The critic in the shadow

John Bayley may be better known for his late wife, Iris Murdoch, but a new collection of his criticism recalls the powerful talent beneath his retiring manner. Louise Jury meets him
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The Independent Culture

When Clive James was a young writer, he had a drunken row with Kingsley Amis, who was adamant that critics must be poets. The Australian suggested that the Oxford don John Bayley must be an exception to the rule. No, said the irascible Amis, and presented his trump card. "Bayley is a poet, too," he said. A few days later, Amis dispatched an example of the academic's poetry to James to prove it.

When Clive James was a young writer, he had a drunken row with Kingsley Amis, who was adamant that critics must be poets. The Australian suggested that the Oxford don John Bayley must be an exception to the rule. No, said the irascible Amis, and presented his trump card. "Bayley is a poet, too," he said. A few days later, Amis dispatched an example of the academic's poetry to James to prove it.

Although James retold the story at Professor Bayley's 80th birthday party last month, a majority of readers today will not even know his criticism, let alone his poetry or novels. On account of the Alzheimer's disease that struck Iris Murdoch, his wife, Bayley is now famous for having written two memoirs of their time together, which were made into the film Iris, starring Judi Dench and Kate Winslet as the older and younger Iris, and Jim Broadbent and Hugh Bonneville as Bayley himself.

The books were international bestsellers, although a third volume in the series, Widower's House, sparked some less favourable reaction because Bayley had fictionalised love affairs he had after her death.

But this week comes a book that tilts Bayley's reputation back towards the literary rather than the revelatory. His British publishers, Duckworth, are publishing a 656-page volume of his criticism. Leo Carey, an editor at The New Yorker, has trawled 40 years of writings from The New York Review of Books, the London Review of Books and other publications, to present The Power of Delight: A Lifetime in Literature - essays 1962 - 2002.

It seems a fitting reminder of Bayley's own claims as an intellectual heavyweight. Peter Mayer, managing director of Duckworth, says he never did think of Bayley as Mr Iris Murdoch, because he was undeniably one of Britain's finest critics. "His range is so extraordinary. It's a world of reading, but he's also able to write normally and naturally, entirely free of jargon. He gives us not only plain-spokenness, but also humour."

Yet Bayley himself would seem to have no qualms about being remembered for his wife. Speaking at his home in Oxford, his thoughts return repeatedly to the woman who was, and manifestly remains, the sun into whose orbit he fell half a century ago and from whose pull he has never escaped. He can scarcely be drawn on himself. "I don't want to be known about. I just like to lead a quiet life and not have to do much and to be left alone. I don't want to appear a case of inverted vanity, but I don't think the sort of thing I do should last."

Criticism, though of value, is very insignificant, he says, though he used to enjoy it and still does, now and again. He used to enjoy teaching, too, though he was astonished when he got academic tenure. "I felt I had done a piece of successful cheating, as one often does when one manages to get a job." But it is Murdoch who still makes him happy. "What gives me the greatest pleasure these days is to find people are still reading her books," he says.

Yet he, too, has a talent, which dazzled Oxford when he became a fellow of New College in 1955, five years after graduating with first-class honours. From 1974 to 1992, he was the Warton Professor of English. Academics say his modesty is characteristic. One contemporary says: "He was very highly thought of. It wasn't that everybody agreed with his critical stance because critics have their own line of thought, but he commanded great respect, absolutely no doubt."

Yet for those fearful of an intimidating intellectual challenge in the new volume, there are delightful asides on author's drinking and sexual habits. "William Wordsworth's poems are like one's parents' clothes - always out of fashion," he observes in one essay. The true odds of Russian roulette are revealed as being significantly less than one in six, in a piece on Graham Greene (because the weight of the bullet pulls it downwards and away from being fired when the revolver barrel is spun).

He thinks Carey appears to have done an excellent job of digging them out, though he has not yet read the whole volume. "I was pleased when some people said there were some nice jokes in it." What is striking is the breadth of reading, most notably his knowledge of Russian writers. He taught himself Russian to understand Pushkin better, because the poet does not read well in translation. He also reads Italian, German and French.

The volume, which he believes will be his last, was produced at the instigation of his publisher, Bob Weil of Norton, who also suggested Bayley should write the Iris memoirs. "With Iris, he said rather wisely that he thought I would find it rather comforting to write about the situation and also that it would be a good way of making propaganda for the Alzheimer's Society," he recalls.

These days, he does not read many new books but reads the old ones time and again. Barbara Pym is a favourite, as is his old friend Anthony Powell. Before his Iris memoirs, most of his own publications were academic tomes such as Pushkin: A Comparative Commentary or The Romantic Survival: A Study in Poetic Evolution, but Bayley has made forays into fiction. His first book, In Another Country, was published in 1954, the year his future wife also ventured into print. But he did not try fiction again until she encouraged him to produce Alice in 1994. "We were on holiday in Italy with our friends Audi and Borys Villers and I looked out of the window early one morning and saw a striking looking woman wearing a purple bikini. She walked down into the sea at Sorrento. She seemed so intriguing. Iris said, 'Why don't you write a story about her?'"

He was very pleased when it won a handful of good reviews. It became the first in a trilogy because the professor fell in love with his characters. Murdoch never did. "She was cold-blooded about her characters. She would absolutely dismiss them, which is a much more effective way of working. She was a real writer and knew how to do it... Writing for me was always an effort."

He seems moderately content today in a life he now shares with Audi Villers, whose husband died. They married a year after Murdoch's death. Though Villers maintains a home in Lanzarote, her frequent visits have tamed the dirt and chaos of Bayley's Oxford home, as described in Widower's House, the book that got him into trouble when he described how he was pursued by Margot and Mella. "All the things in it were perfectly true but the names had to be changed," he says, with a twinkle in his eye. "It is certainly true that I had one or two adventures with ladies who, how shall I put it, seemed to think that I required looking after." His second marriage largely put an end to the flirtations.

Neither he nor Murdoch ever regretted their marriage and her fame gave him "enormous pleasure", he says. He is certainly protective of her work and is adamant that her notebooks will not be published. Asked where her place will be in history, he answers with a seriousness completely absent from any discussion of his own writings. She should survive with the greats such as Dickens and Dostoevsky. "I think she is a really great writer but one never knows."

He, for one, will never forget her. "There are some religions or tribes in Africa who believe that you die twice," he says. "The first time you just die in the ordinary way, but you don't really die until people cease to be aware of you. Then you become a small ant heap in the bush. It will be a long time before she comes to the ant-heap stage."

'The Power of Delight: A Lifetime in Literature - essays 1962-2002' is published by Duckworth (£25)

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