13 JUNE 1987, Page 37

Beware of the dogma

William Scammell

THE ORDER OF BATTLE AT TRAFALGAR by John Bayley Collins Harvill, £12 Lionel Trilling occasionally wanted to live in a 'quiet place' beyond the snapping of literary-critical jaws, a place where one could 'know something — in what year the Parthenon was begun, the order of battle at Trafalgar, how Linear B was de- ciphered; almost anything that has nothing to do with the talkative and attitudinising present.' It is a familiar yearning; and so is the refusal to assuage it. (Where would a critic be without the giant Error to pursue and slay?) John Bayley endorses Trilling's humane impatience with the fads and fancies of the marketplace. These essays, chiefly on Russian and modern European literature, present us with the order of battle in one well-stocked mind, a mind working more often for détente than for confrontation.

Bayley is always readable, always cheer- ful, and nearly always wrong, which is a pity, because it gives civilised discourse a bad name. Begged questions, miscon- ceived or simplistic distinctions, and ques- tionable subtleties crop up on every other page. Consider this, for example, on Milan Kundera's The Unbearable Lightness of Being:

so amazingly better than anything he has written before that the reader can hardly believe it, is continually being lost in asto- nishment . . . this new novel dissolves my distinction [between the 'truths' of Nietz- sche, Kafka, Dostoevsky, and those of Tol-

stoy and Trollope] while at the same time drawing attention to it . . . Whether it will last, whether one will want to read it again, are more difficult questions to answer.

The first proposition is false, the second bingeing on one of those thumping great dichotomies — is silly, the third is bathetic, cutting the ground from under his own wandering feet. One minute Kundera is a `flashy' writer, interested only in 'sexual discussion and gossip', the next he is 'like Stendhal' or 'as moving as . . . Kafka.' Well, which? Stendhal, or Kafka (they're not very alike, after all), or rubbish?

Or take this, on the last stanza of Larkin's 'Next, Please', with its memorable image of a tlack-/Sailed unfamiliar, tow- ing at her back/ A huge and birdless silence . . . '. Bayley comments:

The theme of the poem and its central image are as graphically simple as a lyric of Heine or Housman, yet the inside of the poem is more mysterious than any of theirs. The word `birdless' shows why: its refusal to carry any double sense — the sense of 'bird' as `girl' — which in a clever modern poem would be proffered as, so to speak, standard practice, helps to fill the end of the poem with the almost palpable blankness that it tells us of.

First the large unsupported assertion that Larkin is more 'mysterious' than Heine or Housman (how? why?), then the mythical clever modern poet who would have pun- ned on tirdless' (who?), and finally the supposed discovery of a causal relationship between an unused meaning and the 'palp- able blankness' of the poem's theme. The blankness here is all the critic's, who did not have the sense to throw away an irrelevant thought; or to note the power in that archaic noun 'unfamiliar', whizzing us back to Elizabethan-Jacobean usage, and thus invoking the pomp of innumerable haunting lines on death by Larkin's great predecessors — a pomp deliberately juxta- posed with the deflationary colloquialism of 'till then' and 'next, please'. When it comes to Russian literature, many of Bayley's manoeuvres are equally questionable. There is a spectacularly un- generous account of Solzhenitsyn's charac- ter and art (`not . . . particularly attractive . . . old hat . . just another species of the old guard'), grounded in a modish appeal to the supposed interests of 'the young', and a correspondingly sentimental over- estimate of Turgenev, endemic in Western commentators.

One feels that Turgenev's novels should have increased in stature by virtue of their wise and civilised impartiality, while those of Tolstoy and Dostoevsky should appear more and more clearly as having been written by opinionated fanatics. But art does not work that way.

This comes close to his brother-professor John Carey's view, tirelessly reiterated in his Sunday Times reviews, that writers are mostly dubious creatures who could not be trusted to wait their turn for coffee in the senior common room, and who would in all likelihood pee in the bathtub. If 'art does not work that way' what way does it work, one wants to ask, and why on earth should we admire it? Turgenev's 'nobility of spirit' and 'uninfectious common sense' contrasts with the presumably poisonous genius of Tolstoy and Dostoevsky, but we are never shown how this could be so. This is muddled English niceness with a vengeance, raising undefined notions of `decency' to the level of a universal crite- rion, and directing the two giants of Russian fiction firmly to the tradesman's entrance.

On the credit side, Bayley is good on Hardy, rightly preferring Millgate's biogra- phy to Gittings's testy disapproval (`Git- tings was doing to Hardy . . . what Lytton Strachey had done many years before to the eminent Victorians'); excellent on Ter- ry Eagleton and the new clerics of literary theory (`Theory braces, culture relaxes'); and bracingly resistant to fads ('When the novel begins to insist that it is all made up, it tends to strike the reader as not made up at all'). A critic friend of mine, to whom I showed this new collection of essays, claims that Bayley is in fact a model reviewer. 'What he expects from critics is what he expects from creative writers: a refusal to swagger, push or bully; in short, an evasion of monologue . . . Dialogue rather than dogmatism.' Fair enough. But note the implicit claim for equal status between writer and critic. A dialogue — to adapt Henry James's magisterial comment on the novelist's quality of mind — is only as good as the dialoguists.