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The Texture of Reality: Clive James, 1939–2019

“All I can do is turn a phrase until it catches the light.” When Clive James died last November, at the age of eighty, newspapers and websites, along with a rump of literate tweeters, paid him the highest compliment a writer can receive. They quoted bushels of his best sentences, including that one. He was gone, but his phrases were still catching the light. Sometimes it was hard to tell whether they came from his poetry or prose. He had always hoped to be remembered as a poet. In the epigraphs to his Collected Poems, he quoted Horace: “If you rank me with the lyric poets, my exalted head shall strike the stars.” Whether James will be ranked that way it’s too early to know. But maybe we saw hints, in those first responses to his death, that the distinction between his verse and his prose will come to seem unimportant, in the long run. Maybe he’ll be remembered as a phrasemaker of genius who dispensed his mini-masterpieces in an unusually various range of delivery devices. The phrase quoted above originated, as it happens, in one of his memoirs. But it was poetry, wherever it came from.

This essay appears in the latest Quadrant.
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In several senses, poetry always came first for James. The earliest piece in his Collected Poems was written in 1958, when he was nineteen. And poetry came last, too. During the final decade of his life he was in desperately poor health, battling a cancer that went in and out of remission, as well as a disease of the lungs that cruelly hampered his ability to breathe and talk. In those straits, longer forms of expression were beyond him, and the short poem again became his favoured refuge. Moreover, his verse had found its last great theme: his own mortality.

Between the bookends of his poetic output sits the long shelf of James’s prose writings: three books of television criticism, four novels, five volumes of memoir, twelve volumes of literary essays, a book about fame, a book of travel pieces, and the great crowning work, Cultural Amnesia. James shifted restlessly from medium to medium over the course of his long career. As his critical prose matured, he increasingly used it to tackle the main events of history. He was appalled by the ease with which advanced societies in the twentieth century had collapsed into murderous totalitarianism. He was haunted by the possibility it could happen again. When his best essays were collected in a volume called As of This Writing, the epigraph came from the French philosopher Alain Finkielkraut: “Barbarism is not the prehistory of humanity but the faithful shadow that accompanies its every step.”

The shadow of barbarism had stalked James from his earliest years. He was born in Sydney in 1939, a month after the outbreak of the Second World War. His father fought in Malaya and was taken prisoner after the fall of Singapore. When the war ended, he was still alive. With other liberated Australian prisoners of war, he was offered a ride home on an American B-24. The flight went down in a typhoon, killing everyone on board. Clive James was there when his mother opened the telegram. “At the age of five, I was seeing the full force of human despair,” he would recall. “It was several days before she could control herself. I understood nothing beyond the fact that I could not help.”

The death of his father had two lasting effects on James. Psychologically, it scarred him. “I think that I was marked for life,” he wrote, in Unreliable Memoirs. But the event shaped him intellectually too. Measuring his experiences against the backdrop of contemporary history, James came to understand, by the time he reached middle age, that his own story did not qualify as a catastrophe. It was “just bad luck”, he said. The Russian memoirist Nadezhda Mandelstam, in her book Hope Against Hope, had written about “the privilege of ordinary heartbreaks”. Reading books like hers, James saw that he’d always enjoyed that privilege, which had been conferred on him by the robustness of the democracies in which he was fortunate enough to have lived. His father, he pointed out, “was a free human being”. So was his mother. In Soviet Russia, Osip Mandelstam, Nadezhda’s husband, had been sent to the Gulag for the crime of writing a poem, and had died of hunger and cold. Crazed ideologies had set a new benchmark for heartbreak during James’s lifetime. By international standards, he counted himself lucky to have grown up at all. “[I]n our share of the 20th century,” he observed, “… to die young, and for no reason, has been, if not the typical childhood, then certainly the representative one”.

The fact remains, however, that Clive James grew up as the only child of a bereaved mother. This was surely the root of his lifelong eagerness to please—of the reluctance to be boring that seemed to weigh on him like a moral obligation. He wanted to live the life, or the lives, that his parents had been cheated of. He wanted to speak every language, and read every book. He wanted to make phrases that were light on their feet, but laden with universal truth.

He had two great interests as a writer: himself, and everything else. Verse was his preferred way of addressing the first preoccupation, especially as he neared the end. But his prose faced outward, and served his ravenous urge to get the whole world in. One of his earliest literary heroes was Albert Camus. “Tyrants conduct monologues above a million solitudes,” Camus had written, in The Rebel. “I wanted to write like that, in a prose that sang like poetry,” James said. It was a young man’s ambition; before he could fulfil it, he had to grow up, and figure out how his own version of the trick could best be worked. Viewed in retrospect, his career looks like a long quest to find the forms in which he could sound most fully like himself—the forms in which his fizzing assortment of talents could be made to work in harmony, instead of propelling him off the rails.

When James sailed for England in 1961, his departure from Australia wasn’t meant to be permanent. But when he wangled a spot at Cambridge University in the mid-1960s, after ratt­ling miserably around London for a few years, he landed in the place that would become his second home. At Cambridge, all his impulses were catered for. He joined the Footlights dramatic society, and ultimately served as its president. He took a degree in English, and enrolled to do a PhD. He married the Australian-born Dante scholar Prue Shaw, with whom he had two daughters. James’s doctoral thesis never materialised. Although Cambridge would remain his home town, no single place would ever be big enough to contain him, and his academic career gradually yielded to a literary career in London. While still technically a student, he started publishing essays in the New Statesman and the Times Literary Supplement. At the Listener he got a steady job writing a monthly column about radio, and then about television.

In 1972, he was hired to write the Observer’s weekly television column. This would turn out to be his pivotal stroke of luck. He stayed in the Observer job for a decade, building a huge and discerning readership. Writing about television gave him a chance to flex all his muscles simultaneously. He could be a drama critic, a cultural commentator, a political analyst, a real-time historian and a moralist all at once. It let him indulge his performer’s instincts, too. James was an inveterate entertainer, and his writing always put on a show. People who called his television column “a cabaret turn”, he later confessed, “were exactly right”. Each week’s piece was “a one-man Footlights smoking concert in miniature form”, with its own running order, opening number, monologue, closing number, and encore.

When performing to a live audience, James could get carried away: his crowd-pleasing instincts could lead him into hammery. But in his best writing, his formidable energies were tamed by his equally formidable intelligence. His dynamic, reference-riddled style proved influential; it gave the serious English essay a bracing kick up the arse. George Orwell had had many virtues, but he couldn’t make you laugh. James could. He was a knockabout highbrow. His prose was incredibly learned, but it was demotic, irreverent and red-blooded too. In those distant days, Australian writers still wanted to be thought of as having such qualities. When the young Martin Amis started publishing book reviews, his father, Kingsley, teased him about their Jamesian inflections by reading the pieces back to him in an Australian accent.

In a late volume of his memoirs, James recalls that he made himself unpopular in the offices of the Observer by laughing out loud at his own jokes when typing out the final drafts of his weekly pieces. But he couldn’t help it, he said, because the jokes were always “the last aspect to form on the page. I had the line of argument already worked out, but when a tricky thought suddenly condensed into a gag I was surprised every time.”

James was a funny man, but he was almost never unserious. The kind of jokes he liked to hear, and to tell, were jokes that crystallised an argument or worldview: they were “not decoration but architecture”. He scoffed at the idea—popular among mediocrities—that laughter has no place in high art. The notion “that solemnity equals seriousness” was, he argued, a “delusion”. Indeed, he thought there was something fundamentally wrong with humourless people. He fleshed the point out in one of his columns, while putting the boot into the tiresomely earnest film director Lindsay Anderson:

Common sense and a sense of humour are the same thing, moving at different speeds. A sense of humour is just common sense, dancing. Those who lack humour are without judgment and should be trusted with nothing.

James’s television column was the kind of place where things like that could be said. Enacting his own principle, he worked at different speeds during the course of each week’s piece. Slowing himself down, he would articulate a general truth with Proustian thoroughness. Quickening the pace, he would refine the argument into a one-liner that begged to be quoted.

“A poem,” he once wrote, “is any piece of writing that can’t be quoted from except out of context.” By that measure, James’s essays are not poems. We can quote their best sentences without fearing we’ve done their author an injustice. Even so, it remains true that his snappiest lines, as good as they sound by themselves, sound even better when encountered in their original environment. “Peace is not a principle, it is only a desirable state of affairs,” he wrote, in an essay about Bertrand Russell. The phrase lodges instantly in the memory. The case against pacifism has probably never been stated so succinctly. But James had more to say on the subject than just that. To grasp the nuances of his position, you have to read the whole of the essay from which that line comes. Then you have to consult all the other essays in which he revisited the same theme. (Peace, he wrote in one of them, “can’t be obtained without a capacity for violence at least equal to the violence of the threat”.) The killer phrases are hard-earned in James’s work; the one-liners aren’t just one-liners.

When people quoted him correctly, Clive James was never less than delighted. The day when Mia Farrow retweeted his poem “Japanese Maple” was a highlight of his later life. But he had a poet’s horror of being quoted inaccurately, even when the inaccuracy was apparently trivial. Famously, he once observed that Arnold Schwarzenegger looked, with his shirt off, like “a brown condom full of walnuts”. The line was often repeated, but people had a tendency to leave out the word brown—“thus,” James lamented, “fatally depleting the visual information”. Walnuts are brown, but they don’t look like brown rubber. Schwarzenegger’s skin, on the other hand, did. So the condom had to be brown. If we picture a transparent sheath, we miss a vital component of the desired effect.

Poets are linguistic purists. They think in images, and they’re scrupulous about translating them into the right words. Analysing his own activities as a phrasemaker, James confessed that the first part of the process was a mystery to him. The images seemed to arrive in his head unbidden. “I don’t know how a phrase works in terms of its origin,” he said: “I just know how to neaten it up when it arrives, how to make sure that its order of events doesn’t injure its internal economy.”

Economy was always the big thing for James. He loved any human pursuit that cut an elegant line through the world, the way poetry cuts a line through perceptions. He was an aficionado of tango dancing. He was no fan of team games, but would watch any solo sport that contained echoes of poetry: tennis, diving, gymnastics, ice skating, motor racing. Above all he was a connoisseur of fine phrases. The aim was to catch an elusive thought using the minimum number of verbal strokes. A hole-in-one would trigger an explosion of laughter. An eagle or birdie would earn you a smile of recognition. Discussing the wit of Philip Larkin—the modern poet he most revered—James wrote:

On top of the scores of fragments that make us laugh, there are the hundreds which we constantly recall with a welcome sense of communion, as if our own best thoughts had been given their most concise possible expression.

James was a junkie for distilled wisdom, and he didn’t care where he found it. He was well known for observing no distinction between the high and popular arts. This is sometimes taken as a sign of his egalitarianism. Maybe it was, but in the first instance it was an expression of his exacting literary taste. Wit was wit, whether it occurred in the memoirs of Jimmy Cagney, or in a novel by Raymond Chandler, or in an episode of True Detective. On the other hand, James had no use for poets or novelists who lacked linguistic vitality, no matter how inflated their reputations. People whose words stuck in your head—those were the people he sought out and listened to. He frequently quoted the observation that it doesn’t matter how well you play when you’re playing well; what matters is how well you play when you’re playing badly. The author of this maxim was the tennis champion Martina Navratilova, and you can see why James found her words compelling. This was wisdom earned on the job, and it was as germane to the writing of poetry as it was to the playing of tennis.

Cultural Amnesia was, among other things, a showcase for refined and polished truths of this kind. Among the hundreds of aphorisms James quotes in that book, the briefest comes from the Viennese miniaturist Peter Altenberg. When one of Altenberg’s female companions complained that his interest in her was “only” sexual, Altenberg responded with four words. Rendered in English, those words are: “What’s so only?” There it was, an entire philosophy whittled down into three and a half words. Altenberg, James said, had an “unrivalled capacity to pour a whole view of life, a few cupfuls at a time, into the briefest of paragraphs”.

If Altenberg had lived to venture such a quip on Twitter, of course, his “attitude to women” would no doubt have been “called out”, by more than a few fools, as “problematic”. Clive James was familiar with people who thought this way. His reply to them would have been two words shorter than Altenberg’s, and it wouldn’t have ended with a question mark. He had no patience for the commissars of political correctness, who deny the realities of human nature, and seek to stamp out humour into the bargain. He put a premium on common sense, and was suspicious of any writer or thinker who drifted away from it. That way lay ideology; and James was well schooled in the atrocities that ideology could deliver. He rarely lost his temper in print, but one thing that unfailingly got his goat was shoddy language. His commitment to precise and honest English lay at the heart of all his criticism. It was fundamental to everything he believed about art and politics. People who speak in clichés give us a clear signal that they’re not thinking straight about the world. Ideologues and charlatans go further, infesting their terrible prose with jargon because they don’t even want to think straight about the world, and don’t want us to think straight about it either.

Over the years, James hammered this point even more strenuously than Orwell did. He had a special intolerance for the mixed metaphor. In an essay he wrote about mangled English, he claimed to have discovered a perfect specimen of the form. The perpetrator was a British tennis journalist, who had written: “Now, the onus is on Henman to come out firing at Ivanisevic, the wild card who has torn through this event on a wave of emotion …” You could see what the guy meant, as long as you didn’t worry about the incompatibility of his clichés. He hadn’t, so why should you? Writing like that says nothing original, and takes a lot of words to say it. Clive James, like any poet, always strove to do the opposite. Two of his later verse collections were called Sentenced to Life and Injury Time. The phrases are familiar; they border on the banal. But by turning them into titles, James makes you rethink them. You see meanings in them you didn’t see before. Even before you opened his books, you already felt a sense of communion with their author. His intelligence was already flaring out from behind his words. In his critical essays, he repeatedly achieved the same effect. Writing about Marilyn Monroe, he found a devastatingly concise way of evoking her acting style. “Every phrase”, he wrote, “came out as if it had just been memorised. Just been memorised.” James’s footwork here is even nimbler than Altenberg’s. By repeating and stressing just one word, he says everything that needs to be said about Marilyn’s manner of reciting dialogue. Wit and art live on in the critic’s language, if not in Marilyn’s acting.

James wrote his Marilyn essay in 1973. When he published his selected essays in 2003, it was one of the earliest pieces he deemed worthy of inclusion. The mid-1970s were a sweet spot for James’s prose. He was settling into his stride as a critic. He had found his proper line and length. His essays were taking on weight and resonance. They began to feel like pieces in a larger mosaic, grouted together by certain recurring themes: a contempt for pretension and euphemism; a scrupulous care for words, and for the conceptual distinctions they alert us to, when their proper meaning is conserved; a respect, above all, for something he invoked time and again in his work: “the texture of reality”. The essays were starting to imply a general philosophy. It was a sane realism, opposed to ideology in all its forms.

In 1980, James published Unreliable Memoirs, the first instalment of an autobiographical sequence that would run for five volumes. He was only forty when that original book came out. That was an audaciously young age at which to publish a memoir. But James was doubly estranged from his childhood, by time and by distance. Physical separation gave his memories added sharpness and tang. His prose sang like poetry, all right. And it didn’t sing only for him. Unreliable Memoirs evoked the lost paradise of his childhood so lavishly that it conjured up everyone else’s childhood too. By the book’s second page, James had already hit his straps. His childhood home in Jannali was, he recalled,

surrounded by an area of land which could be distinguished from the bush only because of its more lavish concentrations of colour. Nasturtiums and honeysuckle proliferated, their strident perfumes locked in perpetual contention. Hydrangeas grew in reefs, like coral in a sea of warm air.

Unreliable Memoirs was as lyrical as James’s best poetry, and as politically serious as his best criticism. It was one of the funniest books ever written; but it was moving too. It was a work of autobiography, but it was also—by the author’s own admission—a work of fiction. Once more James had discovered, or invented, a form in which he could fire on all cylinders at once. For the moment, his hot streak as a writer continued.

There would be some less triumphant detours during the decade ahead. In the 1980s, James began to spread himself perilously thin. For one thing, he became a television star. In 1982 he gave up writing his Observer column, for fear he would find himself reviewing one of his own shows. There were many of those—far too many to list. Some of them were memorable. His annual New Year’s Eve special was unmissable, a fireworks display for highbrows. On The Late Show, he had riveting round-table discussions with people like Robert Hughes and Anthony Burgess. James was free to be his untrammelled literary self on programs like that; he felt no urge to dumb things down. On his lesser shows, the great man could emit an unfortunate but unmistakable scent of ham. This could induce a strange cognitive dissonance in you, if you knew how good a writer he was. Who was the real Clive James? Was he the man who wrote minutely perceptive essays about Primo Levi and Osip Mandelstam? Or was he the man in Hugh Hefner’s pool, getting a face full of silicone? Something had to give, and James’s literary reputation suffered during the twenty years or so when he was a fixture on television.

Of course, the man in Hefner’s pool was the real Clive James. But he wasn’t the whole Clive James. He was a complex man firing on just one cylinder, and firing on it, sometimes, to an unseemly degree. James must have known it: there must have been times during his television career when his serious self wondered what his garrulous self had got him into. He would always insist, a bit defensively, that his Postcard documentaries contained some of his best writing. But he sold himself short when he said so. Writing for television, he was supplying words to go with pictures. When he really was at his best, his words made the pictures.

By his own account, Clive James had a lifelong tendency to overdo things. When he smoked, he didn’t just smoke. He smoked so much that he used a hubcap for an ashtray. As he recalled:

I had found the hubcap lying in the gutter in Trumpington Street, and thought: “That will make an ideal ashtray.” A man who thinks like that has to be a real smoker. From then on, with the help of the hubcap, I proved I was.

Similarly, James didn’t just drink, during his time as a drinker; he drank to excess, and the results disturbed him so much that he finally resolved to go cold turkey.

James’s broadcasting career followed the same trajectory: he did television to excess too, and ultimately had to kick the habit. His literary misfires, of which there were a few, can probably be blamed on the same basic vice. His ravenous appetites led him into temptation sometimes, and made him bite off more than he could chew. He never seemed fully at ease in his novels, for example. He published four of these, between 1983 and 1996, and by his standards they must be classed as failures: interesting and instructive failures, but failures nonetheless. In a novel, the reader’s imagination needs room to move. Ideally, one should know nothing about the novelist at all. But by the early 1980s James had become a celebrity, whether he liked it or not. His voice was all over television. When you read his work, it was hard to get his distinctive intonations out of your head. This wasn’t a fatal problem if you were reading an essay, or even a poem. But Brilliant Creatures, his first novel, sounded far too distractingly like its author to be an effective work of fiction. The book was brilliant, all right. It contained some of James’s most inspired prose. But there was way too much of it, and there didn’t seem to be much substance underneath. There was no meat, no bottom end. In his essays, reality itself had always supplied the ballast, the counterweight to the style. Brilliant Creatures was all style—and the more of it the author piled on, the more he demonstrated his inability to sound, or to think, like anybody other than himself. The same quality that made him such a potent essayist meant he would never be more than a minor novelist.

His second novel, The Remake, was better. For one thing, it was written in the first person. The device can free a novelist up, and it certainly had that effect on James. Indeed, one wondered if it gave him more freedom than he really wanted. The Remake is about the sexual indiscretions of a married man, and the author drops some large clues in the text that he is talking about himself. The topic was a minefield, and it seems possible that James concluded, after the book made its way into the world, that this time he’d delivered too much substance. In any case, he never again wrote a novel as convincing as The Remake. His next novel, Brrm! Brrm!, was a disappointment, and after The Silver Castle, published in 1996, he stopped writing fiction altogether.

But James could afford to run a few failed experiments. He never stopped writing the critical essays that constituted the backbone of his achievement, and they never stopped getting better. His third collection of literary pieces, From the Land of Shadows, was published in 1982, and it still feels central to his attainments as a critic. In the book’s introduction, James decided it was time to be explicit about the commitments that had been steadily emerging from his work. His political education began, he recalled, shortly after his arrival in England, when he’d sat down with the transcripts of the Nuremberg trials. Reading them, he “began at last, after a decade of horrified vagueness on the topic, to get some precise idea of the times we had all been living in”. More recently, he’d taught himself to read Russian. He’d done this for literary reasons: he wanted to know how Pushkin really sounded. But there was no detaching literature from politics, especially when it came to Russia. James’s readings in Russian gave him a direct taste of the leaden language, and the general soul-death, of Soviet communism. The Soviet Union was still in business at the time, still grimly dedicating itself to ruining the lives of its own people. James’s book was about the politics of totalitarianism and the politics of freedom. It traced the author’s sharpening awareness of the gulf that separated them. “Such an awareness,” he felt ready to say, “is my politics.”

Radical acquaintances thought this a simplistic position. James believed it was elementary rather than simplistic, and eminently worth defending. The older he got, the surer of that he became. “If I had wanted to be thought deep,” he wrote in 2001, “I would have spent the last thirty years proposing something a lot less scrutable than the elementary proposition that democracy is even more important for what it prevents than for what it provides.” Communism and fascism, he observed, “were far less the enemies of each other than they were the common enemy of democracy”. Indeed, he thought it misleading to conceive of politics in the traditional way, as a spectrum with communism on the left and fascism on the right, and liberal democracy sitting in between. “Better,” he wrote, “to think of liberal democracy as the breathable atmosphere of a planet. Above the breathable atmosphere there is an unbreathable stratosphere called extremism, trying to get in.” In that choking stratosphere, “the extremes not only touch, they blend”.

In the twentieth century, intellectuals had displayed a bad tendency to make politics a playground for their imaginations, as if there just had to be some social system more spiritually nourishing than democracy. James saved his creativity for his art. In the realm of politics, he was a dedicated realist. Liberal democracy, he insisted, was as good as it gets. It was the atmosphere that permitted speech, and therefore literature, to flourish. Societies devoted to the ideal of human perfectibility had, he couldn’t help noticing, a suspicious propensity to put their poets to death. 

The unromantic nature of James’s beliefs gave obtuse people another excuse to dismiss him as a superficial writer. “I was once told by a reviewer in whose radical politics I was not interested that I was not interested in politics,” he wrote. “Similarly people are reluctant to call you serious if you do not take them seriously. I don’t mind being called frivolous by the solemn: in fact it is a reputation I court.”

Courting that reputation was a risky move, though. The solemn will always tend to dominate politics, especially left-wing politics; and they have certainly come to dominate the literary arts. So defending James’s reputation, and the ideals he stood for, will be an ongoing task. Liberal democracy keeps out extremism, and extremism is the enemy. The message may be elementary, but it is strange how many alleged intellectuals still struggle to agree with it. And it is hard to think of another writer in the language who prosecuted the same message as tirelessly and variously and brilliantly as Clive James did, over the last half-century.

The summa of his work as a critic was Cultural Amnesia, published in 2007. If Unreliable Memoirs was his personal masterpiece, Cultural Amnesia was his political one. The book was an eloquent defence of democracy and humanism, set against the horror show of twentieth-century history, and the increasing threat of twenty-first-century denialism. At one point in the book the author worries that he might be coming across as “an Ancient Mariner, who stoppeth one of three and boreth them to tears”. But he was in no danger of being boring. Once again he’d invented a form in which all his qualities could fire at once: his humour, his love of phrase, his willingness to range freely between the high and the popular arts, his deep moral seriousness. Weighing in at nearly nine hundred pages, Cultural Amnesia is by far the longest prose work he ever published. But the book never flags. Every chapter in it seems, while you’re reading it, to be a scintillating little digression—on cinema, on comedy, on language, on pornography. But the digressions keep adding up; they all turn out to be variations on a theme. The theme is human freedom, and the ideologies that seek to crush it.

Nor was James in any danger of being irrelevant. By the time he completed Cultural Amnesia, a new kind of murderous extremist was doing his thing, up there in the unbreathable stratosphere: the ineffable figure of the jihadi. Here was a fresh variety of nihilism for the ignorant to misunderstand and romanticise. Meanwhile, the institutions that underpinned the West’s democracies were in increasingly dire shape. In the universities, the serious study of literature and history was on the wane. Instead, departments of cultural studies were teaching the young that literary merit was an illusory and oppressive construct, as indeed were the ideals of liberal democracy. Force-fed on such doctrines, a generation of joyless ideologues set about turning real life into a giant grievance studies workshop from which there was no escape. Newspapers and magazines, even the best of them, were surrendering to the logic of click-metrics and identity politics in order to survive. Purportedly liberal publications employed columnists who openly called for the curtailment of free speech, on the grounds that unfettered language has a tendency to hurt the feelings of the underprivileged. Facebook was converting the world into a relativist’s paradise, by “curating” reality to suit each user’s personal tastes. As the World Values Survey has horribly confirmed, commitment to democracy is internationally on the slide, even in the liberal West, and especially among the young. In 2016, one in six Americans told the survey that a military takeover would be a “good” or “very good” thing. Cultural amnesia, the force for which Clive James invented such a resonant name, is these days running rampant. Common sense gets less and less common all the time, and James’s position looks more radical, and more necessary, by the year.

Almost as soon as he published Cultural Amnesia, James started brewing plans for a sequel. He’d hit a rich vein, and was reluctant to stop working it. At the same time, he found one last ideal outlet for his energies: a multi-media website that “might prove”, he said in 2009, “to be my most characteristic means of expression, if only because, having made a start on it, I have no real idea of where it might end”.

On the whole, Clive James was an enthusiast for the World Wide Web. But it’s worth recalling that he was already a made man by the time he started republishing his wares online for free. His career lay largely behind him, and he’d forged it during an era when a literate and engaged reading public had still been ready to pay good money to reward and nurture good prose. With the exception of the pieces that make up Cultural Amnesia, all of James’s best essays originated as commissioned book reviews. He liked writing for the newsstands. It kept him in close touch with the public, and out of the ivory tower. Also, he got paid for it. The point is not negligible. Consider again his observation that “peace is not a principle, it is only a desirable state of affairs”. The muse didn’t just decide, spontaneously, to drop this phrase on James’s head one day. He came up with it only because the New Yorker had offered him a healthy sum of money to sit down and think about a biography of Bertrand Russell. At some moment during that spell of paid contemplation, probably near the end, the crystallising phrase had hardened into being, like a diamond produced by geology and heat. The bon mots that people freely tweeted when Clive James died had not been composed in a vacuum. Their author had been formed in an age when newspapers were central to the culture, and critics were central to newspapers, and a serious literary education was central to criticism. The structures that fostered and sustained James’s talents are falling apart before our eyes, and if we imagine that writers like him will magically keep appearing in our skin-deep electronic future, we’re kidding ourselves. “Criticism,” he once wrote,

is not indispensable to art. It is indispensable to civilisation—a more inclusive thing. When Pushkin lamented the absence of criticism in Russia, he wasn’t begging for assistance in writing poems. He wanted to write them in a civilised country. Literary criticism fulfils its responsibility by contributing to civilisation, whose dependence on criticism in all its forms is amply demonstrated by what happens when critical inquiry is forbidden. Being indispensable to civilisation should be a big enough ambition for any critic.

But the professional critic is an increasingly superfluous figure in the age of the internet. These days, everyone’s a critic. People are so busy reviewing things themselves—deficient porn, iffy deodorant, subpar zinger burgers—that they’ve got no time left to read even the all-caps prose of their fellow amateurs, let alone to pick up a book or magazine or newspaper. The activity that James deemed essential to civilisation is drowning under the effusions of dilettantes and volunteers. The indispensable vocation is being dispensed with. This, you hope, is not an early sign that civilisation will end up being dispensable too.

In 2009, James published The Blaze of Obscurity, the final volume of memoirs that would appear in his lifetime. The book wasn’t bad; but the fall-off in lyrical intensity, between his first volume of memoirs and his last one, was pronounced. And no doubt it was inevitable. Writing the first volume, James had been evoking a distant past, conjuring up the colours and tastes of a half-forgotten age. But as the memoirs progressed, the events they dealt with were getting less and less distant all the time. The author’s past was catching up to him, or he was catching up to it, and the semi-fictional form he’d invented to transmit the essence of his life, while dancing around the inconvenient details, was getting increasingly hard to sustain. In the earlier books, James had given pseudonyms to his famous friends. Robert Hughes was Huggins, Bruce Beresford was Dave Dalziel, Germaine Greer was Romaine Rand, Barry Humphries was Bruce Jennings; and Prue Shaw, James’s wife, was Françoise. This distancing device had licensed the author to treat real people as characters. But one by one the characters were turning back into real people, and re-entering the memoirs under their true names. With each successive volume, the unreliable memoirs were having to become more reliable.

This, one had cause to suspect, was the last thing James wanted them to be. He was a deeply private man. For reasons that may have been unclear even to himself, he felt comfortable enough making intimate revelations in his poetry, but baulked at being equally candid in his prose. Perhaps he felt that the technical intricacies of his poems served to cushion or insulate his disclosures. Or maybe he was emboldened by the way poetry reaches a discerning sliver of the public only, so that it gets read either in good faith or not at all. Certainly he had a tendency to look uncomfortable when television interviewers read his most personal poems back to him on camera and asked him to dilate on their contents for the people at home. The old problem of context had come back to bite him. You can say things in a poem that you wouldn’t necessarily want to tell people face to face. Indeed, that may be why poetry gets written in the first place.

At the end of The Blaze of Obscurity, James made reference to certain subjects—including the death of his mother—that he would have to address in his “next, and presumably final volume”. But he made that promise in 2009, the year before he got sick. Illness would play havoc with his ability to produce extended works of prose. The sequel to Cultural Amnesia fell by the wayside. So did a long-planned novel about the war in the Pacific. Turning to poetry instead, James produced slim volumes at an astounding rate, during his compromised final years. He wrote an epic autobiographical poem for which he salvaged the title of that never-written war novel: The River in the Sky. He wrote a verse commentary on Proust. And he had one last big trick up his sleeve. In 2013 he published a verse translation of the whole Divine Comedy. James rendered Dante’s terza rima in quatrains—a tactic that obliged him, at certain points, to invent lines that weren’t previously there, and make them seem worthy of Dante. His translation was hailed for its freshness and chutzpah. Back in the 1950s, the Kid from Kogarah had set out to absorb and conquer the whole of European culture. It was a brazen ambition. By the end of his life, he’d come reasonably close to pulling it off.

The Divine Comedy was destined to be James’s last big project. Or was it? It remains unclear, for the moment, whether he was able to complete the sixth instalment of his memoirs. We do know that he started it: a few years ago, in an interview, he reported that he was 10,000 words into the book. Did he get any further? Illness, you suspect, wasn’t the only barrier to his progress. As he had guessed even when he was well, the sixth volume would have to be his last. The funny man would have to get serious about himself, in a form designed to be humorously evasive. There had been a reckoning in his poetry. Would he be able to conduct a similar reckoning in prose, unshielded by the fig-leaf of poetic technique? Clearly, the ambition was still there. He never stopped wanting to write one last big book. But something else was there, too: a steely resolution not to write anything that would inflict further pain on the people around him. As his confessional late poems piercingly make clear, he believed he’d hurt his loved ones more than enough already.

In many ways, James’s life had been a long agon between his ambition and his better judgment. Sometimes the former had prevailed, sometimes the latter. But his final volumes of poetry suggest that his moral seriousness definitively gained the upper hand during the years of physical decline he called his “autumn’s autumn”. (He also called those years the “most fruitful chapter of my life”.) Any careful reader of his late poems would lay a large bet on the following proposition. If James couldn’t find a way of completing the memoirs without further hurting the people he loved, he didn’t complete the memoirs. Maybe he did find a way through the minefield. If there is to be one last volume of memoirs, the book may yet turn out to be his masterpiece. If there isn’t, we can console ourselves with the thought that he’d written at least two masterpieces already—unless we decide that his true masterpieces were his light-catching phrases, of which he left behind far too many to count.

I got to know Clive James during the last decade of his life. We never met in the flesh, but we exchanged numberless emails. It feels necessary to disclose this fact, even though it made no difference to what I thought of his writing. I admired the work already, well before I got to know its creator. Indeed, there turned out to be no significant distinction between the two entities. The real Clive James was in his books. One suspected it already. To know the man was to have the point confirmed. Clive James sounded, in his emails, exactly and uncannily like Clive James. 

Still, there were a few surprises—a few things about him that couldn’t be inferred from his published writings. One of them was his generosity. Clive lavished a lot of his time on other people, even when he was running out of it. He embraced the role of mentor with typical gusto. He loved being the wise uncle, the seasoned hander-down of tradecraft. Knowing him made me a better writer. He always read my stuff, even when nobody else did. It put me on my toes. You didn’t want to mix your metaphors when Clive James was looking over your shoulder. (How can I look over your shoulder, he would have said, if you’re standing on your toes?)

Naturally, he didn’t advertise his generosity in his writings. It would have been bad manners, for a start—and Clive was an impeccably well-mannered man. This was another surprise. In print, he could be unkind, even when being funny—indeed, especially then. His mind was so formidable that you assumed he’d be a formidable person. But he wasn’t at all. He wanted to be liked. This sounds like a banal observation. Most people want to be liked. But like so many of his qualities—like his talent itself—this desire was super-sized in Clive. He wanted to be liked more than most people want to be liked—and the point helps to explain, I think, why his oeuvre was so extensive, so various, and so user-friendly. He could be charmingly deferential, even towards people who ought, by rights, to have been deferring to him. If he caught you perpetrating a solecism in print, he would let you know. But he performed that duty so tactfully that the reprimand could almost feel like a compliment. I once wrote, in a published piece, that somebody was “bored of” something. Gently, Clive pointed out that the accepted usage, in his day, had been “bored with”. But usages die out, he said; and that one was surely obsolete, if even a linguistic hotshot like me had chosen to stop heeding it. I took the hint, and have never committed the same gaffe again.

Even in contexts where he no longer had to, Clive couldn’t help exercising his charm. It was one of his secret weapons. But his real superpower, the gift that underlay all the others, was his energy. Loathing clichés, he would have hated to be called a force of nature. All the same, he had a way of bringing that phrase to mind. Even in old age, even when dying, the man seemed to have freakish reserves of brio. He never stopped being the Kid from Kogarah. There was something boyish or puppyish about the depth and range of his enthusiasms. In private, he was interested in even more things than he was in print. He was a lover of high-level gossip. He kept up with the minutiae of Australian news and politics to a startling degree. When he hadn’t read something, he would admit it. There just wasn’t much that he hadn’t read. I once quoted a stave to him from the autobiography of Andre Agassi, having naively assumed that this strangely excellent work wouldn’t yet have crossed his desk. Inevitably, it had. Clive James was already a keen student of the Agassi doctrine.

When Clive signed off on an email, he used a one-word salutation: Onward. The word summed him up. He was always forging restlessly ahead. Considerable as his achievements were, he didn’t waste time being satisfied about his past. He just wanted the next thing to be good, and to be thought good. He wrote with unbelievable speed. In three minutes he could fire off an email that read as well as his published prose. You’d say that he wrote the way he breathed—except that breathing stopped coming naturally to him, while writing never did, until the very end. In his emails he was in his element, still making words do anything he wanted them to. He sounded as robust and intellectually acrobatic as he had in his prime—so that it came as a shock to see his frail handwriting now and then, and be reminded that he was an ailing man. You could easily forget it when reading him. And you had the feeling that he forgot it too, as long as he could still whip words into line. Only during the last year of his life did one detect signs that he was finally starting to flag.

When news of his death reached me, I can’t say I wasn’t expecting it. But for a few days, I reflexively kept checking my overnight emails, as if he might somehow have managed to go on writing. After all, he’d been writing his way through cancer and emphysema for ten years. Couldn’t he write his way out of death itself? But in a way, of course, he can, and does. You can lose a man like that by your own death, but not by his, said Bernard Shaw about William Morris. Like all great writers, Clive lives on in the language he left behind. “Books,” he wrote in one of his final poems, “are the anchors / Left by the ships that rot away.”

David Free is a critic and novelist. His novel Get Poor Slow was published by Picador in 2017. He is currently completing a book about conspiracy theory.

 

1 comment
  • tbeath

    Very interesting read, thanks David

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