The backward look

The Power of Delight: a lifetime in literature - essays, 1962-2002

John Bayley; selected by Leo Ca

In the introduction to The Power of Delight, a selection of essays from 40 years of John Bayley's "lifetime in literature", the author ponders the options of the young critic. Should he lay about him ferociously in all directions or should he be-come the smiler with the knife? Bayley chose the latter option. His reviews radiate generosity, and he is liberal with words such as "superb", "superlative" and "masterpiece". There are few hatchet jobs (though Anthony Burgess fares badly), and occasional sideswipes at fellow practitioners such as F R Leavis or Christopher Ricks remain within the bounds of decorum. But on closer inspection, Bayley's praise may be dangerous, as his essay on Angela Carter illustrates. Surveying her work in 1992, the year of her death, he brims with enthusiasm for her daz- zling versatility, but cannot resist pointing out, pertinently and perceptively, that "whatever spirited arabesques and feats of descriptive imagination Carter may perform she always comes to rest in the right ideological position".

Bayley has a running battle with ideology. He does not like it. His very title, taken from an article on the Polish-Jewish nov- elist Bruno Schulz, suggests "The Backward Look" (the title of Bayley's essay on Ivan Bunin). On more than one occasion he queries the view of Terry Eagleton, who wrote how "Keynes once remarked that those economists who dislike theory, or claimed to get along better without it, were simply in the grip of an older theory. This is also true of students and literary critics." Bayley finds this a worrying comment (as it is). He prefers the open- endedness of D H Lawrence's belief that the novel is "incapable of the absolute", which he frequently uses as a touchstone.

Bayley evades the contentions of theory by rejoicing in individual writers and by stressing the importance of details and events. His brilliant essay "The Order of Battle at Trafalgar" (1986) is a moving dissertation on the relationship between historical truth, critical perceptions and critical fashions. Here he outlines the dilemma of the "common critic" in today's professional climate, and his broad range of reference brings in Lionel Trilling, Roland Barthes, Dr Johnson, Keats, Wordsworth, Arnold Bennett, Julian Barnes and, most beautifully, Zbigniew Herbert on the contemplation of pebbles. It is a pleasure to follow the movement of Bayley's discursive mind as he makes unexpected connections, finds lines of poetry to illustrate his point, and sometimes even to illustrate his adversary's point. He cannot resist quoting Richard Wilbur's lines in reply to Johnson's stone-kicking refutation of Berkeley's idealism: "Kick on, Sam Johnson, till you break your bones,/But cloudy, cloudy is the stuff of stones . . ." They do not suit his argument very well, but they are good, and he wants us to know them, too, and we are grateful. This is open-ended, two-way discourse, which is rare.

His loyalties and likings are strongly stated, and some of them are very English. Anthony Powell's work and literary opinions pervade the volume, always invoked with a sense of familiar approval: Bayley loves the gossip, the Masonic rituals of this small but epic world. Philip Larkin is also a potent presence. Bayley's praise for Larkin's second novel, A Girl in Winter, as "a marvellous and sustained erotic prose poem" is eccentric, but he has a finely tuned ear for the poetry. He is good on Larkin's moments of arrest and "motions of withdrawal which are also motions of perpetuation". Larkin cheers us up, he tells us, because he reconciles us to our ills by the scrupulous way in which he notices them. He finds a similar joie de vivre in the graveyard gloom of A E Housman and W H Auden: "When Auden promises that 'In headaches and in worry/Slowly life leaks away,' the reader feels positively bucked up . . ." That is a very Bayley comment, and a characteristic example of his un-conventional deployment of critical vocabulary.

The Russians are Bayley's primary passion. There are ten essays here, some written before the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of Soviet ideology, some after. Bayley is engagingly modest about his acquaintance with the Russian language, which he studied in order to be able to read Pushkin in the original, but it is not clear how much he has to be modest about. He certainly knows enough to be able to give us the sound of a line: the articles on Boris Pasternak and Marina Tsvetaeva vividly convey a sense of the quality and music of the language, and make one wish one could have the discipline to learn enough to hear it for oneself. It must be satisfying to be able to inform the reader that a caper- caillie has been mistranslated as a grouse, but it is unhelpful to be told that Pasternak looked like a horse and that his name means "parsnip". Bayley is fond of these slightly reductive and gossipy snippets of information, some of which are endearing, while others, such as this one, are strangely disquieting.

Bayley enjoys flippancy and is often very funny, though his joke about Wordsworth being "always out of fashion" like one's parents' clothes is a bit of an own goal. He has an uneasy relationship with Wordsworth and with Arnoldian high seriousness, of which he seems to disapprove. Nevertheless, he is in search of a sense of value in literature, as well as delight, and is more serious than he likes to reveal. Perhaps that in itself shows him to be not quite free of the grip of an older theory.

Margaret Drabble's most recent novel is The Red Queen (Viking)