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HEARING that Robert Maxwell had disappeared somewhere off the Azores, I thought this was a subject for Joseph Conrad. Megalomania, money markets, mystery, fatality and ocean - only that gloomy genius could make sense of them. But reading Jenny Diski's review of Betty Maxwell's autobiography, I realised that another novelist was locking onto the subject like a heat- seeking missile. Here was the excitement of watching the artist as critic in full possession of what Henry James termed the donne - that is, the tiny moment of inspiration from a conversation, a paragraph in a newspaper, a Tess figure in a farmcart like a condemned prisoner.

Diski is fascinated by the Maxwells' marriage, and this means that as a critic she is open, exploratory, thinking aloud in a manner that is dramatic and absorbing. Which is a way of saying that the critic who doesn't proceed from a fixed position in order to arrive at a definite opinion is likely to take the reader with them. You feel Diski has taken a leap into an account of a relationship that must eventually end in her writing a novel which will explain it more fully. So this review is more than the exercise of intelligent critical judgment on an ephemeral book by a ludicrously self-deluding person - it is something like a preliminary to a work of art. It seems to swell before our eyes with the promise of an unwritten fiction.

In order to imagine the inner dynamics of the Maxwell marriage, Diski must invent a critical term to help the reader approach its special collusiveness. The term is "Coover's Maid", drawn from a "curious" novel by Robert Coover called Spanking The Maid. He calls her in to clean his room and make the bed. She does so, but some careless or clumsy detail - a wrinkle in the sheets, a drop of water spilled on the floor - spoils her efforts. The master is then obliged to punish her before ordering her to begin again. This happens over and over - the effort to make the room immaculate, the inevitable failure, the ritualised punishment. Dull and despairing, the narrator and the maid understand "the terrible circle of banality and reptition" in which they're both caught.

Diski isn't suggesting that spanking had any place between the adults in the Maxwell family: she applies Coover's story as a paradigm of a certain kind of sexual relationship. A quote from Betty's banal prose establishes the link: Robert would complain loudly when there was a button missing on his shirt or that she had forgotten to pack his cufflinks. They would quarrel and make up. A letter from Robert would tell "Betuska" that she had made "big strides" in becoming the "perfect partner" by the things she had done "like washing my clothes, or darning my socks". Betty would reply that she wanted to live for him, she wanted to "drown my soul in your desires". Perhaps, Betty would add, Robert would discover that "the half flayed creature you have stripped naked still deserves to be loved".

Betty emerges as a kind of fictional character who is boastful, pretentious, but possessed of a special emptiness and moral myopia which we long to understand. Yet Diski falters in her delineation of this servile survivor when she calls her "the perfect suburban lady honeycombed with dark subterranean desires".

Diski's use of a dismissive, aristocratic term "suburban" (a term which has been accepted unthinkingly by the left) is at odds with her account of Captain Bob's adventures in "the clubbable world of bankers" where he failed to prove "acceptable evidence of breeding". But by the closing paragraphs of her review, Diski is warming to this emotional, dominating opportunist who didn't understand the underlying rules and who once complained that when the boss of Norwich Union switched sides, during a take over, "Mr Watson threw a googly at me." Mr Watson replied: "Every Englishman knows you bowl a googly."

Diski's review is the sort of moment you find again and again in writers' correspondence - like that famous passage in a letter the young Hopkins wrote to a student friend which begins "a horrible thing has happened to me. I have begun to doubt Tennyson". Suddenly we're in the studio or the laboratory, waiting for something extraordinary to happen. Which is a way of saying that criticism ideally aspires to the meltshine of fluid process, with critics thinking aloud as they plunge into a subject and go with it they know not where.

We shall have to wait and see whether Jenny Diski writes a novel prompted by A Mind of My Own. But with luck she has added a new critical term to the language. Like "the male gaze", "Coover's Maid" should last a generation or two.

! Next week: Criticism and the law

For all the berating on his part and the grovelling on hers, Betty Maxwell comes across, not as a domestic doormat, but as a fully collusive partner in a very complicated relationship, which right from the start, is powerfully sexual. But the power is not, as it appears or as it is portrayed, entirely one sided.

The key to this kind of partnership is not actually the dominant member's demands, but the submissive one's power to elicit those demands while seeming to remain docile. "I never felt belitteled by deferring to his authority ... He was forever searching for that indefinable `something' which he sensed I was holding back. For my own part, I was convinced it was precisely that very chasse au bonheur - the chase for love so clearly depicted in Stendhal - that would keep him interested in me." Holding back is exactly what Coover's maid does in failing every time to perform perfectly. Every slip-up she makes is essential to the fulfillment of the narrator's happiness, and a gift she freely brings to the relationship. She is the only one who can break the contract by peforming her duties in such a way that no punishment is called for. Betty Maxwell, not tied to Maxwell for want of alternatives or money, is perfectly correct in attributing to herself a mind of her own.

Jenny Diski on `A Mind of My Own: My Life With Robert Maxwell' by Elizabeth Maxwell,

London Review of Books, 26 Jan 1995