John Bayley: Tolstoy and the Novel. Chatto & Windus. 35s.

It would be fair to say that the theoretical framework of Tolstoy and the Novel is not materially different from Bayley’s early book The Characters of Love. Tolstoy is the greatest novelist because ‘he takes for granted and conveys with overwhelming assurance the authenticity of the individual vision’. Indeed the major claim for Tolstoy is that he is more than a novelist, that, at his greatest, the conventions of genre (including that of ‘realism’) are irrelevant to the reader’s sense of the ‘life’ that he conveys.

The questions that raise themselves are not different but are more emphatic than those raised in my essay ‘Character and Henry James’ (nlr 40). Isn’t Bayley using Tolstoy as a comforter of his own liberal theory? Comforter, that is, because so often we feel that Bayley’s initial assumptions are emotional and incoherent, that the axiom is dissolved in a puff of epigram. Does this, for example, really mean anything: ‘Tolstoy and Pushkin possess their characters though they do not control them: with Dostoevsky it usually seems the other way round’? Or is it really being pedantic to query this: ‘We might say that characters divide, but metaphors unite.’ by asking what on earth the word ‘character’ is if it isn’t metaphoric? The oed records the first instance of the word in the sense of a literary creation as being in Tom Jones (1749), so it has a very recent and genre-bound history.

There is a betraying phrase describing what happens to ‘the Superfluous Man’ after Dostoevsky. ‘He becomes the Underground Man . . . or in the cant term of our own day, the Outsider.’ It is tempting to say that only out of Oxford could come a phrase such as the italicized. But the donnish cliché is more than just a matter of tone. It is echoed again and again in the irritation with 20th-century literature, and indeed most 19th-century literature too (Balzac, Flaubert, Zola, George Eliot, James, Lawrence, Lukács, and Butor come in for a snort at some point). And this shows how utilitarian Bayley’s attitude to literature is. We always feel that Tolstoy hasn’t really changed him, but that he has taken what he needs. Of course, it should be added that the spectacle of an intelligent liberal taking what he needs is an interesting and illuminating one, and that it does offer genuine insights.