John Bayley's delight in the written word
Read! Reread! Well, maybe not Graham Greene
John Bayley's essays and reviews have circulated for more than 40 years in The New York Review of Books, The London Review of Books, and other journals. But these days he may be better known to many for his memoir of his late wife, the novelist Iris Murdoch, "Elegy for Iris," which was made into a film, "Iris."
Although he has taught English at Oxford for half a century, Bayley has consistently eschewed academic jargon and theories. He writes not for specialists, but for the general reader with an intelligent interest in books. A second, equally attractive feature of his criticism is summed up in the title of this hefty collection, "The Power of Delight": The 69 essays it contains are, by and large, appreciations of writers he admires and celebrations of works of literature that have given him delight.
Bayley's tastes - no, more than tastes, enthusiasms - are wide-ranging, embracing both the wafer-thin divertissements of P.G. Wodehouse and the profundity of Robert Musil; the comedic genius of Sterne, Austen, and Trollope along with the brooding confessional poetry of Robert Lowell; the distinctly British pleasures of Betjeman as well as the soul-searing testimonials of Solzhenitsyn.
Bayley has a particular interest in Russian literature and, for readers new to these authors, his essays on Pushkin, Gogol, Turgenev, Bunin, Babel, Pasternak, Akhmatova, and Tsvetaeva can serve as useful - and enticing - introductions.
Bayley himself observes: "I began to wonder if that wasn't, perhaps, the most valuable service a critic could render: not only inspiring a member of the reading public to read ... [a given] book, but to persuade some of them who had read it to read it again." Bayley has learned over the years that a great work of literature like "War and Peace" or "Don Quixote" often can be even better the second - or third, or fourth - time around.
Much as he enjoys being delighted, seeking out what is best in each writer he reads, Bayley is also adept at zeroing in on flaws and weaknesses. Of Evelyn Waugh he remarks: "... humor in fiction is about an interest in people, and Waugh had no such interest.... He knew how to combine sentiment of a very English sort with the new cynicism, a bracing heartlessness appropriate to the modern age. But when the formula failed, as with the character of Julia in Brideshead, we are virtually in the world of Ouida and the Sheiks."
He is even less enamored of Graham Greene, of whom he shrewdly notes: "However sophisticated his story there is indeed something basically childlike about Greene's good guys and bad guys, the former being mostly Communists and some Catholics; sinners and criminals and traitors; blacks and underdogs. The latter tend to include all establishment figures, the rich, the innocent, and Americans.... He is frivolous, but for me he is never genuinely funny; humor requires a simple enjoyment of life which is of course not in Greene's nature."
Occasionally Bayley's stance against what he regards as overly ingenious academic criticism becomes a bit of a pose and even a handicap. He may be right, for instance, to point out that Wordsworth was a family man or that Tennyson in his day was as widely idolized as a modern-day pop star. But in scoffing at the work of critics who have illuminated the heights and depths of these poets' imaginative genius, Bayley woefully undervalues their poetry, especially Wordsworth's.
For the most part, however, happening upon any of these pieces will likely whet your appetite, whether for rereading a favorite author or exploring an unfamiliar one. With his intelligent and informative essays on writers ranging from Dickens, Kipling, and Orwell to Bruno Schulz, Paul Celan, and John Cowper Powys, Bayley has provided plenty of food for thoughtful reading.
• Merle Rubin's book reviews have long appeared in the Monitor and elsewhere.