John Bayley is a critic and novelist. His books include Elegy for Iris and The Power of Delight: A Lifetime in Literature.

What Henry Knew

Originally one of the Cinque Ports of South England, the old town of Rye organizes a festival every summer which usually includes a talk on Henry James, who for some years lived in, and finally owned, Lamb House, a dignified eighteenth-century residence of modest size near the church. When invited …

Sex & the City

Strangers—the word was once homosexual slang—is a glorious book packed with information and historical comedy, while the writing has a kind of sly and serious charm about it. Graham Robb’s study of nineteenth-century homosexual culture is largely about gay characters and themes in literature. The atmosphere is dense and rich, …

Chameleon Genius

As a poet himself W.B. Yeats felt the need for a poet to make his choice. He could not single-mindedly both pursue his gift and become a man of action and of the world as well. “Perfection” must be sought in one sphere of living or another. This was by …

Silent Music

Like most other kinds of writing, literary criticism is subject to its own successive spells of fashion, styles, and movements bred by the society it is born into. It seems a long time now since the days of the ideological critic: men like George Lukács on the European continent, Lionel …

Not Just for Children

Children at the moment are made far too much of by the press, television, and movies: childish characters are beginning to invade the adult world of the TV thriller, sentimentalizing its stark effects or being clever beyond their years. When I was a child I disliked children’s books, or thought …

Haunted by the Russian Devil

Ever since Gogol’s extraordinary fantasy “The Nose,” about a pompous captain’s nose which starts to lead a life of its own, Russian authors have had a peculiar gift for mingling the cheerful freedom of unresponsible fantasy with the seriousness of social and political satire. In the twentieth century Zamyatin and …

Scratch a Russian

In an early chapter of Tolstoy’s War and Peace, Natasha, the young Countess Rostov, goes on a visit to “Uncle,” an old family friend, once an army officer, who has “gone native” and lives in a wooden cottage in the forest with his mistress, a comely serf from the local …

Sterne’s Great Game

The cover of Ian Campbell Ross’s admirable biography displays a picture wholly in keeping with its subject. A clerical gentleman, long-nosed and lank of form, attired in decorous black coat and breeches and a neat gray tie-wig, is amiably confronting the skeletal form of Death, who raises an outsize hourglass …

The King’s Trumpeter

Before Kipling, the art of polemics in poetry had scarcely been practiced in England since the days of Dryden and Pope. Apart from his other achievements in verse and prose, Kipling revived this art, and he transformed it as well. Dryden and Pope were professionals, superb artists in social and …

The Hard Hitter

Like so many men who made their mark on the twentieth century, Isaac Babel began as a Jewish revolutionary; like so many of them, too, he died disillusioned and by violence. But in the process he had become one of the century’s most remarkable writers. He became famous in Russia …

Fresh Oysters

Before the smoking ban it might have happened that a lively young instructor running a creative writing course and picking up an ashtray from his or her desk could have said, “Well, class, for our next assignment I want you to write me a story about this ashtray.” The class …

What Happened to the Hippopotamus’s Wife?

There has been a general feeling during my writing life that we cannot know the past—often extended into the opinion that we therefore should not write about it…. Postmodernist writers…have felt free to create their own fantasy pasts from odd details of names, events and places. If we can’t know …

The Last Puritan

In Anthony Powell’s Memoirs, which contain a great many shrewd and perceptive observations about writers of the memoirist’s time, there is a little anecdote which, trivial as Powell admits it to be, sheds a great deal of light on George Orwell’s complex character. Powell had left the room to fetch …

A Passage to Colombo

The art of writing about distant places, exotic places, has always been widely practiced in the novel. In the days of “the mysterious East” Kipling and Conrad and many a lesser writer made their reputations in this way. They knew about the East at first hand, but they deployed their …

The Greatest!

We all like to think of the Bard as our own. For homosexuals he is undoubtedly one of themselves; soldiers with a taste for scholarship are quite certain he must have been in the army; men of the law point to his remarkable knowledge of their mysteries; aesthetes like Lytton …

Phantom Observations

According to Mark Twain, Sir Walter Scott was read to excess among the gentlefolk of the Southern states, who imbibed from him outdated notions of chivalry and honor. It may be so, but Scott is read today—if indeed he is read at all—for very different reasons. In spite of all …

Pushkin’s Shakespearean Lover

In England and Russia, Shakespeare and Pushkin are the two great writers, the national writers. There has never been any doubt about that; nor has any change in literary fashion or in cultural attitudes done anything to alter what has always been taken for granted. In one sense this is …

It Happened at Elsinore

As any good edition of Shakespeare will tell you, the old tales that lead up to Shakespeare’s Hamlet are well documented. It looks as if Updike was browsing in such an annotated Shakespeare when the notion occurred to him of fitting together the older versions, and then joining them up …

The Heart of the Matter

India, which once so much fascinated writers from the West as different in their outlook as Rudyard Kipling and E.M. Forster, has come today to exercise the same degree of writerly fascination over its own youthful intelligentsia. The oddity and yet the inevitability of this is brilliantly revealed by the …

It Happened One Night

“This book is the story of a single night, the night of Isaiah Berlin’s visit to Anna Akhmatova in Leningrad in November 1945,” György Dalos writes. “It is a love story, the story of a love that became a focal point in the life of the poet, giving meaning to …

Eminent Victorian

That famous opening of L.P. Hartley’s novel The Go-Between—“The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there”—has become a cliché of the present time. But some things in the past are more different than others. Isaiah Berlin used to say that some things change and some things don’t, …

The Strange Death of Pushkin

Death and poetry have an attraction for each other. Auden writes of the genre of poets as comprising those “who die so young, or live for years alone.” The disjunction was especially marked during the Romantic era. Many, and of the best, died young. Some, like Wordsworth and Coleridge, lived …

Under the Overcoat

“Gogol was made uneasy by his works,” notes Richard Pevear in his introduction to his and Larissa Volokhonsky’s admirable new translation of the collected tales. It is an understatement that would have appealed to Gogol himself. He came to regard his extraordinary gift for writing prose as something sent from …

Green and Secretive Islands

For centuries now poetry and prose have been growing further and further apart. As prose has become dominant poetry has lost its old authority and freedom and become more sensitive and self-conscious, more provincial even. Like a minority language, it is spoken only among its own people, the poets who …

What Follies and Paradoxes!

We all know the story of the man who observes, looking backward at some failed experiment, “Well, you know, it seemed like a good idea at the time.” He may have been a scientist, a political theorist, or a repentant fanatic. He may also well have been a Russian, for …

To the Pith of London’s Heart

Inveterate novel-readers, not a common tribe today, can still be both fascinated and comforted by a vision of history, and by a novel confident enough to supply one. Sir Walter Scott’s is still a potent spirit, although his novels, once in the background of every literate mind that loved the …

The Way We Write Now

Poets must often write to cheer themselves up, and in so doing the good ones can cheer up their readers as well. Thomas Hardy’s passionate love lyrics to his dead wife, the wife to whom when she was alive he had paid very little attention for thirty years and more, …

Under the Overcoat

Russian writers of the nineteenth century—Dostoevsky set the example—used to say they had all come out from under Gogol’s “Overcoat.” Many of the younger ones could say the same today about Yury Miloslavsky—of all the post-1970s Russian writers, the blackest in humor, the most streetwise, most nihilistic and disillusioned. Disillusioned …

The Naked Truth

A man urges a younger man, of much higher social status, to consider his duty to have children for his own good and that of his family: This were to be new made when thou art old, And see thy blood warm when thou feel’st it cold. (Sonnet …