Clive James – is it OK to speak ill of the dying?

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Latest ReadingsIs it OK to speak ill of the dying?  Probably not.  But it’s somehow worse to speak ill of the dead so I’d best get my Clive James critique in now, while I still can.

Latest Readings, Clive James’ latest book, is a collection of short essays about the books he’s read recently.  And it is proof – if we needed it – that we’ve reached and moved beyond Peak James.  Oh he’s still funny and erudite and masterful but this latest book betrays him.  And how could it not?

James is dying.  Not slowly as we all are but, due to terminal leukemia, any day now.  I don’t doubt that immanent death plays upon one’s mind but James does like to remind us of it – over and over again.  Hardly a page goes by without a mention.

As I read I can feel it all slipping away into time as I am myself.

…I was ready to settle down on my deathbed and read nothing but the bible.

Time having gone by since I fell ill, I have become reconciled to never travelling very far again…

So given that that author is so very unwell, and that this book was likely rushed to print, it should not be surprising that this work is not one of his best.  Instead, it’s the dinner table ramblings of a man accustomed to holding forth, even when he has very little new to say.  What we get is Clive James rabbiting on about What Clive James Has Been Reading Lately.

We learn that Hemingway and Conrad are Great Writers, although perhaps not great men.  Naipul is nasty and a stylist rather than a profound thinker.  Osbert Lancaster’s Drayneflete Revealed is one of “the great British comic achievements.” No, it’s not just you. I have no idea either.

It struck me, while reading this book (and yes, skimming over the tedious bits) that Clive James has spent his life trying to demonstrate how much he knows about everything.  To whom he is constantly trying to prove himself is a question for James and his psychologist- perhaps the father who died when James was small?  But the phrase ‘cultural cringe’ keeps popping to mind.  Aren’t I clever, even though I’m (gasp) an Australian.  That ex-pat clique of Clive and Barry and Germaine remain Australian in an old-fashioned way that the rest of us seem to have moved on from.  James is aware of the moving on, and reflects “on how far the Australian cultural expansion has come…even the Americans now know roughly where Australia is.” But he doesn’t seem to be able to move on himself.

Clive James certainly seems to know an awful lot about an awful lot, which is great.  But perhaps it is a generational thing where men of his age and type (Christopher Hitchens also springs to mind) feel obliged to let everyone know and be entertained by what an awful lot he knows.  Now don’t get me wrong:  Clive James rabbiting on about books is superior to most other people rabbiting on about books.  But rabbiting on is all he’s doing.  This is an ordinary book that would have made an excellent blog and James’ style is so bright, so witty and sharp that sometimes it is difficult to see that he might not be saying much at all.

Powell had a firm understanding of politics: he knew that things would never be the same again. [About Anthony Powell’s A Dance to the Music of Time series.]

Kevin Rudd realized that the only way to win against Howard was to promise to do all the same things Howard did, but do them younger. [About former Prime Minister John Howard’s autobiography Lazarus Rising.]

The trouble with the owner of the technique that can do anything is that he is continually tempted to do everything at once.  [About Kipling’s poetry but James might well have applied the same criticism to himself.]

…women have gone on to something like equality in Hollywood, and sometimes, intermittently, to something like dominance. [In what universe?  This patently ridiculous statement is in a chapter called ‘Women in Hollywood’, the only chapter where James seems to have read one or two books by women].

O’Brian doesn’t really know what to do with an interesting female character. [About Patrick O’Brian’s Jack Aubrey series.  This statement is perfectly true but has been pointed out by others many times before.]

That last comment struck me as particularly curious.  James can’t write about women either. Or rather he does, but in doing so he consistently writes about them only in relation to himself. Where that is not possible, they are either paragons of virtue or relentlessly dismissed as empty vessels.

On the hospital nurse who cleaned up his spilt urine:

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.

In other forums, but not in this book, James has written about Marilyn Monroe: “She was as good at playing abstract confusion in the same way that a midget is good at being short.”  It’s a great line but it says quite something about James’ inability to separate the actor from the act of acting.  But wait, there’s more.

As far as talent goes, Marilyn Monroe was so minimally gifted as to be almost unemployable, and anyone who holds to the opinion that she was a great natural comic identifies himself immediately as a dunce.

About his beloved Diana Princess of Wales James managed the double whammy.  Again not in this book but I’m on a roll now. She was vacuous and she flattered him.  Diana was, he wrote, envious of

…anyone with a vocation. You could call it bubble-headed dilettantism if you liked, but to assume that it was part of some sophisticated pose was a failure of the imagination. For those bent on her destruction in print, it would have been more accurate and thus more useful to call her naïve.

But Diana’s best and greatest talent was, according to James, “the gift of reflecting a man’s best self back to him.”  That was why he loved her so.

About Madeleine St John, the author of Women in Black (an Australian masterpiece that I highly recommend, see ANZLit Lover’s review here) James writes:

A great writer. Those of us who knew her at Sydney University back in the late 1950s are still trying to forgive ourselves that we never guessed what she would become.

This phrase sent a chill down my spine when I first read it.  Why ‘forgive ourselves’?  Because their little clique would have been nicer to her if they knew she could write?

Clive James being who is, any publisher will no doubt jump at the chance to publish anything he produces.  And good luck to them, I say.  But maybe borrow this one from the library.  Stay tuned for short books containing James’ shopping lists, emails to his personal assistant and – hopefully not too soon – his last will and testament.   Good luck, Clive.

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8 responses »

  1. “It struck me, while reading this book (and yes, skimming over the tedious bits) that Clive James has spent his life trying to demonstrate how much he knows about everything”. That is exactly right!. It is really sad that such an extraordinarily talented person should have spent so much of his time demonstrating how much more talented he is than anyone else, and more cultured – remember that horrible tv show where James went on and on about the crassness of the Japanese – and so little time in putting his talents to use. Speak ill of everyone who deserves it Michelle.

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  2. No, it’s not just you. I hated Unreliable Memoirs, and you’re quite right about that gang of ex-pats trying to be professional Australians while avoiding the place. I’d add Sidney Nolan and (gulp) Rolf Harris to the list.

    I liked Clive’s TV reviews – which were funny, and he couldn’t be up himself to the same extent while watching TV.

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  3. I find James funny at times, but I’ve never read any of his books. I’ve never felt drawn to reading his voice uninterruptedly for a whole book. However, I think you can rest more easily on the peaking I’ll issue. His death is apparently not now as imminent as he thought. There is apparently new treatment. Or so I heard on an interview with him on the ABC recently.

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  4. Pingback: Best reads of 2015 | Adventures in Biography

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