an amateur with no intellectual pretensions – one of themselves, in fact – who is also an expert craftsman: and Waugh’s novels are as solidly made as the best furniture. Among his most genuinely enthusiastic recollections was the ‘brilliant and completely speechless little cabinet-maker who could explain nothing and demonstrate everything. To see him cutting concealed dovetails gave me the thrill which, I suppose, others get from seeing their favourite batsman at the wicket or bullfighter in the ring.’ In the same magazine article of 1937 he remarked that Dickens never forgave his parents for trying ‘to force him into a blacking factory instead of letting him write’ and claims that he had made desperate efforts to get a job with a firm which, among other things, manufactured blacking. ‘But the manager was relentless. It was no use my thinking of blacking. That was not for the likes of me.’’

Wives, Queens, Distant Princesses

John Bayley, 23 October 1986

Suppose Mr and Mrs Coleridge to be young SDP yuppies today, who have asked us to dinner. What impression of each should we get? Of an amiable but very silly young man who talked too much and put on a great show of domestic warmth and solidarity? Of a capable and animated young woman, witty and elegant without being a show-off; devoted to the husband without making a display of it; admirable cook, makes all her own clothes? That would be about right. Her radical chic would have been much the same as his, but we might have the impression that it was a more settled part of her life-style and her way of facing society. Both made considerable social efforts, anxious to charm, particularly prospective employers and men in the media. Signs of strain in the marriage? Rather conspicuously absent, except for young Sam’s general tendency to overdo things: but she handled him sensibly. Child on the way. Outlook bright.

Pushing on

John Bayley, 18 September 1986

‘The first thing a novelist must provide is a separate world.’ So Philip Larkin pronounced, and his two novels certainly provide one, as does his poetry. Is the same true of his friend Kingsley Amis, who hazarded the shrewd guess that Larkin published no more novels because he feared failure, in that genre, of the power to keep going with his own separate world of art? It seems likely that Amis has done something which in terms of the novel may be more difficult, and that is to carry the reader with him into whatever new places his interests or imagination have led him. Rather than making a separate world, he devotes his energies to persuading us to join him in his own.


John Bayley, 4 September 1986

‘Old people were rather in fashion at the time. Every week one or the other of the quality Sunday papers included a feature on the elderly, and if it could be shown that they were being ill-treated or neglected so much the better.’ Yes, that’s authentic Pym, with the true depth of exuberance in it: what Philip Larkin accurately called her ‘innocent irony’ – innocent because not just seemingly innocent. In another writer it might be malicious or mechanical or just for show. In Evelyn Waugh or Muriel Spark the same kind of observation would have about it a routine conscientiousness, a reminding of the reader what things are like, and a reassurance that the author’s outlook and style are perfectly fitted to do them justice. Pym is not like that. In 1970, after seven years of silence and exile imposed by her publishers, and with another seven years to go before the evil spell was broken by two rescuing princes in the TLS, she started to write what she called her ‘Academic Novel’. She had had an operation for breast cancer and was beginning to think of retiring from her job as Assistant Editor of Africa.’


John Bayley, 7 August 1986

Pushkin, of all people, was not at all opposed to the censorship of his time. ‘Let us have a strict censorship by all means, but not a senseless one,’ he writes to a friend, as if strictness (strogost) were a cosy and reassuring fact of Russian life, as it might be in England village cricket or well-rolled umbrellas. How else explain the perverse logic of the business, on the face of it so unnecessary and counterproductive, even by Marxist standards?

Yes and No

John Bayley, 24 July 1986

Criticism dates far quicker than art. That is only to be expected: just, as well as natural. Now that F.R. Leavis’s sword no longer sleeps – or rather does not sleep – in his hand, his attitudes to chosen texts are no longer inculcated, the students no longer exhorted to place themselves on the side of life by reading books that will show them ‘where life flows’. Those socio-religious and poetic metaphors seem a little quaint now, but no doubt the time is not far off when ‘discourses’ and le jeu des signifiants will seem equally quaint.’

Unshockable Victorians

John Bayley, 19 June 1986

In any century feelings of superiority about the one before are accompanied or succeeded by feelings of nostalgia, even envy. Fifty years ago we laughed at the Victorians: now we wish we could be more like them. They made life more exciting for themselves than we do. They made sex far more exciting. Or so it may now seem. We wouldn’t actually want to be Victorians, but we love now to understand them to the point almost of identification.

A Proper Stoic

John Bayley, 8 May 1986

There is a moment in A La Recherche du Temps Perdu when Swann visits the Duchesse de Guermantes and finds her going to a party. He blurts out that he is mortally ill and may not be seeing her again. She ignores this news and gives him a smiling farewell as she gets into her carriage. E.M. Forster thought the scene one of the most odious in the novel, or rather in the Novel, and he seems to assume, rather naively, that Proust is as shocked by the incident as he is. Forster’s reaction suggests the existence of two categories, a Guermantes one and a Forster one, with absolutely no understanding of each other, or of each other’s values. Indeed the Forster class would deny that the Guermantes class had any values worth speaking of.

Villain’s Talk

John Bayley, 17 April 1986

How and why do some writers’ characters live from the word go? It may not be necessary that they should; it may not even be to the writer’s purpose and advantage. Shakespeare’s minor characters often have a life which the drama as such has no real use for and no way to deal with. And yet Hamlet would never have become the universally significant figure that he has if he were not immediately and locally real to the audience as he stands in black in the king’s presence chamber. After that moment he can be or become anything the reader or viewer fancies. Timon of Athens, on the other hand, seems to have been present only as an idea to Shakespeare from the very beginning, with the result that he never achieves more than a sort of powerful anonymity.

Quod erat Hepburn

John Bayley, 3 April 1986

As Sartre demonstrates in his play Kean, the great actor, however many different roles he plays, has to become an actor in the absolute sense, has to play that role in life, so that living and acting can no longer be distinguished. Waiters pretend to be waiters, until it becomes their proper nature. It is the same with writers and artists. Byron or David or Robert Lowell cannot slink off and become their ordinary selves in the intervals of being poets and painters and men of the age. Greta Garbo is always Greta Garbo, once she has found the part.

Women are nicer

John Bayley, 20 March 1986

Trotsky, who had a certain wit, even in literary matters, thought that women wrote poetry for only two reasons: because they desired a man and because they needed God, ‘as a combination of errand boy and gynaecologist … How this individual, no longer young and burdened by the personal bothersome errands of Akhmatova, Tsvetaeva and others, manages in his spare time to direct the destinies of the universe is simply incredible.’ Trotsky’s view of God was as conventional as his view of women. All tyrannies with a new spiritual pretension, from Zealots and Anabaptists to the Ayatollah, want to keep women in their old place, and the Bolsheviks were no exception. After the first heady days, with Madame Kollontai preaching free love, and poetry and drama doing what they pleased, the Soviet Government discovered that it needed censorship as much as, or more than, any other repressive system. ‘Dictatorship, where is thy whip?’ inquired Pravda. A charmingly candid demand, which shows, among other things, that the Soviet system was not so hypocritical then as it has since become.

After High Tea

John Bayley, 23 January 1986

The title sounds like a novel, and the book can and should be read like one – a very remarkable one. Philip Larkin, who had the knack of making sideways critical comments as memorable as those in his verse, remarked that ‘the first thing a novelist must provide is a separate world,’ and it is true that the world Dr Green has made out of the relationship of Mark Pattison and Meta Bradley is not exactly a separate world. It is a familiar one, familiar from memoirs and gossip and our general contemporary interest in the Victorian age, but Green has managed – perhaps quite inadvertently – to see it all from a slightly different angle.’

The War between the Diaries

John Bayley, 5 December 1985

Tolstoy was much preoccupied with questions of identity. His brutally penetrating intelligence, as well as the instinctive self-confidence of an aristocrat, were always running incredulously up against the fact of existence, and the certainty of non-existence. What and who was he at different moments of the day? One of his earliest attempts at writing is a history of 24 hours, a record of his various selves during that period. His early diaries have the same feel to them. This is not like the stream of consciousness, but something far more urgent, emotional and volatile. ‘My God! Where am I? Where am I going? And what am I now?’ That is almost exactly like Natasha’s exclamation at the death of Prince Andrew, which the translators weaken by paraphrase, finding its literalness too disconcerting. It should be: ‘Where is he and who is he now?’

The nude strikes back

John Bayley, 7 November 1985

The psychologist John Layard – ‘Loony Layard’, as he is affectionately termed in one of Auden’s early poems – is said to have told a submarine officer that he had grown a beard as a masculine protest against the mechanical womb he inhabited. And in Portrait of the Artist a young man informs his friend that he admires, the Venus de Milo because her broad hips show she would be good at bearing his children. To maintain the Silent Service’s reputation for courtesy the officer no doubt merely reminded his mentor of the limited facilities for shaving in submarines: but James Joyce’s young man resents his friend’s analysis and calls him a sulphur-yellow liar.’

Off the record

John Bayley, 19 September 1985

Robert Chandler writes: ‘Life and Fate is the true War and Peace of this century, the most complete portrait of Stalinist Russia that we have or are ever likely to have.’ Chandler, who has had the herculean task of making a good translation of this long, moving and very remarkable novel, puts forward that claim in his Introduction. When a long honest novel comes out of Russia today comparisons with Tolstoy are routine – I have made them myself – but in this case it seems worth asking rather more rigorously than usual what they really mean.’

Being two is half the fun

John Bayley, 4 July 1985

‘The principal thing was to get away.’ So Conrad wrote in A Personal Memoir, and there is a characteristic division between the sobriety of the utterance, its air of principled and ample reflection, and the wild idea of getting out, of doing a bunk. It is one of the many divisions examined in Doubles, which explores in compelling proliferation the implications of duality in all the forms in which it has touched, inspired and shaped the writer. For imaginative literature not only depends upon but is duality. Novels need doubles to dream them up, and readers to find and recognise their own separate elements in the pages.

Keeping up with the novelists

John Bayley, 20 June 1985

None of us, individually, it may be, want to be caring or cultured or classless, or to belong to a particular class. The three C’s are for other people. In repudiating the categories, we repudiate, in one sense, the society we live in – a very practical example of Marxian alienation. And a significant one, because caring, culture and class are all more or less modern concepts. ‘Caring’, the imperative now laid on all persons in the community, has taken over from the social responsibilities that went with rank and status. Culture is a 19th-century invention designed to inculcate a national and racial heritage of art and literature on an egalitarian basis. And class was invented in an age of nominal equalities to put our differences on a comfortably scientific and sociological basis.’

Complaining about reviews

John Bayley, 23 May 1985

Few things are easier to recognise or harder to define than the way humour works in art. It is only incidentally to do with making us laugh. Being funny is a methodical process and a localising one, whereas humour, like genius, is non-specific and seems inadvertent. It produces not laughter but delight – ‘aesthetic bliss’, as Nabokov called it. It is a species of revelation, which includes self-revelation, by the most civilised means. That sounds portentous, but it may indicate something about the nature of inexplicably good moments in literary art, like Powell’s Widmerpool observing with approval: ‘Why, mother, you are wearing your bridge coat.’’

Her eyes were wild

John Bayley, 2 May 1985

Wordsworth’s genius lay in its own sort of negative capability. The most striking feature of his poetry, as of his personality, is their intense and intimate relations with what always remained outside them. He never seems identified with his own discoveries, even with the drama of his own sensibility. Yet what he writes is subtly and comfortingly self-confirmatory, never more so than when the world, the human heart, the music of humanity, the mountains, are speaking to him (‘as if admonished from another world’, ‘To give me human strength by apt admonishment’). The writing of an ‘Ode to Duty’ shows how much the poet enjoyed the exhortation of that concept, whereas Coleridge’s Dejection Ode is a powerful and poignant analysis of the actual state the poet is in.


John Bayley, 4 April 1985

A book could be – perhaps already has been – written on art whose success is connected with getting outside the idiom and context of its age. Such art reassures by its apparent timelessness, and depends on the reassurance of anachronism for its populist impact. When Gray observed that ‘the language of the age is never the language of poetry’ he was noting something that the common reader usually takes for granted. Tennyson achieved wide popularity by making poetry sound old-fashioned in a new way. The idiom of The Shropshire Lad was quaint in its time but became the more modern the more it caught on. FitzGerald’s version of Omar Khayyam, which became the most popular poem of the century, is sui generis in the same way.’

Upper-Class Contemplative

John Bayley, 7 February 1985

There is a category of novel – The Constant Nymph, The White Hotel, Love Story – which is read by everyone for a while and then sinks into limbo. Have such best-sellers anything in common? Obviously they are not – like War and Peace, say – hardy perennials. Their appeal is to something specific in the temper of the time. Going with that, perhaps, is a capacity to have their cake and eat it, and to give their readers the same treat. In Margaret Kennedy’s novel the constant nymph is both satisfyingly bohemian and reassuringly respectable – a combination appealing to the period. She is constant because she dies, and virtuous because she dies a virgin, thus releasing her paramour (and the reader) for further adventures combined with a beautiful memory. Love Story takes the formula a stage further by giving the couple a full and perfect sex-life before the heroine dies, thus releasing etc. As might be expected, the process is more subtle and more comprehensive in such a case as The White Hotel, a more ambitious and imaginative affair. But something similar is going on, enabling the reader to enjoy at the same time the authority and dignity of Freud and the pleasures of pornographic daydream, which combine to license and disinfect the genuine and disgusting horrors of a mass extermination. It seems typical of the literary appetite of our time that the three go together, and that the first two enable art to obtain a sort of false grip on the third, a grip that the Polish poet Herbert says, in his poem ‘The Pebble’, that art should never try to obtain.’


John Bayley, 6 September 1984

To read Virginia Woolf when young is, or was, to have the feeling of entering a new world, to realise with sudden ecstasy that this was true being, where words and consciousness and the solitary self melted into one. ‘She gave me eyes, she gave me ears,’ wrote Wordsworth of his sister Dorothy. Virginia Woolf gave more than that: she gave, or seemed to give, the pure Private Life, quite separate from the contingent miseries, anxieties and rivalries of adolescence, a free-floating poetic awareness, an otherness wholly and excitingly up-to-date. Such at least was the experience of many young persons in the years following her death; and such still seems to be the experience of young readers who discover her today.


John Bayley, 2 August 1984

In 1929 Wilson Knight wrote an essay ‘Myth and Miracle’ which deeply impressed T.S. Eliot. So deeply, in fact, that Eliot offered to persuade the Oxford University Press to publish Knight’s essays and to write an introduction for them himself. The result was The Wheel of Fire, one of our century’s seminal books on Shakespeare. At the same time Eliot sent Knight an inscribed copy of his poem ‘Marina’, ‘a perfect poetical commentary’, as Knight observed, ‘on those Shakespearian meanings which I had unveiled’.

Kundera and Kitsch

John Bayley, 7 June 1984

There is always comedy in the ways in which we are impressed by a novel. It can either impress us (if, that is, it is one of the very good ones) with the sort of truths that Nietzsche, Kafka and Dostoevsky tell us, or with the truths that Tolstoy and Trollope tell us. To the first kind we respond with amazement and delight, awe even. ‘Of course that’s it! Of course that’s it!’ The second kind of truths are more sober, more laboriously constructed, more ultimately reassuring. They are the truths necessary for fiction, and therefore necessary for life. The first kind contribute brilliantly not to life itself but to what seems an understanding of it. And that too is necessary for us, or at least desirable, and enjoyable.

Power Systems

John Bayley, 15 March 1984

More than most artists, poets are free in their creations. Valéry commented that after – and only after – the poet has spoken does he know what he has said. It is also true, and for the same reason, that what the poet has said may be taken in many different ways by his readers. Blake would have agreed with Shelley’s note about God at the end of ‘Queen Mab’, that ‘the works of His fingers have borne witness against Him.’ In whatever spirit of humility a great poet undertakes to demonstrate a transcendental view of our situation, and justify the ways of God to men, the labours of his imagination will be reinterpreted and even misrepresented by the different vision of later poets.–

We shall not be moved

John Bayley, 2 February 1984

There remains a most decided difference – indeed it grows wider every year – between what Philip Larkin calls ‘being a writer’, or ‘being a poet’, and managing to write something which will delight or amaze people without their having to respond to it in the context of poets and writers. Religion and other activities used to concentrate an audience by figuring in a non-literary context, and Blake or Emily Dickinson used religion, as they used the context of childhood responses, to appeal directly to an audience over the head, as it were, of literature. Their communication seems to short-circuit it. The tactic was understood and developed by the Romantics. The ‘Ancient Mariner’ and the Lucy poems must have struck home like early Betjeman, or indeed like Larkin himself. Byron and Pushkin make a particular fetish of not being ‘writers’, and so in his different way did Kipling.–

Cutting it short

John Bayley, 3 November 1983

Of all great writers Pushkin left the greatest number of incomplete or fragmentary works. Even when something is finished it still has an air of potential, of development that might have been carried on had not the author felt that his art had done its mysterious job and that it was not for him to press it further. Don Juan comes to an end because Byron cannot keep up the pressure and think up further adventures to which his imagination can really respond, and so he loses interest. Evgeny Onegin does not end in this sense at all. In it Pushkin tells us that when he began what he calls his ‘free novel’ he did not know how it would end. His story breaks off, but his hero and heroine seem to live on. Their destiny is fulfilled in the form of the narrative, but we continue to ask questions about their future. Would Evgeny have continued to pursue Tatiana? Would she (as Nabokov opined) in time have relented? Russian readers, and writers too, have always speculated about them.

Charmed Life

John Bayley, 15 September 1983

The poet Blok once wrote about the ‘gloomy roll-call’ in Russian history of tyrants and executioners, ‘and opposite them a single bright name – Pushkin’. Quite true. But to put it like that is the equivalent of a single bright name outside the cinema – Omar Sharif as Dr Zhivago. The Russians have a word for the process – poshlost. This is not vulgarity, which is a good honest affair, but a factitious emphasis placed where none should exist, the facile forcing into expression and standardisation of what can only be true at the level of private, exploratory feeling. Television and advertising, politics and journalism, are the natural homes of poshlost, where it has its proper uses and its presence is so much taken for granted as to be relatively benign. Though bad art may embody poshlost, its pretensions are usually harmless and recognisable: worse things happen when good art is taken up by poshlost, and has the kind of qualities which it can take over.–

Clean Poetry

John Bayley, 18 August 1983

The Acmeist poet Zenkevich declared in 1911 that when he first met Anna Akhmatova he was struck by her saying that poetry was ‘something organic’, and that she was amused at the idea of the poet Valery Bryusov schooling himself to write a certain number of lines each day. ‘Organic’ is a word now considerably overworked, but the little anecdote does suggest aspects of an elemental distinction. Poetry has always been ‘something organic’, and also an art to be practised at a certain length each day, in order to retain and develop not only verbal skills but a poet’s habit of mind. Organic poetry (like Akhmatova’s) is delivered, and is silent. It has none of that daily discussion which animates the poetic art that keeps itself always in training. In fact, ‘organic’ poetry does not and should not seem like ‘poetry’ at all: its delivery compels an absolute concentration on the reader’s part, something wholly hit-or-miss. True of it what for Larkin, another organic poet, is true of time.


John Bayley, 16 June 1983

Most novels, if they come off, are orgies of self-congratulation, shared between the writer and the reader, who unconsciously understand both what is going on and what is needed. To enjoy a novel is by extension to enjoy oneself, and novelists in their various ways accommodate the process. Although the rules are always changing, both sides know the game. And as the form becomes more self-conscious, the writer – Henry James is the obvious example – indicates both inside and outside his novel how the reader will divide the work with him and share the spoils. In this partnership we become lucid and wise. Even the most unlikely circumstances are arranged for our self-satisfaction.

The Last Romantic

John Bayley, 5 May 1983

Why is Larkin so different from other poets of today? The naive question is not easy to answer, although every appreciative critic and lover of poetry has his own solution, and his own diagnosis of Larkin’s virtues. Long ago the Poet Laureate referred to him as ‘the John Clare of the building estates’, a decidedly quaint though no doubt a heartfelt compliment, in line with Eric Homberger’s later summing-up of Larkin as ‘the saddest heart in the post-war supermarket’, or the more magisterial pronouncement that his poetry is ‘representative of the modern English condition: a poetry of lowered sights and diminishing expectations’. These judgments suggest his glum accuracy about places and emotions – particularly his own – an unillusioned accuracy beautifully, and in a very English way, satisfying both the poet and ourselves with what another critic has called ‘a central dread of satisfaction’. As Larkin has himself wryly remarked: ‘Deprivation for me is what daffodils were for Wordsworth.’ What is perfect as a poem is what is imperfect in life.–

Social Arrangements

John Bayley, 30 December 1982

‘New’ poetry can mean two things. When Ezra Pound said ‘make it new’ he was willing the advent of Modernism, the birth of a consciousness transformed by the disintegrations and realities of the 20th century. But ‘new’ or ‘contemporary’ poetry refers more simply to changes in fashion, the growing up of new groups of designers and a new generation of consumers. Like film images or pop songs, the new in this sense is recognisably different from the poetry scene a generation ago, but how much has happened except that times have changed and required something else to be characteristic of them?

Pasternak and the Russians

John Bayley, 4 November 1982

The flowering of European Jewry in the days before 1914 is a cultural phenomenon comparable to the ‘golden’ periods of national art in Spain, France and England, even to the great years of the Italian Renaissance. Like other such peaks of civilisation, it might have faded of its own accord had it not been brought to a tragic end by the xenophobia engendered by two world wars, by Nazism and Soviet Fascism. It was, above all, cosmopolitan. Not for nothing (a favourite phrase of Russian critics) did Mandelstam observe that Acmeism, the literary movement which he helped to found in 1910 in St Petersburg, took as the inspiration for its poetry the whole European cultural tradition.

Decorations and Contingencies

John Bayley, 16 September 1982

Decoration in poetry traditionally has a purpose: to embellish the story of the Faerie Queene or of Venus and Adonis, to ornament with appropriate curlicues the exposition of order and harmony in a poem like Sir John Davies’s Orchestra. In what might be called the new decorated style, or modern Elizabethan, the decoration has become an end in itself, serving only to embellish the sense of time passing, water dripping, bells ringing, clothes flying on the line.

The Poetry of John Ashbery

John Bayley, 2 September 1982

The poet’s mind used to make up stories: now it investigates the reasons why it is no longer able to do so. Consciousness picks its way in words through a meagre indeterminate area which it seems to try to render in exact terms. Most contemporary American poetry wants only to offer what Helen Vendler has called ‘an interior state clarified in language’. ‘Clarified’ is an ambiguous word here, meaning the poetry’s effort to achieve the effect of being clear on the page. In Ashbery’s case the wordage trembles with a perpetual delicacy that suggests meaning without doing anything so banal as to seem to attempt it. Poetic syntax is constructed to express with a certain intensity a notion of the meaningful that does not convey meaning.

In hospital it’s earlier than you think. All day the daylight lighting lights the day That five times brings by trolley a hot drink, Bovril, Nescafé, Ovaltine, or tea. The nurses’ busy heels don’t tap but squish; The nurses wheedle, pummel, scream, and lay A sort of sealed-up dish Five times or so a day the beds beside: Uncouth but shapely, made from rhino hide

(Or so...

Unsex me here

John Bayley, 20 May 1982

The trouble with Shakespeare is that he takes the heart out of controversy. Any flat-earther, royalist, republican, anti-abortionist, any Bennite or Thatcherite, will lose whatever fierce exudation it is about them that we hate or love or love to hate, if they are so unwise as to enlist Shakespeare on a regular commission in a systematic struggle against the forces of non-enlightenment. As an ally, the Bard is too co-operative by half. Long ago the Atheist Society were rumoured to have taken as their motto a line from Julius Caesar: ‘There is no fellow in the firmament.’ Anyone else who believes anything strongly could do almost equally well.


John Bayley, 15 April 1982

Consciousness has to live, at least notionally, by extremes. It is by turns enthusiastic and cynical, believes and disbelieves. It wants to be snug and comfortable, but its peak moments, when it feels most alive, come out of crisis and extremes – illness, accident, bereavement, jealousy, longing. ‘I wouldn’t have missed it for anything,’ it will say to itself about a quarrel or a war, some episode of general misery.

Canetti and Power

John Bayley, 17 December 1981

Henry James writes of a very grand lady that she had ‘an air of keeping, at every moment, every advantage’. Paradoxically, the same would be true of the literary personality of Elias Canetti. Behind its approachable modesty, its avoidance of every publicity and image-making process, there is a loftiness, an assurance, a stance of absolute superiority. Indeed the modesty and the dignity make the same point: why make a fuss about your greatness?

The Best of Betjeman

John Bayley, 18 December 1980

In Anthony Burgess’s latest novel, Earthly Powers, there is a parody of a Betjeman poem.

Inside Out

John Bayley, 4 September 1980

Towards the end of Gavin Ewart’s delightful and comfortable volume there is a poem called ‘It’s hard to dislike Ewart’. Too true, as Clive James or Peter Porter might say, possibly with a certain wry exasperation. Generally speaking, our fondness and admiration for poets does go with a potential of patronage or dislike, a pleasure in our sense of the absurdities and vulnerabilities of their worlds – Keats blushing to the ears as he writes raptly about womens’ waists; Eliot going on about his delicate apprehension of time and God, not hoping to turn again, and so forth. Their greatness is intimate with a wholly personal existence, as touching and exposed as romance. Needless to say, Ewart is not like that.

Facts and Makings

John Bayley, 21 February 1980

Ted Hughes has always possessed in his poetry the gift that D.H. Lawrence had whenever he took up his pen: the gift of joining his ego to the visible world so that both not only energise each other but seem aspects of the same display. The first poem in this collection, ‘Rain’, seems to give the essence of what actually happens when rain falls and falls on a bare modern English farming countryside. It is an apparently casual performance that could only come from a poet steeped in his own great talent to the point of taking it for granted, as Wordsworth seems to take for granted the exposition of his verse paragraphs, or Browning a prolonged monologue. Hughes is remorseless in his eye for what is really happening outside in nature at such a time. The cows

Borges has written (and it is certainly true of Borges) that the writer is like a member of a primitive tribe who suddenly starts making unfamiliar noises and waving his arms about in strange new rituals. The others gather round to look. Often they soon get bored and wander off, but sometimes they become hypnotised, remain spellbound until the rite comes to an end, adopt it as a part of tribal behaviour.

I enjoyed John Lanchester on Fleming almost as much as I do Fleming himself (LRB, 5 September). Yes, Fleming wrote so well – that is the point – almost as well as Raymond Chandler, whose books he revered. (In Goldfinger Bond buys the latest Chandler at the airport.) Andrew Lycett's is indeed a splendid biography: John Pearson's is good too, and so is Donald McCormick's, which I reviewed...

Witty Scalpel

23 May 2002

Jenny Diski’s review of Philip Larkin’s juvenilia is the worst I have ever read in the LRB, which is saying a lot. A parade of undercover PC, it made no attempt to look closely at, or to come close to, its subject, his words, his ways of writing. In his elegy on Yeats, Auden opined that Time, indifferent to politics and ideology,Worships language and forgivesEveryone by whom it lives.‘With...

My dear, the noise

15 October 1998

Apropos George Schlesinger’s pertinent query (Letters, 29 October) about the origins of ‘My dear, the noise, and the people’, I suppose all wars invent stories and myths which are in fact second-hand. In 1943, when I first heard the story, it was quoted as coming out of Dunkirk, but whoever said it (if he did) might well have remembered hearing the Thesiger 1916 story. Or, just conceivably,...
Following my review of Kipling’s History of the Irish Guards in the Great War, I am grateful to Christopher Hitchens (Letters, 18 June) for his news about John Kipling and the tennis netting. It is significant, too, that ‘Mary Postgate’ – Kipling’s ‘daemon’ at its most diabolical – was being brooded at a time in 1914 when the media were systematically...

Is Life the Thing?

16 April 1998

In his review of Jonathan Dollimore’s Death, Desire and Loss in Western Culture (LRB, 16 April) Terry Eagleton makes the startling claim that ‘literary theory is an aesthetics of the underdog.’ We are all, naturally, on the side of the underdog – it would be incorrect to be anything else – but is there no end to what the once excitingly arcane doctrine of literary theory...

Blame it on the claret

14 November 1996

I haven’t read Billington on Pinter, but I gather from Michael Wood’s review (LRB, 14 November) that Billington says I must have been the victim of spite or delusion in making a reference to Pinter’s visible rage at a dinner party. Pinter never displays anger but only ‘impassioned integrity’. No doubt; and I yield to none in admiration for the playwright and his integrities....

The Buttocks Problem

5 September 1996

Apart from general arguments against corporal punishment, Paul Foot is clearly right (LRB, 5 September) about the grotesque unsuitability of Anthony Chenevix-Trench as a headmaster in a position to beat pupils. Trench no doubt had academic gifts and teaching abilities, but he quite possibly owed his appointment to an establishment-minded respect for his war service, and the horrors and humiliations...

Amis and Son

11 May 1995

Julian Loose’s analysis of the ‘spot-on’ quality of Martin Amis’s novel The Information (LRB, 11 May) was itself absolutely spot-on, but why no honourable mention for Dad, who pioneered the technique? For example, and if memory serves, more than one person in the Kingsley oeuvre, too, wants to be able to smoke more cigarettes than the one he is actually smoking. Stunned with...

Not a Spy

23 February 1995

Christopher Hitchens is on his way to join the spy fantasists he saw off in his witty review if he believes that John Cairncross, ‘a working-class lad’ and ‘believing Communist’, ‘got hold of the real stuff’ and thus ‘enabled the Russians to re-equip in time to win the battle of the Kursk Salient’. Cairncross may well have been a quieter and more competent...

How he came to know this

16 December 1993

Alan Bennett’s quote (LRB, 16 December 1993) from Rosencrantz’s words (‘The single and peculiar life is bound / With all the strength and armour of the mind / To keep itself from noyance’) is a splendid example of how Shakespeare comes to seem so wise; or, as Bennett puts it, ‘how he came to know this’. The words are supplied by Shakespeare: the wisdom by the reader....
Like the medieval church it resembles, the new academicism offers no salvation outisde itself. Nearly thirty years ago I had a mild argument in print with Frank Kermode about the importance of things and bodies in books. Frank, who had just published The Sense of an Ending, was doubtful of their existence. Now Jonathan Sawday tells us that there is a ‘truly innovative theoretical move’...


25 February 1993

Concerning Proust’s rhapsody on asparagusscented urine (Letters, 11 March), it was the reviewer who was guilty of misquotation, not the author of A History of Food, who did not herself refer to Proust. At least the error produced from Dorothy Bell, to whom I am most grateful, the magnificent original passage from Du côté de chez Swann. Having misquoted a phrase from memory, I was...

Showing the flag

20 December 1990

From where does Perry Anderson (LRB, 20 December 1990) get ‘black-white-gold colours flying again in Moscow’? True, the Tsarist house flag was the black dvuglavyi orel on a gold field, but the Imperial banner of all the Russias, now waving in the Red Square, was borrowed by Peter the Great from the Dutch red-white-blue horizontal tricolour, the white stripe being put at the top. A very...


7 December 1989

Touché by Michael Mason (Letters, 21 December 1989) about Wordsworth’s moon in ‘Strange fits of passion …’ But I am sad he thought my review ‘disfigured by hostility towards Wordsworth’. Coleridge said everyone is born either a Platonist or an Aristotelian, and maybe we are all by nature either Coleridgeans or Wordsworthians. When Barbara Pym was asked in...


19 January 1989

My thanks to Stan Smith (Letters, 16 February) for pointing out errors, and for arresting proof that good poems are more sensible even than they seem, and as Amis says, always get us to some fascinating place where they want us. Even if we don’t know it’s Helensburgh.


17 September 1987

SIR: I formed the impression, perhaps wrongly, that Marjorie Perloff (Letters, 10 December 1987), in her penetrating critical essay on Robert Lowell (‘Poètex Maudits of the Genteel Tradition’), was contrasting both Lowell and Berryman with a different sort of writer and intellectual in America – one much more aware of current ideas and fashions and more perceptive in responding...


3 September 1987

SIR: Bruno Nightingale (Letters, 15 October) raises a fascinating point: students of the literary life are in debt to him and his friends for their researches, however negative these may have been. In my Guardian review, which he mentions, I was clearly at fault in diagnosing Brooke’s erection as the result of cold water – why indeed should it have any but the contrary effect? However,...


9 July 1987

John Bayley writes: I am sorry I seemed to Tim Armstrong to be condescending about Aboriginals, about whom I only know what I read in Bruce Chatwin’s remarkable book. I gave what seemed to me his own views on the matter, which are certainly neither sentimental nor condescending. The point about Apartheid was made by an Australian teacher in an Aboriginal community, in conversation with Bruce...

Women are nicer

20 March 1986

John Bayley writes: My deepest apologies to Professor Karlinsky for these misunderstandings. His brilliant book does so much for Marina Tsvetaeva, and I am sorry to have accidentally distorted, in two particulars, the portrait he gives of her and of her work.
SIR: In spite of the absence of inverted commas, I owe Mr Rushdie (Letters, 5 July) an apology for quoting, or seeming to quote, his review of Milan Kundera’s The Book of Laughter and Forgetting (LRB, 7 June). The extract from his review printed on the cover of Kundera’s new novel suggested the ghostly presence of all the praise words favoured by current critics of the novel, from ‘wickedly...

Dante and Auden

15 March 1984

SIR: I bow to Mr Ansen’s good memory (Letters, 7 June) for things in Auden which I should have remembered myself. But I stand by the comment to which he takes exception. However much Auden may have invoked Dante, Dante does not get into his verse. For one thing, it is never dignified. Few English poets are less like Dante, it seems to me.
SIR: Elizabeth Roberts’s letter about the Pasternak-Freidenberg correspondence (Letters, 2 December 1982) puzzles me: I think we are at cross-purposes rather than in disagreement. Olga Freidenberg’s (not Olga Pasternak’s) Poetics of Plot and Genre did very well in the bookshops (‘sales began to mount,’ she writes) before it was withdrawn by the Soviet authorities. Hard...

Michael Roberts

4 September 1980

John Bayley writes: Michael Roberts is not an easy person for a reviewer to come to grips with, in the form in which Selected Poems and Prose presents him. Lawrence Airey allows that, but at the same time I think I do admit to having been unable to do the book justice, and I am glad he took the opportunity to argue the case for The Modern Mind and T.E. Hulme. I have myself in the past got something...

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’...

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The first thing Alzheimer’s disease took away from Iris Murdoch was her luminous powers. At a conference in Israel in 1994, she was unable to answer her audience’s questions. In 1995,...

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Distant Sheep

Penelope Fitzgerald, 21 July 1994

John Bayley’s new novel is largely about those who are had on, or taken in, and this may well include his readers, who need to keep their wits about them. To begin with, he conjures up a...

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A Poetry of Opposites

C.H. Sisson, 9 July 1992

Whatever may now be the state of the market for A Shropshire Lad, the poetry of A.E. Housman has certainly been among the most read of the 20th century. Or in the 20th century, for the earlier...

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In a recent issue of Index on Censorship, Vaclav Havel, the dissident Czech playwright and essayist who has spent long periods in prison, tells the following tale: A friend of mine who is...

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The Things about Bayley

Nicholas Spice, 7 May 1987

There is a certain kind of knowledge – perhaps the most important – that cannot be explicitly taught or diligently learnt. For example, a tribe of Indians on the river Xingu lives on...

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Denis Donoghue, 21 June 1984

One of Anthony Thwaite’s poems, ‘Tell it slant’, swerves from Emily Dickinson’s line ‘Tell all the Truth but tell it slant’ to settle upon an aesthetic...

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Anne Barton, 2 July 1981

Twenty-one years ago, in The Characters of Love, John Bayley suggested that ‘there is a sense in which the highest compliment we can pay to Shakespeare is to discuss his great plays as if...

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