Clive James Proves That Great Literature Is Not Dead

Clive James’ Latest Readings provide a source of inspiration, wit, and lessons about life and art.

Latest Readings

Publisher: Yale University Press
Length: 192 pages
Author: Clive James
Price: $25.00
Format: Paperback
Publication date: 2015-08

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.”


Spawning Ground

David Antrobus

In this ancient place of giant ferns and cedars, it seems the dead outnumber the living; the living fall away too quietly, too easily, taken away by stealth. There is tremendous natural beauty here, but its hold is tenuous, like moss clinging to rotting bark that will ultimately break and sink into the forest floor.

If I were to choose a visual symbol of my adopted home of Mission, an average-size town in the impossibly green western Canadian province of British Columbia, I would probably come up with a rotting carcass in a verdant pasture, a vision of death amid life. If this sounds harsh, hear me out and I'll tell my own truth about this place.

Clinging to the swift-scoured, salmon-haunted northern bank of the mighty Fraser River like an ailing lamprey to the deadly smooth flank of a Great White, this town, situated about 70 kilometers east of Vancouver, owes its entire existence to the water of its rivers and lakes, and to the wood harvested from the dense, surrounding forest. Settled in the mid-19th century, Mission has managed to survive despite two serious floods, a bridge collapse, the ominous early signs of malaise in the natural resource sector (did we really think the salmon and the great conifers were infinitely, magically renewable?), and a general reputation for unfocussed, redneck belligerence.

It all comes down to the Fraser River. The river has brought both food and trade; it provides a thoroughfare upon which the people of Mission (among others) float the great log booms that are the defeated renderings we humans fashion from the vast tracts of coastal rainforest (cedar, spruce, fir, hemlock) in our seemingly inexhaustible compulsion to exploit her resources and bring Mother Nature to her matronly knees — in part because (we believe) we can.

But the details about life in this town — the jeweler murdered in a robbery, the pretty high school graduate killed by a drunk driver, the 14-year-old suicide — in fact, all the jostling narratives crowding like paparazzi, each insisting on exclusive front page drama, bubble and coalesce and ultimately conspire to reveal the hidden Mission. There is a dark vortex lurking beneath the seemingly placid surface; the ominous shadow of something ancient beneath sun-dappled waters. Even the countless apparent banalities playing out on the town's rural borders disguise something deeper, more clandestine: the hobby farmer up in MacConnell Creek bemoaning his exhausted well; the entrepreneur hungry for an investment opportunity, eager to transform the hillsides of quiet, bucolic Silverdale into sudden, lockstep suburbia; the hiker mauled by a black bear in the mountains north of Steelhead. And always, the numerous lives derailed by marijuana grow-op busts. For all the gradual liberalisation of laws at the consumer end of this local economic rival to wood and water, those who supply the celebrated crop usually feel the full force of Canadian justice, anyway. There are times when nothing in Mission seems devoid of some kind of meaning.

A monastery sits above this town, a Benedictine haven of alternating silence and the evocative clatter of Sunday Matins bells. Its tower is phallic and disproportionately defiant, rising above the landscape like a giant darning needle, casting its intrusive shadow over the patchwork quilt of human settlement as if to stitch a final tableaux, symbolically and definitively, of the history of the original inhabitants and their mistreatment at the hands of the white settlers. Said inhabitants were (and are) the Stó:lo people (their language, Halq'eméylem, was an exclusively oral tradition, so the words are spelled phonetically nowadays). Stó:lo territory stretched along the river valley from present-day Vancouver to Yale in the Fraser Canyon, a 170 kilometer swath of virgin, fecund land, teeming with such totemic creatures as salmon, ancient sturgeon, deer, black bear, cougar, coyote, beaver, and wolf.

The Stó:lo, a Native American (or First Nations) people belonging to the larger group of Central Coast Salish, settled this area around 10,000 years ago. Europeans, attracted by rumours of gold, arrived in the 1850s. The resulting clash of cultures did not work out well for the indigenous people, and today they are still recovering from the trickle-down effects of at least one generation having been torn from its extended family. Residential schools, for which the monastery in Mission is a present-day symbol, were sites of a particularly virulent form of cultural genocide. First Nations children across Canada were taken from their homes, often exposed to physical and sexual abuse and occasionally murder, their mouths scoured with soap if they even dared to utter their own languages. St. Mary's in Mission, founded in 1861 and relinquished in 1984, was the last residential school in Canada to close.

There are 82 Indian Reserves in the Fraser Valley. There are eight correctional institutions, two in Mission alone (Aboriginal people represent around four percent of the Canadian population, yet account for 18 percent of the federally incarcerated population). Somebody — something? — really likes to control and segregate people, around here.

This fragmentation is reflected in the odd demographics of the town in general. Leaving their multicultural mark have been, at various times, Italians in Silverdale, Swedes in Silverhill, the French in Durieu, the Japanese in the early years of the fruit industry (as in the US, the Japanese were rewarded for their labours by being sent to internment camps in 1942), and immigrants from India in the early days of the shake and shingle mills. (The Western Red Cedar, with its straight grain, durability, and imperviousness to the incessant rain, while inspiring Native culture with the quixotic grandeur of totem poles, grabbed more prosaic European imaginations in the form of the shake and shingle industry, which provides reliable roofing and siding components for homes.)

In some ways, Mission is a vibrantly conflicted example of Canada's multicultural mosaic. With just over 30,000 residents (of which 3,000 are First Nations) mostly crammed into a relatively small area, bordered by the river to the south and the mountains to the north, mill workers and biker gangs, artists and Mennonites, muscle car boys and summer folkies, soccer moms and Sikh Temple-goers, merchants and pagans, Freemasons and caffeine addicts, street people and Renaissance Faire anachronisms all rub shoulders with varying degrees of friction, occasionally achieving harmony in spite of themselves. Perhaps the relative accord is due to the overall youth of the population (73 percent are under 35-years-old).

Earlier, I mentioned the presence of death. Why? Because it is everywhere here, its proximity eerily palpable. It inhabits the sly rustle of the towering conifers. It taints the air with the swampy pungency of skunk cabbage in springtime. It hums incessantly in the sub-woofer buzz of the hydroelectric dams. It shuffles along in the downcast, scuff-shoed limp of a lone child returning to a chilly home. From a distance, even the monks in their dark cassocks, knit-browed and bound by their vows of silence, seem eerily close to the Reaper caricature. For actual evidence of its pervasiveness, though, one need not go far back in time.

The bodies of three women were dumped between here and neighbouring Agassiz back in '95. Suicides and the furtive aftermath of murder, barely registering in the town at all, have spattered Burma Road, a potholed strip of rocks and dirt skirting the shore of Stave Lake. In 1997, Doug Holtam of Silverdale (a small community west of Mission) bludgeoned his pregnant wife and six-year-old daughter to death with a hammer. Against all odds, his young son Cody survived the attack. In 1995, a drunk driver, leaving in his wake not only the proverbial outpouring of community grief but also a devastated twin sister, killed 18-year-old Cindy Verhulst during the week she and her peers were busy celebrating their high school graduation. There was the little boy who slipped away from his day care centre and drowned in the swollen Fraser River. The 12-year-old boy found hanging from a school washroom towel dispenser. The elderly pilot whose body was discovered in dense forest a full two years after he had gone missing. And there was Dawn-Marie Wesley, a 14-year-old Native girl who took her own life in the basement of her home after enduring relentless bullying at school; barely noticed in life, Oprah material in death.

As disturbing and tragic as these stories are, however, there was little precedent for the breaking news in the summer of 2003. This one will need a little background.

Since the mid-'80s, women have been disappearing from Vancouver's Downtown Eastside, Canada's poorest postal code. Partly due to the initial incompetence of the Vancouver Police Department and jurisdictional issues with the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP), partly due to the amorphous (read: investigative nightmare) nature of the disappearances, and partly because so few people cared about missing hookers and addicts, more and more women went missing, with nary a ripple in the public consciousness (or conscience). In fact, as of this writing, a horrifying total of 65 individuals are currently on the Missing Women list. For years, law enforcement didn't even refer to their disappearance as crimes, and it wasn't until 1998 that an official task force was even assigned to investigate.

Finally, in February 2002, Robert William Pickton, a pig farmer from the Vancouver suburb of Port Coquitlam (approximately half way between Vancouver and Mission), was charged with two counts of first-degree murder of two of the missing women. More charges followed in the months ahead. Pickton currently faces 15 counts of first-degree murder with seven more expected. DNA samples of 31 women have been linked to his 10-acre farm. In short, potentially the largest serial murder case in Canadian history is now underway just 35 kilometers from Mission.

Given the frequent intrusion of death into the area, I suppose it should have surprised no one when, on 20 July 2003, the missing women's joint task force announced they would be searching an area of wetlands near Mission. Just south of Highway 7 (aka the Lougheed Highway) and the man-made body of water known as Silvermere (itself the subject of a delightfully creepy urban legend or two), the area is basically marshland bisected by a meandering slough. Immediately following the announcement of the search, the site was fenced off with temporary chain link, and the highway's wide shoulders — traditionally home to roadside fruit and flower vendors hawking their locally grown products — were suddenly and unequivocally off-limits.

Driving this formerly innocuous stretch of blacktop, especially under the after-dusk arc lights, with their swirling bug armadas and liquid island oases in the dark, now touched off an indescribably eerie feeling. It was a relief when, on 8 August, the entire ensemble of law enforcement personnel (numerous forensic investigators plus 52 anthropologists) took up their tools again and vanished. They gave no word of what they had uncovered or even whether anything had been found at all, leaving our community to its familiar, fitful dreams once more. Mission's part in this unfolding story, as it relates to the wider world, remains amorphous and indistinct, with its usual chilly glints of barely suppressed horror flickering amid the overall grey.

Here, it seems, empirical proof takes a back seat to rumour and anecdote every time.

Sometimes, while hiking alone in the tree-bejeweled mountains west of Steelhead, east of the dams, I have suddenly felt the fetid breath of graves, a harsh raven-shadow lurking behind the abundant emerald and olive greens of this sodden paradise. Inexplicable noises in the deep tangled brush; distant rending, gnashing. Something skulking and hungry. With all the assured rationality of the white male immigrant, I've been known to smirk at the idea of ghosts, and yet stumbling along a jade-tunnel trail bristling with old man's beard and devil's club, I've occasionally recoiled from something, the skin of my arms prickling with gooseflesh. There are spirits here, all right, something not too far removed from the capricious tricksters who inhabit indigenous myth. Spectres of a kind, nursing some nameless, hollow ache of unrequited need rendered manifest, paradoxically, by a landscape dripping with life.

The closest we Europeans get to perceiving this (however inadvertently) can be heard in the low extended rumble of the nighttime freight trains as they call out in the dark, hunching parallel to Railway Avenue long after most residents are asleep, lonely as a buffalo herd that's somehow seen and almost comprehended its own approaching ruin.

Of course, my telling is by no means the complete, illustrated history of Mission, a town that can barely hold onto its own name (since 1884, take your pick: St. Mary's Mission, Mission Junction, Mission City, Village of Mission, Town of Mission, and currently the District of Mission). Not by a long shot; this lurid splash portrays but a small corner of the canvas. How can any one person paint the full picture of a community, after all? No, despite my perverse zeal to stir the viscous mud below the bright surface, great deeds and happy memories adorn the history of this place, too, adding the sparkle and lustre of life above and hopefully beyond the stillness and silence. And yet, no matter how much joie de vivre this community may exhibit on its special days, like a red-carpet celebrity when the cameras start rolling — whether it be the laughing children with their maple leaf flags and pancake stacks celebrating Canada Day up at Heritage Park, or the benevolently stoned crowd at the annual Folk Festival, or even the choked air and sharp adrenaline at the Raceway — surely one thing cannot go unremarked: nearly half of those missing-presumed-dead women were of Aboriginal descent. This adds one more layer of indifference to a jaded populace apparently caught somewhere between the small town rural cruelties of its past and the uneasy suburban shrugs of its gathering future.

I know this. I worked with the street kid population here for years, witnessed their hardscrabble resilience. Few people ever gave a genuine damn about the plight of these children, even though some of the throwaways had not yet reached puberty. Two-thirds of street-involved youth in Mission are Aboriginal. Many are sexually exploited by family members, neighbors, pimps and selected citizens, but few speak of it. Some of these kids head west to Vancouver for a date with misery, stretching already tenuous community ties to the breaking point. My job as a street worker was to speak for these lost children, to ensure some semblance of the child welfare system would kick in through advocacy with social workers or teachers or families or counselors or probation officers. In a world in which the so-called "bottom line" — money and the politics of money — has become drawn too garishly, these already marginalized youth were, and continue to be, largely abandoned by a system designed to protect them. Sometimes I stand beside the town's failing heart, its run down main drag (1st Avenue), taking in the pawnshops and thrift outlets and dollar stores, and I'm convinced I truly hate this place... but only because I've loved it so deeply. In life: death. In death: life. The great inscrutable cycle.

In this way, the perennially troubled summer Pow Wow, always skirting the edge of ruin (corrupt, inept politics and sporadic funding, take a bow), yet often prevailing regardless, seems to me a far more accurate symbol of the clutching, ragged breaths that secretly haunt the sleep of this community. The fleeting vibrant colours of traditional dancers whirling in bright regalia — poignant as the plumage of endangered birds, flying amongst the high wailing melismas of the Northern-style singing and the vital, aorta-punching drums of the circles — somehow speaks more of an unavenged wound in time and place, set amid the cruelty that underlies so much beauty, than anything else this conflicted human settlement seems capable of offering.

An absurd contrast, really — this vibrant gathering and the judgmental silence of all those surrounding stories of the dead — the whole place holding its breath waiting for these mortal sorrows to purge themselves before the pristine lawns and asphalt and vinyl sidings are allowed to spread and eventually suffocate every fucking thing that ever felt like something here.

For here, tenacious as the town itself alongside relentless churning waters, the living will no doubt cling to hope and the perpetual dream of life until the muscled river — unnoticed, stealthy, taken for granted — wrestles away everything (horror, joy, splintered wood and the final word) at long last, sending it all tumbling toward the planet's dark and pitiless seas for good.

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