IDEAS AND THE NOVEL vividly illustrates both the charm and the limitations of casual conversation about literature. This brief book is the text of the Northcliffe Lecturers delivered in London by Mary McCarthy, and one can easily imagine that the lectures were a delight to the ear. The prose has an urbane poise and a clarity that are, alas, vanishing in contemporary writing on literature. McCarthy also exhibits the sprightliness and the capacity of shrewd perception that distinguished "The Fact in Fiction" and "Characters in Fiction," two fine essays on the nature of the novel which she wrote 20 years ago. As a critical argument about fiction, however, Ideas and the Novel lacks the incisiveness of those earlier essays because it ambles past a series of classic novels without a clear line of march, beginning with Henry James, then moving from Hugo and Balzac to Stendhal and Dostoevsky, with a few concluding observations on George Eliot and Dickens.

The chief problem with this sort of literary causerie is that it reviews a good deal more than it instructs. Perhaps some of the pages devoted to the simple retelling of what happens in the novels were unavoidable, but do we really have to be informed still another time that the heroes and heroines of 19th-century novels take the wrong kind of reading too seriously and tend to emulate dubious models? McCarthy does cast out a bright apercu from time to time as she wanders through these texts -- like the intriguing notion, unfortunately never elaborated, that there is an intrinsic connection between the proliferation of ideas and the proliferation of grubby facts in the classic -- but she seems oblivious of certain critics whose work is urgently relevant to her own topic. Her discussion is mainly centered on Stendhal's The Red and the Black and Dostoevsky's Crime and Punishment, two of the key novels considered by Rene Girard Deceit, Desire and the Novel; and I think her attempt to show how ideas operate in those two books would have gone deeper by referring to Girard's notion of the problematic "mediation" of desire, its distortion through the imitation of a third party. As for Dostoevsky, a virtually indispensable key to understanding the role of ideas in his books is the concept of the "polyphonic" novel put forth by the Russian critic Mikhail Bakhtin in Problems of Dostoevsky's Poetics. I suspect McCarthy's readings of Crime and Punishment and The Possessed, which are not much more than thematic summary, would have been sharpened by using Bakhtin's notion that Dostoevsky creates a compelling structure of challenge and response in giving free play to the autonomous voice of each character -- "voice" implying not only personal history and temperament but also ideological allegiance.

The book's casual manner also lends at times to a carelessness about the literary facts under discussion, something especially evident in the section on Stendhal. It seems to me quite imprecise, for example, to claim that Julien Sorel in The Red and the Black "has acute self-knowledge," though perhaps that is at least arguable as a point of interpretation. When, on the other hand, McCarthy asserts that what Stendhal actually thought of Napoleon "is not on record" and then proceeds to spin a hypothesis of an early pro-Napoleon ardor tempered by the disaster of the Russian campaign, she has simply not bothered to inform herself of the facts of the matter. Actually, Stendhal began two different biographies of Napoleon, both of which are in print, and commented frequently on Napoleon in his letters, journal and marginalia, all of which have been published. In his early twenties, as an enthusiastic supporter of the revolutionary ideal, he was vehemently anti-Bonapartist; only in retrospect, after the fall of Napoleon, did he develop a qualified nostalgic admiration for the deposed emperor and the vision of greatness he emboided.

What most essentially prevents Ideas and the Novel from moving beyond cultivated diversion to illumination is its haziness about the meaning of "idea." This term is variously construed as ideology, personal idee fixe, model of emulation, authorial didactic aim, philosophical or historical concept, and that looseness of usage leads to an underlying confusion. McCarthy's uncertainty about what she means by idea is probably what makes possible her astonishing conclusion that "Today . . . ideas are held not to belong in the novel." She herself then offers a paragraph of exceptions, but one might go on to observe that for some contemporary American novelists ideas are if anything too insistently central in the articulation of the fiction. Could one imagine a 19th-century novelist writing a book illustrating the political and epistemological dilemmas of entropy, like Thomas Pynchon's The Crying of Lot 49, or exploring the moral and ontological implications of probability theory, like Robert Coover's The Universal Baseball Association?

There is an arresting moment about halfway through Crime and Punishment when Raskolnikov's friend Razumihin, in a lengthy attack on socialism and its mechanistisic-positivistic view of human nature, pronounces the following words: "But what they want though it smells of death and can be made of india-rubber, at least is not alive, has no will, is servile and won't revolt!" The startling concreteness of the imagery in this intellectual analysis is a kind of dialectic response to the concrete images through which Raskolinikov's world has been rendered, with all its stenches, its sordid claustral clutter, and it is also a counterpoint to Raskolnikov himself, that wretched, shivering knot of rags -- anytime but antiseptic india-rubber -- hiding a fierce spark of will that makes him capable of both hideous crime and spiritual rebirth. This could well be taken as a miniature example of the link McCarthy proposes between the "garrets of intellectual labor" and the "basements and kitchens" of quotidian fact in the novel. With her resources of lively intelligence, had she tried to define this link more rigorously, showing how novels explore ideas by following their refraction through the whorled and scratched lenses of personality and circumstance, she might have produced an argument worthy of her challenging subject.