Remembering Clive James

Remembering Clive James

Dante: The Divine Comedy, translated by Clive James, Picador


Clive James is often thought of as a funny man with a serious side. But it turns out he is a serious man with a funny side. He is most famous for his TV commentary from the 1980s, especially his unearthing of crazy Japanese game shows, and his side-splitting New Year’s Eve news wrap-ups. At the same time he churned out reviews and essays touching on literary and art criticism, politics and history. His best writing blurs the distinction between high and low culture. He took pop culture seriously (even while writing about it in hilarious fashion), and wrote about serious culture with a twinkle in his eye. In fact, wherever words were needed, James was there, leading to him being famously described as “a brilliant bunch of guys”.

In recent years the serious side has become more prominent, and not just because of a recent diagnosis of terminal illness. It came to the fore especially in his recent book Cultural Amnesia, which sprawled but remained tethered to the theme of humanism in the face of totalitarianism. The book had at times a preachy tone; lately James seems to want to ensure his footprint becomes a heavy one. He has of course written and spoken much about fame, and being remembered is obviously important to him. He has spoken of how his father, killed during World War II, never got the chance to be heard. James’ voice has been heard a lot, even if he is now less famous than he once was, but it seems he now wants to emphasize quality over quantity, and control somewhat what he is remembered for.

The writers who get remembered aren’t journalists. They are poets. And James says he always wanted to be a poet. One can therefore see his attraction to Dante. And one can see why James might want to hitch his wagon to the most famous poet in Western history. (It is also, as he writes in the introduction to his translation of The Divine Comedy, not coincidental that his wife is a Dante scholar.)

A. N. Wilson, in his recent book on Dante’s life and times, Dante in Love, describes The Divine Comedy as no less than the pinnacle of Western literature. James sees Dante as the creator of modern literature itself. The work has had a huge influence on Western culture, not only because, as Wilson says, we still think of the afterlife in terms of Dante’s imagery some 700 years later, even if we have not read Dante.

dante cartoon

It is technically brilliant poetry, as James points out. James has always paid attention to all aspects of writing and publishing, from sentence construction to paper stock. And he clearly knows his way around the construction of poetry. The challenge of rendering Dante’s in English is an attractive one. There are many translations out there, but even a novice can see the pitfalls. The Divine Comedy is written in terza rima, a rhyming scheme of Dante’s invention whereby the work is divided into groups of three lines, and where lines one and three rhyme, and line two rhymes with lines one and three of the next set. This gives the poem momentum. When English translators aim for close-to-literal translation, they often have to forgo rhyme, which tends to make the lines trip at the end. James has taken some liberties to make the poem more user-friendly, and uses an A, B, A, B rhyme-scheme to keep the poem galloping along. For modern readers unfamiliar with Dante, this is a formidable poem, so any help is appreciated.

The Divine Comedy is a poem about spiritual journeying, and it may at first seem a draw-back that James is himself not a believer, but the underlying theology is less important. The translator’s job is to get the thing sounding right so that not only is the translation faithful in some way to the original sound, but also so that the poet’s ideas can get across, whether the translator agrees with them or not. And here James has mostly done the job. That said, the poem is more than a tour of the afterlife; it has much to say about the individual in society, and about finding goodness despite life’s disappointments. As a humanist, James is clearly attracted to these notions.

Writers can’t always choose how they are remembered, and for a long while Dante’s great poem lay in obscurity. A revival occurred in the Victorian age, and now perhaps James will do his bit to help Dante’s star ascend again beyond academia and classics buffs. As for James’s fame, clearly he would like his translation to count in how he is remembered. Like the many celebrities he has studied, and as his recent TV interview with Kerry O’Brien indicated, James wants to be looked at, but wants to control what people see. If you act scandalously, however, that will be what people want to look at, and what has put him in the headlines recently has been his extra-marital affair and its repercussions. He may have to deal now with the realities, but he is right about the ideal: we should focus on his writing over his private life, not because he hasn’t done wrong, but because his writing is more interesting and uplifting than his life.

Fame, as James well knows, is a fickle mistress, and the Bible contains no small amount of material warning against the transitory nature of worldly success. The content of Dante’s great poem is of course the eternal, and although James is not a believer, he is probably correct in heading in the direction Dante points in his search for immortality.

(reviewed for Eternity magazine)

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