Gate of Lilacs is Clive James’s love sonnet to Proust, a commentary in verse on the great multi-volume Remembrance of Things Past, and it includes many of the things, dare I say, to both love and cringe at in James’s work.
There is the unmistakable James style – like Chesterton, throwing things on their head. While, he says, many people think that Proust is a world, it is merely that Proust describes his own particular world in such detail. There are the details about editions and which authors James likes. For James, it is not just the text, but the binding, the edition, the publisher, the hard-to-find copy, the bookstore he bought it in, the café he read it in, the time of life when he read it, the translation he read it in, the critic that said this, that and the other thing, as opposed to that critic who missed the point. His style is not the disinterested, remote academic, but the book-lover.
There is what looks like bragging, but could be just that enthusiasm. He says he learnt French reading Proust, in French, not once, but twice, in-between reading the English translation, and then reading the English again. Good Lord, it is enough for us mere mortals to struggle through it once. Actually struggle is not the right word – Proust flows beautifully, but there is just so much of it, and I admit to only reading a dozen or so pages before putting it down to wait for that opportune summer, or year, to devote to it, which will hopefully come, but then there are other things waiting too, Barth’s Church Dogmatics among them. Michael Wood has commented that there is reading books, and then there is dreaming of reading books, which is almost as pleasurable. James though, doesn’t dream about it. He reads them all, takes notes, reads them again. When it comes to the writing of this commentary on Proust, James says that he was writing it while translating Dante, mind you.
Then there is the faux humility – I can’t remember every obscure detail, but thank heavens for my good friend (drop famous name here) who pointed it out to me. James’s learning is formidable, more so for being self-taught, much of it. He used to hide it behind the TV funny man persona, now he is keen to let everyone know just how much he knows before he is gone. His mind is a library, the odd misplaced book here and there, but a catalogue, arranged to suit his tastes. Like Proust it’s a little world, somewhat precious and snobbish, and narrowed by illness, but the fact of being couped-up has, like Proust, intensified the observation, the reminiscence, the passion. He is full of opinion, sometimes argued less with facts and more with insistence and just brilliance of wordplay.
James is one of the few authors whose voice I hear when I read his work. There is something about his cadence and argument that is inimitably his (though it is sometimes unmistakably imitative of Chesterton also). It’s always a pleasure to step into the current of his writing. Here, again, also, is his ability to mix the high and the low. In a nice metaphor he likens Proust’s work to the over-feeding of the birds in his garden, and decides he must ‘dial down the chow supply’. This sitting, as it does, with French terms, within the cornucopia of James’s writing.