Potato chips and peanuts

Latest Readings, Clive James (Yale).

Clive James says that because of his terminal illness he doesn’t have the same energy for sustained bouts of writing. At the same time he is hurrying through reading various books because his time his limited. So in Latest Readings we have what is closest of all his works to jottings and web posts. These small pieces on books that he is reading or re-reading are like appetisers, and while one shouldn’t make a meal out of appetisers (as James himself says somewhere) it is tempting to gorge on them, as I did, reading the book in only a couple of sittings. They are a mixed bag, more like potato chips and peanuts than caviar in their warm informality, though still served on the silver tray of James’s style (at the risk of overcooking this hors d’oeuvres metaphor), such as when he says that Albert Speer pulled a fast one but did it slowly.

James can be egotistical (which can be hidden behind the humour) but he is generous in pointing to other people’s work. He says that if a plaque was placed somewhere in his honour he would like it to read, ‘He loved the written word and told the young’. I am not so sure ‘the young’ read his work much these days – that may be a conceit on his part – but putting that aside, the first part of this epitaph confirms the fairly obvious fact of his being a writer – poet, novelist, journalist – but the second part indicates much about his approach here and elsewhere. He is enthusiastic about certain books and writers. Though he clearly wants to be known as a poet of some repute, he has also spent half of his career spruiking other people’s ideas and writing, a kind of literary ambassador. Often this extends to the editions, paper, bindings, and the places he finds his books. More than in other books, here James goes into loving (that might be tedious to some) detail about his book buying and shelving habits. I can relate to his tales of smuggling new books into the house.

Anthony Powell

Because James is so attentive to style himself, many of his comments relate to the style of various authors, such as Joseph Conrad and Anthony Powell (above). On the other hand, he is impatient with authors who may have decent ideas but can’t express them. He is dismissive of theory, probably too hastily. There is always a place for clarity in academic work, but sometimes clarity is a matter of levels. Besides, as Terry Eagleton observes, it is often an incorrect generalisation that theorists can’t write. One only need look at the theory of Roland Barthes or Eagleton himself to see that theory and fine literature are not mutually exclusive.

There is also something of the lingering cultural cringe with James, which may be a result of being an expat so long. James is proud to announce that Australians now strut the world stage (presumably he puts himself among their number), but I am not sure many of us are so insecure anymore, now that globalisation has firmly entrenched itself, that we are constantly looking for international recognition. Eventually his discussion of Australia brings him round to praising John Howard, despite (unintentionally) laughably describing himself as of the ‘blue collar left’. He criticises and caricatures the Australian intelligentsia (a mythical entity that is always a soft target) for hating Howard and suggests that Howard could be relied on for always saying what he meant. In fact, it was just the opposite of this (‘mean and tricky’) that so enraged Howard’s detractors. James praises Howard’s border policies but it was the perception of duplicitous mean-spiritedness that made it into such an issue. James may identify with the everyman Howard, but he does so from a place almost as far from Australia as one could possibly get.

 

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