It's some cause for regret that John Bayley has become, in recent years, better known as the relict of Iris Murdoch than as a critic of awesome sharpness of insight and matchless breadth of learning. That more people – and people who consider themselves cultured and serious, to boot - will have read his scenes from a marriage and seen Richard Eyre's adaptation than will have even a glancing familiarity with The Characters of Love, decidedly reflects a general state of things. The long day of dedicated literary criticism wanes, the Bookbiz rumbles on.
Few book reviewers can boast the sheer joyful catholicity of Bayley's reading. It'd be fair to say that he knows more about nineteenth- and twentieth-century Russian literature than the average professor of Slavic Studies; he engages as surefootedly with American poetry (Ashbery, Merrill) as with Anthony Powell and Evelyn Waugh – attentive, with a wit that is apt to be sly but never less than generous. Something of the 'gentleman-amateur', or the old-style don: baggily rumpled in person, yet possessed of a fierce critical intelligence; an affable tweedy oddity who for all that can apply himself to the business of Appreciation. F.R. Leavis may never have contributed much to the gaiety of nations – moralists and ideologues rarely ever do. Bayley, on the other hand, meshes the blithe jauntiness of a Pickwick with the earnestness au fond of the Grand Cham himself...
The Power of Delight will be enough of a restorative, perhaps, to the eclipse of criticism - at least for those prepared to fork out for it and spend time among its 660 pages.
Bayley's civility is such that he generally restrains himself from critical snarking and sniping – but he can deliver barbs with the best of them. Examining two books on Balzac – V.S. Pritchett's biography and Barthes's S/Z, noting that “both are trying to reanimate Balzac's image for the modern reader, Pritchett by British empirical methods, Barthes by the latest style of Gallic formalistic analysis” – he dryly observes of the latter:
The results are certainly illuminating, but they will afford most profit to that numerous class of persons who have no instinctive enjoyment of literature and yet feel they ought to get something out of it.
It can certainly be a great relief, to turn to a literary critic who is a reader first and theoretician not at all – and who can extend courtesies to the work of the poets and novelists he discusses so fine and of such fair-minded tact that it makes the Stakhanovite efforts of the theory-mongers seem clumsy, coarse and misconceived:
The inculcation of a critical system is no substitute for the free play of Jamesian intelligence which, like taste itself, cannot be taught. For professionals, everything a literature course can and must be taught.
In the same review of Edward Said's The World, the Text and the Critic, Bayley reflects on this professionalisation of criticism, which by the eighties had become the speciality of the systematisers, and comes round to outing Said as the kind of essentially Arnoldian man of letters he himself approves of – at heart, more Sainte-Beuve than Foucault:
In a sense there is a real book inside Mr Said's official one, and the real book is relaxed and discursive, original, immensely learned, fluently written. It is essentially a book of essays, Victorian essays (perhaps we may soon revive that admirable Victorian critic, E.S. Dallas, who spoke of criticism, God help him, as 'the gay science'') that slip easily and illuminatingly from one thing to another...
Bayley is often twinkly and naughty in this way. And, for the most part, his observations are buttressed by the kind of assurance that comes of having nothing to prove. If he seems impatient at times – with Graham Greene, with Robert Lowell – it's in spite of himself. He makes for good company.
Update: You'll find a rather better account of Bayley's work here... :)