Clive James is a phenomenon, our most dazzling showman of letters. As a young critic in England in the 1970s, James made his name by reviewing television dramas and sitcoms, then took up broadcasting. At his televisual peak, he wrote and narrated an eight-part BBC series — later a book — called “Fame in the 20th Century.” His witty account of his Australian childhood, “Unreliable Memoirs,” is by now a minor classic, reprinted scores of times. As a poet, James has produced light verse and moving, late-life reflections on mortality, although he may always be best known for that beloved paean to schadenfreude, “The Book of My Enemy Has Been Remaindered.” Eight years ago, Norton published “Cultural Amnesia,” a monumental collection of his biographical/critical essays about 110 key figures in modern art, literature, politics and history. More recently, James has translated Dante’s “Divine Comedy,” an impressive achievement even for a man who can read six foreign languages, including Russian and Japanese.
Alas, just as this versatile literary journalist entered his 70s, his health began to break down. Besides the usual complaints of old age — prostate trouble, cataracts — he was diagnosed with emphysema, kidney failure and terminal leukemia. Leaving London behind, James bought a house in Cambridge to be near his family and the people to whom he dedicates “Latest Readings ”: “my doctors and nurses at Addenbrooke’s Hospital.” Now 75, Clive James writes as a man who expects to die at any moment.
Still, as he says, “if you don’t know the exact moment when the lights will go out, you might as well read until they do.” Despite shelves full of books at home, James confesses that over the past couple of years he has made weekly visits to Hugh’s Bookstall in the Cambridge Market Square. Madness, he admits, “but the madness was divine. Even if I already had the book, he might have a handier edition; and often they were titles that I had once owned but lost along the way; and most often of all they were books that I had never owned before but now realized I ought to possess.” As he explains, “the childish urge to understand everything doesn’t necessarily fade when the time approaches for you to do the most adult thing of all: vanish.”
In 30 brief essays James goes on to tell us — in his most digressive, conversational manner — about the books he’s discovered or returned to quite probably for the last time. The list includes Hemingway’s “The Sun Also Rises,” Patrick O’Brian’s Aubrey-Maturin nautical adventures, the “magisterial” novels of Olivia Manning, Evelyn Waugh’s “Sword of Honour” trilogy, numerous historical and biographical books about World War II, the poetry of Rudyard Kipling and Philip Larkin, Hollywood memoirs such as Steven Bach’s “Final Cut” and, not least, Katharine Graham’s “Personal History.” In general, James finds himself drawn to works that try to capture the obsessions and sweep of the 20th century.
In particular, he reacquaints himself with Joseph Conrad, “the writer who reached political adulthood before any of the other writers of his time, and when they did, they reached only to his knee.” “Under Western Eyes,” he says, zeroes in on idealism as “the mental aberration that allows terror to be brought about.” “Victory” shows us that “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.” “Nostromo,” Conrad’s depiction of politics and capitalist exploitation in a small Central American country, is nothing less than “one of the greatest books I have ever read.”
At first James didn’t intend to go back to Anthony Powell’s 12-part “A Dance to the Music of Time.” He’d lost his Penguin paperbacks and had access only to an “American four-volume hardback edition.” Unfortunately, “the Americans had, in their usual way, overdone the reverence, so that any of the four compilations was too bulky to take on a train, thus defeating one of the chief pleasures that Powell offers: to read, while traveling in a second-class carriage, about the kind of people who used to travel in first.”
Then, at Hugh’s stall, he spied the 12 volumes in the Mandarin paperback edition and couldn’t resist toting them home. Powell, he emphasizes, is “good on the significance of the passing moment, his key message being that it doesn’t really pass, but is incorporated into the texture of your reflections just as thoroughly as the ecstasies and disasters, and perhaps even more so.” He admits that “Powell sometimes piled on the subtlety to the point of flirting with the evanescent,” but nonetheless he “made every other writer purporting to deal with the sweep of British society look crass.” However, James forcefully dismisses the author’s fascination, in “The Kindly Ones” especially, with ghosts and the supernatural: “No writer dedicated to showing life as it is should give even fleeting acknowledgment to the occult.” Even the best of critics have their blind spots.
James writes that “half the secret of public life is not to blur the image” — true, no doubt, though this wide-ranging polymath has obviously ignored his own insight. In these pieces, though, James’s tone remains light, self-aware, stoically comic. Of the epically bad film “Heaven’s Gate,” he writes, “I still remember seeing it, and feeling my life growing shorter in a way that I don’t feel even now, when it is.” Comparing his work to some of the more leisurely essay-writing of the past, he notes, “I have always assumed that the readers have no time at all, and need their attention snared from moment to moment. ” In a stinging apercu about critics, he points out that “after an initial period of relative sanity, they tend to think that nothing — not even the career of, say, Horace — ever happened without their interest in it. At its worst, the madness reaches the point where the critic behaves as if his new book about Shakespeare will save Shakespeare from oblivion.”
While James avoids lugubriousness, he does periodically remind us that he is in truly bad shape. In one of the later essays, he recalls a night at a hospital when the plastic bag taped to his leg to collect urine suddenly broke. He buzzed for the night nurse, who told the embarrassed James to stop apologizing. She then “set to mopping it up. She had a deformed body, with limbs all the wrong lengths. Life could never have been easy for her. But now she was making the end of life easier for me. It was a night to remember, and I haven’t forgotten it for a second. I can only hope that the sum total of my writings has been as useful to the world as her kindness, but I doubt that this is so.”
At the very end of his book, James argues that more critics “should write to say, not ‘look how much I’ve read,’ but ‘look at this, it’s wonderful.’ ” Let me, then, be a proper Jamesian: Pick up “Latest Readings.” It’s wonderful.
Dirda is a regular book reviewer for Style and the author of the just-published “Browsings: A Year of Reading, Collecting, and Living with Books.”
By Clive James
Yale. 180 pp. $25