Shocking, I know, but I hadn’t paid much attention to Clive James since my dim distant undergraduate days 30 years ago, when I remember being vastly amused by his verse satire of Grub Street parvenus, Peregrine Prykke’s Pilgrimage. Since then he’s rather passed me by — I never thought his television shows up to much, his byline has never grabbed me and I have yet to consult his latest project, described by the blurb as ‘the world’s first serious multimedia personal website’ (serious?). Nothing personal, no formulated opinion of his talent one way or the other, I just wasn’t a fan.
Then came the prospect of a trans- atlantic flight, for which I decided his new collection of recent essays would be just the thing. It focuses on an engaging variety of topics — Larkin, Yeats, Philip Roth, the totalitarian regimes of the 20th century, his native Australia and its literature, the general election of 2001, The West Wing, Bing Crosby and the crooners, Formula One racing, and ‘celebrity culture’ among them — and a cursory preview was encouraging. James writes buoyantly, he has a restless, lively intelligence and a range of cultural reference which stretches effortlessly from Alexander Pushkin to Zinka Milanov, via Primo Levi and Tony Soprano. His spirit is generous, based in a political stance that gives two decent cheers for liberal democratic societies and doesn’t sentimentalise terrorism or tyranny of any colour.
So why did I find the book such heavy going, sometimes to the point of thinking that it would never end? One problem is a matter of length — such is the cachet of James’s name that editors seem to grant him double the space they allow anyone else. Most of these essays would benefit from sharp cutting, because James lacks the great literary essayist’s instinct for shape and concision. He is a chatterer and a rambler, who will wander a long way off course in order to arrive at his punch-line and then forget where he was headed before the diversion.
But of course it’s the punch-lines, quips and puns that made James famous, and they are still what his readership wants. Ever one to oblige, he provides them thick and fast here. A failure of my sense of humour perhaps, but confronted with this rapier antipodean wit, I’m afraid I could only envisage an arthritic old circus animal gamely trotting out into the ring and leaping through hoops to dwindling applause.
Too many of the jokes revolve around his bald head and middle-aged libido. They are coloured with the same dismal blokishness that is the stock-in-trade of telly presenters like Jeremy Clarkson and Jonathan Ross — his ambition of meeting his end ‘being knifed to death in an Elle Macpherson lingerie commercial’ being representative. Others will doubtless find this sort of smart-aleckery funnier than I do, but it made me smile only once, when Aldous Huxley, during his period embedded in Ottoline Morrell’s cenacle, is described as ‘eyeless in Garsington’.
Behind the laboured wit and determination to show an awareness of all the twists and turns of popular culture goes a desire to moralise on Where We Are Now and grapple with large philosophical issues such as the nature of evil. James read English at Cambridge, where the Leavisite outlook impressed itself upon him. He wants to judge and discriminate, to make evaluative separations of good from bad, but there is often something direly vulgar about the way he marries all these aspirations up in slick hyperbole. Of the poet Philip Hodgins, for example, he writes, ‘If he had lived as long as his admired Goethe he would probably have been Goethe.’ Polanksi’s film The Pianist is ‘a work of genius on every level’. The Sopranos uses ‘the spoken language at an elliptical intensity seldom heard since Congreve’. Such remarks may have a headline-grabbing immediacy, but they don’t weather much critical consideration. It’s a sort of intellectual exhibitionism that he should get over.
When he does calm down and stops shooting his mouth off, he can be excellent. The review of Nicholas Murray’s biography of Huxley, originally written for the New Yorker (which probably edited him rigorously), has clarity and humility and humanity, as if he’s suddenly decided to emulate Edmund Wilson and John Updike. He is forcefully to the point on Margaret Mauldon’s inept translation of Madame Bovary. His tribute to Peter Porter is irresistible in its warm affection and enthusiasm. And he can be wryly honest about his own split motivations: ‘I am against the celebrity culture for everyone except myself,’ he concludes — a remark that may have to stand as his epitaph.