John Bayley

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’.

The pamphlet was quoted recently by John Gross in an afterword to a new edition of his book The Rise and Fall of the Man of Letters.[*] Gross assumed a combative stance, calling his piece ‘the man of letters in a closed shop’, and speaking of the ‘cold horror’ that filled him when he contemplated the professionalisation of criticism today and the spread of literary theory. But he also recognised that there was something forlorn about such aggressiveness, which only made the professional men more cocky. Their chief weapon is to present their opponents as unconscious and thus benighted theorists, ‘unselfconsciously sustaining traditional social and cultural exclusions’. The old-fashioned humanities man who thinks he has an open mind is ‘simply in the grip of an older theory’.

That truism is apt to have a boomerang effect, for new humanities men often seem equally unconscious that their political and ideological role is a surrogate one. The stuff of art is less important to them than correct attitudes and procedures. The professionalised response is good at taking over when there is nothing much to respond to, as in the case of the Turner Prize exhibits. On questions of art or literature the man of letters did at least say straight out what he thought, however much he may have been conditioned to think it. He did not compel a work of art to understand, indeed to create, itself: he gave his own response to it, his own awareness of approval, curiosity or dislike, which he could justify only in part or not at all, since they came out of him as the work of art from its source, albeit on an appropriately lower level. Amateurs and professionals of the humanities should none the less be able to live with each other quite happily, but politics – a surrogate politics that claims to be present in all their responses – requires them to wage factitious war as a matter of display. The cuckoo may be determined to take over the nest, as Gross fears, but that too is seen from both sides as more show, gambit and stratagem than reality: an aspect of the technique of presenting the literary past and present in ritualistically political terms.

Professionalism can genuinely threaten the amateur, however, by making his approach seem inconclusive – again like a work of art itself. Technicians are expected to exercise control. Art’s public today is naturally agoraphobic, and instant high-tech is above all reassuring, just as it must have been reassuring to hear from Roland Barthes that ‘literature is what gets taught’ – i.e. is what I am teaching you. A representative high-tech man tells us that literary criticism ‘has come a long way’ since the days of the man of letters, which is reassuring in the sense that we know a word-processor is now easy to use just because it is complex – with a little tuition anyone can operate it. The theory processor is not concerned with natural talent, any more than with the vagaries of opinion: but men of letters are, or were, in the paradoxically more tricky position of having to write both for those who can and those who can’t – for readers with a gift for understanding and appreciating literature as well as for those with little or none. Like artists, they must illuminate, intrigue and divert at the same time, which is why a master of the genre like V.S. Pritchett is himself both critic and creator.

As man of letters and critic, Pritchett covered all the ground. His collected criticism.[†] a rich and massive volume, examines as a many authors as all 12 volumes of Scrutiny; and indeed it now appears that Pritchett’s powers of detecting and instructing are not so different from those of the Leavis collective, though never needing its authoritarian pose. Good critics – Leavis and Randall Jarrell, Updike, Furbank, A.S. Byatt, Pritchett himself – are more alike than not. In contrast to high-tech men, they share with the authors and novelists who are their subjects a readiness to enter into the diversity and viscosity of the written word, the blatant assault of the personal. The act of liking or disliking a novelist can still seem a sudden intimacy: whether or not you get on is your own affair, and as used to be said, there is no accounting for tastes. The best critics are not necessarily teachers, but theorists almost invariably are, and they have come to dread the direct untreated response by their students, pronouncing E.M. Forster soppy, or Virginia Woolf a bit of a bitch. High-tech negates such responses, rescuing itself from social and worldly critical converse – the medium in which the novel naturally swims. To discuss in the old fashion the characters of War and Peace or Anna Karenina is to let loose a bedlam of chat in which callow innocence and worldly wisdom are equally happy to take part, leaving the technician gibbering on the sidelines. The man of letters does not mind this – it constitutes a challenge to his skill; but no wonder the high-tech men dread it, and they hasten to restore order by treating the writer as if he were somehow privy to the new linguistic structure they set up within him, which thankfully will put an end to discussion of his books as experience.

It is true that the reception theorists and Stanley Fish have discovered a more ingenious and less obvious tactic: confusion and viscosity can themselves be turned to account, when the text becomes an aporia awaiting a battery of interpretative machines. But how much more illuminating as well as entertaining to manage it in one of the ways Pritchett can do.

I have been reading Dostoevsky again: The Possessed. You know the sensation. You are sitting by the fire reflecting that one of the things that reconciles you to life, even at its most tragic, is the low clear daily monotone of its voice. Suddenly comes a knock at the door, there are cries. A man has been murdered at a house down the street. You put on your thickest coat and go out ... people go rushing by. Who is it this time? Shatov, you hear, the ex-student, the ex-radical, the believer in the Russian Christ. Good Heavens! There was no one more serious, more honest, more likeable than Shatov, rather difficult in argument because he had never got over a sort of angry awkwardness about his class. He was tongue-tied and shy one moment, violently angry the next. His anger soon passed, however, and then he smiled repentantly. There was absolutely no malice in Shatov.

Unlike most bellelettrists, Pritchett never repeats a gambit, but his way here of carrying the reader into Dostoevsky country is remarkably effective – effective for this particular case. What he goes on to say is, in fact, very similar to Bakhtin’s magisterial analysis, which was only available in English long after this essay was written; but in saying it he makes the novel and its characters ‘alive’, as used to be remarked and alive on their own terms. Shatov, whose name means the ‘unstable one’, joins the throng of what Bakhtin was to call ‘polyphonic’ voices and apparitions. Yet the student of today who reveres Bakhtin would not begin to know how to extract the same message from Pritchett. The student is not on the same wavelength. The appeal to experience would bother and embarrass him; he feels far safer with a critic whose method and vocabulary are as distant as possible from those of his subject, and whose message is correspondingly detached, wrapped and processed for separate consumption. Bakhtin has the line on Dostoevsky: Pritchett merely plunges into him.

But if the intellectual classes no longer know how to read a man of letters, and sad as this may be it is probably true, there would be no better way of rediscovering the art than through these essays. Their variety is huge and their range encyclopedic. Nor do they offer the slightest evidence anywhere of those ‘traditional social and cultural exclusions’ of which the new humanities men are so keen to discover unconscious traces in their predecessors. A self-made man of letters, Pritchett had none of the subsidies and privileges that post-war intellectuals came to expect the state and the university to shower on them. He found the Russian, French and Spanish masters for himself, and as a novelist and story writer worked his own way into them, as into every other conceivable literary corner. Hazlitt – somewhat ironically, the darling of radicals who would dismiss the essay genre in general – was an ignoramus compared to Pritchett, and with a far less open mind. Pritchett approaches politics, like everything else, through the books he discusses and the findings of the people in them; the kinds of common sense which result are not afraid to sum up, for example, what Dostoevsky conveyed to the world in his novels as the varied, vivid, muddled thinking ‘typical of a confused Russian middle-class intelligentsia, with equal leanings towards populist mysticism and populist progress’. Much the same could be said of Mein Kampf. And yet novelists, as Pritchett’s exposition goes on to demonstrate, can penetrate through silliness into profound imaginative command, and this is specially true of Dostoevsky.

Behind Pritchett’s exact and brilliant seizure of the thisness of any given work are the outlines of wider ideas, as rational as they are unpretentious, never grounded in academic self-satisfactions. In a piece on Mrs Gaskell, ‘The South goes North’, he indicates unobtrusively the dependence of the Victorian novel – a conditioned reflex in almost every work except Wuthering Heights – on the inculcation of responsibility, the ethic of self-improvement. How easily and naturally the novel worked, what a proper inevitability its form possessed – like that of classic tragedy – when it strove instinctively upward, towards the better thing and the higher conclusion! Our own novels, on the contrary, ‘seek to impress us with ideas of self-sufficiency and guilt’. Written thirty or forty years ago, that remains true today, revealing not only that the ludic preoccupations of the modern novel are not based solely on a changed view of language, but that a craving for those Victorian directions is still in the bones of the modern novel reader, and in novelists as different as Iris Murdoch and Margaret Drabble. Such readers and writers are in no sense Victorian throwbacks, yet they know in their bones that the true English novel is destined to a Victorian purpose and persona, in whatever modified circumstances. Pritchett understands this. He observes in passing as he writes about George Eliot that now ‘we do not wish to be better than we are but more fully what we are.’ Most of us, perhaps, but not all, and certainly not all readers of novels.

His droll precisions – as when he writes of W.W. Jacobs ‘living in an ivory foc’sle’ – are a particular joy. Yet his pleasure in Jacobs is such that he makes us want to rush off at once and discover or rediscover the world of Ginger Dick and Peter Russet. He draws the most subtle of distinctions between Jacobs’s unerring sense of the human will to be one up and how it gets its way in his elemental contexts, and the bogus literary tradition in which Jacobs had to write to sell his work. A couple of quotes from Strindberg’s ‘Getting married’ make the point, with hardly anything else needing to be said, that there is a kind of offhand piercing gaiety of intelligence in the man, and in the way he writes, that makes this so-called misogynist a bosom pal of D.H. Lawrence, with equally abrupt insights into the ways in which sex makes people behave.

The most striking thing about the man of letters, exemplified at his best in this collection, is the absence of tunnel vision. It is improbably comic to think of Pritchett taking part in one of those Sunday books-of-the-year surveys, and adding his quota to their self-important predictability. Travelling widely, he owns no field, has no place to take over and develop as an authority. He loves without possessiveness. Nor does he suffer from the conscientious urge to be with it, which today can afflict both the writer of reviews and the novelist and story writer determined to show that all modern living can be fitted into their art, from the clitoris to Cambodia. Symptoms of this engaging but also rather depleting condition can be detected in the collected review essays of John Updike, Odd Jobs, a volume as massive and as rich as Pritchett’s, which will shortly be reviewed here by Anthony Quinn. Perhaps because the status of the man of letters was never recognised in America he cannot be said to have either risen or fallen there. The Shores of Light, Edmund Wilson’s best collection, and Lionel Trilling’s musings on the liberal imagination, are from masters of the art who would none the less have recognised a fellow master in Pritchett. It is true that they – Trilling especially – could be anxious where Pritchett is cheerful, and portentous where he is brisk and insouciant. Trilling’s anguish over the fate of writers – Conrad, Kafka, Dostoevsky – whose ferocity is not only lost upon the young but tamed into domesticity by English departments, would not have worried Pritchett, whose direct access to books has never been mediated through theory or seminar. Let us hope he will not be the last of the breed: at present he is certainly its most distinguished son.

[*] Penguin, 368 pp., £7.99, 29 August 1991, 0 14 014413 7.

[†] Chatto, 1319 pp., £35, 2 December 1991, 0 7011 3857 2.