It’s either an ironic tragedy, or a bit of lucky fortune, to discover a great new writer just at the end of his life. This isn’t an epitaph; Clive James is not dead yet – “Near to death, but thankful for life” as a BBC documentary put it in March of this year. But in his latest volume of essays, James is quite forthright about how surprised he is that despite the veritable national convention of fatal illnesses that have congregated in his body, he’s somehow managed to do enough reading to produce a new book of literary criticism while battling them all.
I figured, given the circumstances, I’d put off reading James for long enough; and although it might seem more professional to start somewhere earlier in his extensive published oeuvre, the notion of starting at what might very well prove to be the end of a new favourite author’s collection, and then hunting down his dozens of previously published works – a lifetime’s worth — is indulgently delightful. I’d like to think it’s the sort of thing James himself would enjoy.
If James is anything – in fact, he is many things – he is well-read, and it comes through distinctly in his Latest Readings. One of those few remaining writers who still earns the title ‘polymath’ from those few remaining journalists who still know what it means, he’s worked as a literary critic, television host, journalist, editor, novelist, radio broadcaster, poet, translator and more. He’s also an obsessive reader, and this is the quality that emerges powerfully in these essays. We return, over and over, to the used bookstalls of London with him, from where despite his fatal diagnoses and his family’s objections he regularly returns home with bagloads of books. “(T)here they were, still in their thousands despite the recent winnowing. I roamed slowly among them: old purchases begging to be read again even as the new purchases came in at the rate of one plastic shopping bag full every week. Insanity, insanity. Or, as Johnson might have said, vanity, vanity.”
But, as he notes later in a rumination on the aesthetics of book shelving: “Being book crazy is an aspect of love, and therefore scarcely rational at all.”
James is book crazy, and it’s a quality that’s served him well over the years. But the curious charm of his book craze is that he’s never pedantic or pretentious about it. It’s the love of a book – not its technical merits – that grasps him first and foremost. “Finally you get to the age when a book’s power to make you think becomes the first thing you notice about it. You can practically sense that power when you pick the book up,” he writes. And even now, in his 70s, he still feels the joy of new discoveries.
“And goddam it, I have just found another accomplished and erudite American poet, in the books section of the Oxfam shop,” he writes, referring to American poet Lawrence Joseph. “I’m supposed to rest content with a comprehensive viewpoint marinated in experience, not to be jolted out of my bed-socks every five minutes by the belated discovery of someone who has been toiling away impeccably for decades writing exactly the sort of thing I have so often proclaimed indispensable. Further evidence, here, for a bittersweet truth: any overview of the cultural world, like any system of mathematics, can’t be complete without being false.”
The essays in this volume range widely: from the novels of Patrick O’Brian (Master and Commander), to the politics of former Australian prime minister John Howard, to new perspectives on Adolf Hitler, to the virtues of The West Wingand Game of Thrones. There’s writing on film, American politics, Shakespeare and modern poets few readers have probably ever heard of. He even reflects on his recent forays into “the web world, where nothing is supposed to go on for too long.”
What emerges more than anything is his love of books; of the writers and the written word alike. It is this quality which distinguishes him as a critic. Unlike many critics, whose critiques leave the reader feeling the vague unease of someone watching a street-fight and worrying they’ll get dragged into it, James is the sort of critic who manages to skewer someone – “he is a thorough writer, without being an attractive one” – yet leave the reader feeling secure and confident in the ennobling quality of the written word. “The critic should write to say, not ‘look how much I’ve read,’ but ‘look at this, it’s wonderful,” he writes, and he heeds his own advice.
Even when caustic and witty, his critiques exude warmth, suffused with a love and enthusiasm for his topics. Thus he can write about the “nastiness” of V.S. Naipaul – “the Kemal Ataturk of the Indian subcontinent”, “an autocrat” and “unreconstructed Brahmin”, yet appreciate him “for his style as a writer in English, not for his profundity as an Indian thinker.” James tells it like it is — “we read Naipaul for his fastidious scorn, not for his large heart” – and reassures those British who lament the looming loss of their final colony (Scotland) that Naipaul “gives you the sense that the language itself is the imperial inheritance that matters.”
James’ field of focus is dizzyingly vast, but he makes even the most disparate fields compelling. If it seems odd that so erudite and literary a scholar as James should have made his reputation partly as a popular culture critic (yet one who urges us to “run for the hills” when we hear film critics use words like semiotics), it’s because he applies to all these fields an ability to point unerringly and directly to the heart of the matter. Such as explaining our obsession with Hollywood scandal and ruin: “Essentially all the stories of Hollywood fallibility are the one story, differing only in who tells them best. The interesting news is not so much that weak men, when given power, are still weak, but that whole empires of production have been built up which incorporate human corruptibility, allow for it, and even thrive on it.”
James can both cast his critical net broadly – disposing in a single chapter of the books he considers essential reading to understand American power politics; and in the next chapter winnowing out generational differences in literature about World War II – as well as zero in on the minutiae of obscure poets and artists. He thrives on the sort of introspective, analytical reflection that says something not just about literature but about what it teaches us about the society that produces and engages with it. Why the fascination with period dramas about snooty British aristocrats? “Perhaps we loved reading about it out there in the colonies only because we, the colonized, were even more reluctant than the imperialists to let go of a dying empire.”
Among the many qualities of James’ writing has been his ability to frame literary criticism with the moving imagery of the poet. On the fiction of Anthony Powell: “Like the ruins of an abbey, there is something forlorn about its beauty, an air of desolation that makes you glad you have paid the visit, but just as glad not to be staying long. Even its laughter tastes of salt tears.”
And again, on the joy of reading Powell: “I relished the actual physical experience of consuming his little books like plates of sweets and grapes as I sat on my garden terrace while the heat gradually went out of a long summer.”
The press material for the book says James uses these essays to reflect on living and dying; that’s nonsense, really. He’s far too enthusiastic about his topics, and far too concerned with the fine art of making clever points to be concerned about such prosaic things as living and dying. But all good critics make their criticism a work in progress; one’s experiences with life shape one’s perspectives on art, and vice versa. This emerges – sparingly, and never didactically – in the essays.
For example, an essay on Joseph Conrad – the volume includes several essays on Conrad, to whom James has returned 50 years after first reading him – reveals the genius of Conrad, which is that he echoed James’ own political values, which have sparked controversy in recent years. “Conrad knew that unarmed goodwill was useless against armed malice. It was to be a lesson that the coming century would teach over and over, and so on into the present century: peace is not a principle, it is only a desirable state of affairs, and can’t be obtained without a capacity for violence at least equal to the violence of the threat.”
James’ reflections on his own deteriorating physical state are unabashed, and at times wry. He is reading a biography of Florence Nightingale, and turns it into a paean to his own nurses. Yet in one of the shortest and most perceptive essays I’ve yet read on Hemingway, he also chastises Hemingway for taking the quick way out of a deteriorating life: “His only way out was to destroy himself. He should have had aesthetic objections to that. It left a terrible mess, which his loved ones, to whom he knew he had been a burden, had to clean up. It was ungallant of him, and it wasn’t brave. A measure of his magnificence, however, is that we feel so sorry.”
“(U)nless you can criticize yourself, you are not a writer,” he declares (in an essay on Shakespeare and Johnson). And sure enough, in a later effort to contextualize Hollywood producer Julia Phillips’ cocaine habit, he generously describes the behaviour that now has him bound indelibly to his local hospital. “I drank too much, smoked cigarettes and cigars like an idiot, and at one period I was the kind of pothead who looked like a small cloud being propelled by a pair of legs.”
It is thus that his reflections on living and dying emerge; not pedantically but in his light and sparing prose style, through which the lessons of life and literature intertwine.
But what emerges, above all, is the great sense of love that propelled a literary life; an unrelenting faith in the power of the written word to challenge, improve and ennoble humanity. “It’s one of the good things about the study of literature: taste trumps prejudice,” he writes.
Latest Readings does what all good literary criticism does: offer the reader new worlds, and new ways of thinking about them. Hearing about what James is reading lately isn’t just a matter of narcissism or curiosity; it’s a source of new books for us to pursue, and new ways of combining books and writers to produce new ideas and perspectives on a changing world. For a book written near to death, with “the clock ticking”, there’s nothing depressing about this. It’s as light-hearted and enthusiastic as the best of his work; every passage a palpable pleasure and every essay full of provocative observations. And in an oblique aside, James shares what might very well be the secret of his inspiration: “time is not infinite, even though the love of art might seem to make it so.”