John Bayley on British Wit


From the Archive


John Bayley with Iris Murdoch, 1980.

The New York Times has reported that John Bayley died last week at eighty-nine. A literary critic and Oxford don, Bayley was best known for his vivid, searching memoir, Elegy for Iris, about his married life with Iris Murdoch, who in the late nineties had fallen deep into Alzheimer’s disease. “To feel oneself held and cherished and accompanied, and yet to be alone,” he wrote. “To be closely and physically entwined, and yet feel solitude’s friendly presence, as warm and undesolating as contiguity itself.”

But Bayley was a keen critic, too. Remembering him in the Guardian, Richard Eyre writes,

John was a brilliantly readable reviewer, often witty and sometimes waspish, but invariably bearing the authority of a man who could speak knowledgeably of all European cultures. He believed that the point of literature was to make sense of the world, and, although shy and unassertive, he was a blazingly confident guide to how and where to discover those truths. If I were looking for an epitaph for him it would be from Tolstoy: “We can know only that we know nothing. And that is the highest degree of human wisdom.”

In our Spring 1998 issue, The Paris Review asked thirteen British writers to answer questions about the state of the nation’s literature. Bayley was one of them—here, to remember him, are the two questions he answered.

Why is wit so strongly indigenous to British writing?

I’m not sure the English novel, taken as a whole, is particularly witty but I am sure it’s full of humour. There’s not a clear distinction between the two but there is a difference. Jane Austen is both witty (see the first sentence of Pride and Prejudice) and humorous, but her humour goes deeper, is less comprehensive, less definable. Why should it be so funny for instance when Emma’s father Mr. Woodhouse—himself a wonderfully humorous portrait—keeps boring his family and the reader with some riddle about “Kitty, a fair but frozen maid.” It doesn’t sound funny here but in the book it is—very funny—and as with all true humour one can’t really say why. Barbara Pym, a contemporary novelist and in a sense a disciple of Jane Austen, is very funny too in this way if you like her novels—some people don’t. Humour, like taste, is unaccountable.

P. G. Wodehouse (no relation of Jane Austen’s family in Emma) comes into a third category: he makes jokes. Sometimes the jokes don’t come off: more often they do. And they can also be both witty and humorous, like the man “who looked as if he had been poured into his suit and forgotten to say ‘when.’ ” That is good-natured, like all humour. Henry James can be much sharper but equally humorous, as when he says that a society lady is “like a creature who perched upon twigs.” If he had said “like a bird” it wouldn’t have been funny at all. As it is, there is a grotesque element in the idea of an elderly woman twittering away among the branches that is irresistibly comic. And true humour animates a novel more than anything else.

Does the Booker ever get it right?

Having been a Booker chairman myself, I don’t see how it can. One of the joys of the novel is that no two readers agree about the merits of any single one of them. It is the most subjective form in the whole spectrum of art. If War and Peace were to be submitted, he can be quite sure that the jury would split fifty-fifty. Half of them would say it was too long, contained too much boring history, was too much about the upper classes … no novelist can ever do more than please some of his readers for some of the time, and that is how it should be.

Dan Piepenbring is the web editor of The Paris Review.