Books: The Revolt of the Pendulum — John Bayley's Daily Bread |
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John Bayley's Daily Bread

Forty years of John Bayley's book reviews have given us a book almost too rich to review. Where to start? Bayley himself at one point conjures the threat of “reviewer's terror, a well-known complaint like athlete's foot.” Tell me about it, mutters the reviewer's reviewer. There are more than six hundred pages in the book, and after reading it this reviewer finds that he has made almost four hundred notes. Every reviewer knows that, for a thousand word review, a mere ten notes are enough to induce paralysis. So either this is going to be a forty thousand word review, or there will have to be a winnowing. It could start with a mass crossing-out of all the phrases and sentences transcribed merely because they are excellent. Since we don't seem to need William Gerhardie's novels any more, do we really need what Bayley says about Gerhardie's life? “Like most butterflies, he was far too tough to be broken on a wheel.” But no, it's too good: we do need it. And maybe we need Gerhardie's novels as well, if they could inspire a critic to a sentence as neat as that.

In this respect, if in no other, Bayley resembles the more slavish of the old-time bookmen memorialised by John Gross in The Rise and Fall of the Man of Letters. Hacking away week after week, they either enjoyed most of what they were force-fed or else they choked on its abundance. George Gissing was only the most famous victim of piecework literary journalism. Others did worse than fail: they succeeded, earning the tiny immortality of termites. For them, delight was compulsory. Bayley's delight is compulsive: a different thing. He revels in everything that has been written well, and he himself writes so well that he adds to the total. Reviewing a writer's biography, he reads, or re-reads, the other books by the biographer, every book by the biographee, and brings in all the other relevant writers he can think of. Talking about a novel, he has not only read all the other novels by the same novelist, he has read all the novels by other novelists that are remotely like this novel. (Sometimes very remotely: the resemblance of The Unbearable Lightness of Being toNorthanger Abbey hadn't occurred to me before, and I wonder if it will again.) He sees no end of connections, but the best thing about them is that they are not theoretical.

Apart from his intellectual objections, the main reason Bayley has no time for literary theory is that he is absorbed in literary practice. Praising Fred Kaplan's biography of Dickens, Bayley endorses Kaplan's “all-around attention,” adding that the understanding of Dickens is “probably best served... not by theories about him but by the facts — all the swarming lot of them.” Among the swarming lot are the facts about how the good Jew Riah got into Our Mutual Friend. It was because a deputation of London 's Jewish citizens had pointed out that the bad Jew Fagin in Oliver Twist had worked mischief in their lives. Kaplan supplied that fact. But Bayley, with a typically resonant epithet, supplies the further relevance. “Dickens promised like royalty to put the matter right.” The word “royalty” conveys an insight, based on real events in Dickens's life. Risen to great rank, Dickens had dispensation to bestow. The author's achieved position in the real world, and the other world he created while occupying that position, were in complex interplay. Social duty and artistic impulse didn't always coincide — Riah, a better role model than Fagin, is a far less interesting character — but there is no understanding Dickens without acknowledging the connection. Concern with such a thing puts Bayley back not just beyond Cultural Studies (in which there are no authors, only texts) but beyond the New Criticism (in which the text tells all.) The latest and perhaps among the last in a native line of artist-critics that stretches back through V.S. Pritchett, Cyril Connolly and Desmond McCarthy by way of Matthew Arnold to Hazlitt and even further, he exemplifies the old tradition of socio-literary commentary, with all its benefits and dangers. The chief danger is to lapse into the sweet distraction of gossip. But the chief benefit is so valuable that we would be foolish not to welcome such a lavish demonstration of what it is. The literary past comes alive, sheds all the schemata that have been imposed on it, and teems with contingency, like now. The effect is of a glass-bottomed bucket dipped into the water beside the boat, so that the tourists can suddenly see the living colours and incessant traffic of the reef beneath.

Dickens is a good place to start with Bayley, who is fully familiar with everything Dickens wrote, takes his supreme importance for granted, and can draw on the perceptions of every scholar who has done the same. Humphry House is commended, as is John Carey. (The professor's son, Leo Carey, is the able curator of this book, which must have taken some curating: Bayley, by all reports, was never a man to keep orderly files of anything, least of all his own articles.) Dr Leavis is duly twitted for ever having held the “unreal” opinion that Dickens, except for Hard Times, was a mere entertainer. Leavis revised that opinion later, but it was amazing that he should ever have advanced it. Elsewhere, Bayley is generously ready to concede that the irascible Leavis could say pertinent things, but generosity exceeds itself when Bayley says that “attitudes have changed a good deal since then.” They have only changed back to what they were before Leavis made his bizarre strictures. Not only was Chesterton, whom Bayley mentions, fully aware of Dickens's true stature, so was Shaw. Bayley doesn't mention Shaw at all in that context, but Shaw mentioned Dickens habitually. Shaw assumed that the readers of his Prefaces would recognize his profuse allusions to the Dickens characters. It could be daunting if you didn't, as I well remember; but there was no mistaking Shaw's love of Dickens, which exceeded even his love of Wagner. Many years later, when I finally got round to reading the capital works of Dickens instead of merely pontificating about them, it was because Shaw's enthusiasm had niggled in my conscience too long. If I had not done so then, Bayley's enthusiasm would make me do it now. The personal theme is worth touching on because one of the things reviewing does, or should do, is to transmit an appreciation, sometimes to the point of sending an ignoramus to the bookshop.

Or even back to Trollope. For those of us to whom Trollope matters but not a lot, Bayley sends the message that he should matter a lot. How did we convince ourselves, after reading half a dozen of Trollope's novels, that the other umpteen could be safely put off until we had overcome the same impression about Balzac? Bayley synthesises the answer from the facts assembled in three different books about Trollope that he is reviewing. Trollope damaged his own reputation by being too honest in his autobiography. The picture he painted of himself, getting up early in the morning to knock off a few new chapters before lunch, gave even those readers who wolfed down his books a chance to belittle him as an artist. Tolstoy adored him and later so did Yeats, but a long roster of eminent readers has never been enough to get him taken seriously. Bayley thinks the very idea of “seriousness” is a blind alley anyway, but he particularly objects to it when it draws attention away from what he regards as any writer's best tactic, to present an attractive surface while delving deep, to grow a pleasure garden over the mine. In his view, “serious-minded persons from Dr Johnson to Dr Leavis” were bound to miss the point about Sterne: if he hadn't been a court jester for the beau monde, he would never have been able to tell so much truth. The aristos were less shockable than the upcoming bourgeoisie. Bayley takes the same line with the novelist at the apex of all his admirations, Jane Austen: treating matters of life and death in a manner that did not match their solemnity, she proved that “light is the best foil for the dark.” We could add that Henry James thought he was doing the same thing in The Awkward Age: he honestly believed that the style he chose was a babbling brook, even though it strikes us as an invitation to suck up a sand dune through a straw. But before adding our own observations on the point, we had better deal with some of Bayley's. The idea of a seductive context for profundity looks a bit less useful when George Eliot leaves him cold. Once again he has read all of her and all about her. Edmund Wilson, notoriously, reached his harsh judgement about Middlemarch without having read it. Bayley knows what he is talking about, but that just makes what he actually says about her more of a poser. “The fate of lawgivers and sibyls, in literature if not in life, is to have no lasting influence.”

Well, Middlemarch still has an influence on some of us. Even if all you remember about Casaubon is his Key to All Mythologies, you have remembered a powerful symbol for busy futility, and if you remember that his still-born summa was “as endless as a scheme for joining the stars”, you have equipped yourself with a pretty good line to mutter the next time you make an unassisted attempt to update the software of your lap-top. Those of us who will always need instruction in goodness are bound to go on recalling Dorothea once we have read about her, and to recall also that the story of her example is why the clinching line about the “unvisited tombs” has its plangent force. Such an impact on a modern reader sounds like a lasting influence to me. What was Bayley expecting her to have a lasting influence on? The Novel? But his preference for talking about all those hundreds of considerable novels in all languages, rather than about that abstraction The Novel, which exists only in the meta-language of theory, is one of the best things about him. So we quarrel with him on behalf of his best self, using his own principles to do so. There are things in this book that can make you fume. What would John Bayley say about them? Wait a second: he wrote them.

In fact, Bayley's fondness for paradox can carry him away. Usually it carries him away in the right direction. It's an unexpected but useful thing to say about Keats that he didn't really want to write some of the poems we most admire. He would have preferred to avoid what was then thought of as “women's” romance. But, says Bayley, when Keats got his genius fully in line with his intentions, the result was only “Hyperion”. Keats did better when “The Eve of St Agnes” trapped him into the kind of emotional turmoil that women wanted to hear about. Bayley is slyly funny about the good Madeline's unlikely fate at the hands of Porphyro the noble voyeur. “Keats has boxed himself comically in... by his insistence that his hero make love, like an incubus, to a sleeping girl, and without waking her up: an undeniably difficult feat, even if the girl were not, as Madeline is, a virgin.” Good on the actualities of sex, Bayley knows that not all of them are physical. He sounds more paradoxical than he is when he defends the “sex in the head” of John Cowper Powys against D.H. Lawrence's supposedly piercing idea that a romantic longing could only be a deception. In our love lives, it's “Romance” (Powys's capital letter and Bayley's quotation marks) that carries the real erotic charge, although Lawrence might have been right to think that it's also what does the damage. In another part of the forest, Bayley calls Stendhal's treatise on love abstractionist, and his women characters “pillow-dreams”. Too much sex in the head, perhaps? But taken either way, this point about the material and spiritual in carnal knowledge is a focal point for argument about almost every novelist we care for. It isn't for Conrad, whom Bayley admires, but it is for Hardy, whom he admires even more, and for Tolstoy, whom he admires with a discovering purity reminiscent of Matthew Arnold's when he read Tolstoy in French translation and wrote the pioneering articles in English about the Russian's greatness. Bayley asks the question about human passion that we can't help turning to our own use. What exactly happened to Anna Karenina and Vronsky? Did they lose a dream when it came true? Quite often we get annoyed with him for forgetting to ask it. Shouldn't he have seen that Casaubon is Dorothea's Karenin? Isn't the agony of Scobie in The Heart of the Matter a genuine possibility in any man's conscience, and not just a dilemma cooked up by a Catholic apologist who is out to scare us? If Bayley's book, glittering with perceptions, sometimes seems as big as a small universe, this oscillating point about idealism and desire is one of the worm-holes that take you everywhere in it: a scheme that really does join the stars.

Sometimes the angle of approach is so unexpected that it spoils the party, like a waiter who overdoes the fancy footwork and delivers the soup into your lap. Evelyn Waugh, we are told, was short on humour. “But humour in fiction is about an interest in real people, and Waugh had no such interest.” One is reminded of Stephen Potter's classic ploy for reviewers: if an author is famous for a particular characteristic, accuse him of not having enough of it. Speaking as one whose spirits can be revived at the mere thought of little Lord Tangent's incremental demise in Decline and Fall, I can only say that I think Evelyn Waugh was short of humour the way that Sir Richard Branson is short of confidence. But what, the reader sputters, about the young man who vomits into the room instead of out; and Mrs Stitch's little car going down the lavatory steps; and Apthorpe's thunder box; and... the list goes on like moments from Dickens. Isn't Mrs Melrose Ape up there with Mrs Jellyby in Bleak House? You could deny that Waugh had amiability — his version of Nicholas Nickleby 's Ninetta Crummles, The Infant Phenomenon, would have been a lot nastier — but to deny him a comic gift sounds like comedy in itself. Such moments from Bayley prove that the knack for paradox should always be set to fire single shots, and never switched to automatic. His indulgence of it, mercifully infrequent, is the only way he ever reminds you of those desperate commentators, omnipresent now in our multiple media outlets, who must always advance an outlandish opinion because they don't write well enough to make a reasonable opinion interesting. Since Bayley writes more than well enough to advance reasonable opinions indefinitely, you sometimes wonder how he could let the Devil get into him. Perhaps, on occasion, even he gets bored.

Or perhaps the Devil gets into Bayley when God gets into art. Bayley much prefers Anthony Powell to Evelyn Waugh. Quoted almost as often as Auden, Powell is treated as a friend throughout the book, and clearly revered as an artist, even when the critic likes some of his novels more than others. (Bayley favours the peace-time volumes of the Music of Time sequence over the war-time ones, thus reversing the usual preference: the reader is left to decide whether the reviewer might be saying this because too many people said the opposite.) Bayley correctly points out that Powell's chief concern, unlike Waugh's, was less with the landed gentry than with the higher bohemia and its population of misfits. Powell would never have bothered to revisit Brideshead, even though he lived in a house quite like it, if on a smaller scale. But probably Bayley's main reason for preferring Powell to Waugh is that he prefers humanism to mysticism. He just doesn't think that art and religion make a good match, especially if the religion is an adopted one, as in the case of Waugh — and the case of Graham Greene, by whom he is enthralled even less. Without precisely calling those two eminent Catholic converts perpetrators of a put-up job, he makes it clear that he thinks their religiosity detracts from their scope of vision rather than adding to it. This emphasis on Bayley's part will ring a bell with anyone who thinks that not even Dante was able fully to subject his human comedy to divine judgment, and couldn't have written it if he had. A work of art exists to occupy the whole space between tumultuous reality and the artist's attempt to give it shape, with no supervening providence to nullify the order of what has been achieved. Bayley is at his very best when he is pushing his insistence that the mundane is sublime enough. (“Boots and shoes”, “the detail and the dailiness”: the phrases keep on coming.) He is surely right. Art, by making bearable sense of the world, is out after religion's job, which is probably why no religion in its fundamentalist phase has ever liked it. Art is its own ideal state, which is probably why Plato didn't like it either.

Plato wanted the poets thrown out of the ideal Republic. For Bayley, they are the way in, the entrance to the only habitable civil order, which can never be ideal. Poetry comes first and fiction follows. The poetry of Pushkin, as you might expect from a critic who would be well-known if he had written about nothing else, is the key subject of the book's Russian section, whose wealth we should not allow to daunt us just because he can read the language. Speaking about the Russian poets from Pushkin through to Akhmatova, Tsvetaeva and Pasternak, he is equipped to assess them right down to the level of their technique, and he can do the same for those prose stylists who will always present difficulties to a translator because they either inhabit the musicality of their language or else gain in effect by deliberately damping it down: Gogol, Turgenev, Bunin, Chekhov, Babel. Modest about his attainments as a linguist, Bayley would not want us to be astonished by his capacities with Russian. We should try to agree with him. Though it is a full-time job to speak any language except our own well enough to stay out of gaol, we ought to expect from any critic a reading knowledge of the standard European languages, and Russian would have been one of those if things had gone differently in 1917: it took the Revolution to stem the onrushing force of Russian culture, and even as things turned out, the accumulated achievement up to that time demands by right as close a familiarity as possible. Bayley would be the first to admit that only a native speaker can get to the heart of, say, Gogol, whose babyishly playful verbal inventiveness was at the source of a torrential imagination that not even his most madcap works could fully find room for. (Gogol convinced his mother that he had invented the steam engine: a pertinent fact that Bayley, for once, fails to record.) But the critic reads the language well enough to know whether Gogol's “primal power of creation” has been well translated or not. So deep a feeling for the historic background, when it comes to assessing post-Revolutionary literature, gives Bayley both an advantage and a drawback. The advantage is that he can get right in amongst the details of the professional jostling that goes on between writers even when the State is bearing down on all of them equally: Pasternak, we learn, was daunted by Mayakovsky's “zany felicities”. The drawback is that Bayley tends to share, or seem to share, Isaiah Berlin's genial belief that Russian culture, just because it was not entirely stamped out, somehow came through. The power of delight trumps the power of disgust.

Not that Bayley is politically insensitive to the twentieth century European disaster in its awful multiplicity. Nobody has written better about such an immediate victim as Bruno Schulz, or such an eventual victim as Paul Celan; and about an exile such as Witold Gombrowicz he gets into the secret of how a modern Pole could echo Conrad by taking his country's history of dislocation with him into a world of his own. A pity, here, that Bayley's piece is mainly about an English translation of Gombrowicz's pre-war surrealist novel Ferdyduke, rather than about the many wonderful volumes of his Journal and Varia that until recently were still coming out in French year after year. Holed up in Buenos Aires while his lost homeland went to Hell two different ways in succession, Gombrowicz lost interest in The Novel, including his own novels, and even lost interest in any form of art: he wanted a formless art, a genre beyond the genres. He came to think that you could just write, as long as you wrote well enough. It's a view that Bayley himself exemplifies. His essay about another displaced Polish speaker, the Lithuanian Czeslaw Milosz, would be my pick for the most thrilling item in the collection, perhaps the best place to start in a book you can start anywhere. He exults at Milosz’s confident readiness to work in all the literary fields, as poet, critic, historian and philosopher. “By writing in every form, he writes virtually in one: and he instructs in all.”

But poetry is where it starts, even for Milosz. “The self in his poetry is not impersonal but effortlessly manifold.” Poetry is language at its closest to the world, and incorporates automatically an acceptance that the things of this world are actually there. For Bayley, Barthes's confident insistence that “the fact can only exist linguistically, as a term of discourse” is a sign of madness from the one theorist he regards as even half-way sane. He might have quoted T.E. Hulme in rebuttal: “Philosophy is about people in clothes, not about the soul of man.” Bayley is good about people in clothes. Wordsworth's poems “are like one's parents' clothes — always out of fashion.” But our critic, an accomplished poet himself when he was young, has the tools of technical analysis to tell you why Wordsworth will always be current, and why Tennyson deservedly became “a pop star, one of the most successful and famous ever.” Bayley can tell whether his subject poets have the palpable earth for a launch-pad when they lift off for higher realms. That useful emphasis runs out of road only when he gets to John Ashbery. According his own principles, Bayley ought to be powerfully delighted by the later Ashbery's unflagging determination to blend all of America's vernacular tones into “the natural voice of the contingent present,” a nice way of describing a slow avalanche of verbal hamburger. But scepticism shines through the praise. “Ashbery in his own way often sounds memorable...” The italics are a deliberate giveaway. Ashbery is out to mean everything by saying anything, and Bayley clearly suspects that the attempt is in danger of adding up to nothing, because there is nothing to keep in your head. Finally Bayley believes that all writing should aim to be remembered. It can't happen, but the possibility should be there. It is there everywhere in this fabulous flea-market of a book, which might have the additional merit of finally putting an end to the tediously recurring contention that book reviews should never be collected. Book reviewers who say that are right about themselves, but couldn't be more wrong about a man like this.

(TLS, May 27, 2005)


John Bayley was always too modest about his qualifications as a poet. I had read a lot of his criticism before I even found out that he had once written any poetry at all. One day at lunch Kingsley Amis gave me a copy, which he himself had typed out, of a poem by the young Bayley about Salammbô. I found it brilliant: rhythmically stately, packed with meaning, a lyrical argument of fully mature authority. Plenty of critics have written poetry in their youth but seldom on that level. It was a huge gift to repudiate. Similarly he was too shy about the work he put into learning to read languages. He should have said outright that he had found time to do so only because he hadn’t wasted time with literary theory. He could also have pointed out that the London literary world was enfeebled by its provincialism. One of the heroes of my book Cultural Amnesia is the above-mentioned Witold Gombrowicz. Only in London would a reviewer have reinforced his demonstration of my book’s frivolity by jokily supposing that Gombrowicz might be a made-up name, and only in London would a literary editor have let him do it. Gombrowicz didn’t go through all that, and create so much, in order to have his very existence questioned in the Sunday Times Culture section. The Culture section! If Bayley had taken his proper place as a whip-cracking literary ringmaster, he might have kept the boys up to the mark. But he was too nice for that.