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Clive James (1939-2019)

Kevin Power writes: He called his first book The Metropolitan Critic, and metropolitan is what he thought every critic should be: urban and urbane, scorning the ivory tower for the café and the pub, filing copy to deadline like any other professional and turning the critical eye on anything that wasn’t nailed down. But by metropolitan he also meant cosmopolitan, in the old-fashioned liberal-humanist sense of the word. His model was Edmund Wilson, the twentieth century’s exemplary critic-without-portfolio, and “The Metropolitan Critic”, that first book’s title essay, is both a portrait of Wilson and a self-portrait of Clive James himself in 1972 – or perhaps it’s a portrait of what James knew he would one day become:

He is the ideal of the metropolitan critic, who understood from the beginning that the intelligence of the metropolis is in a certain relation to the intelligence of the academy, and went on understanding this even when the intelligence of the academy ceased to understand its relation to the intelligence of the metropolis. When Wilson called the Modern Language Association to order, he performed the most important academic act of the postwar years – he reminded the scholars that their duty was to literature.

The metropolis is not the academy: this was the point. Clive James knew that the long essay, the book review, the feuilleton (whatever you want to call it: the short occasional piece written to enlighten and amuse) was not just where culture happened but where art could happen, too, especially if you believed that “literary journalism ought to be written from deep personal commitment and to the highest standards of cogency the writer could attain”. As James saw it, neither culture nor art stood much chance of happening in theory-besotted university departments. Here he is, in Cultural Amnesia (2007), on Walter Benjamin:

Part of his sad fate has been to have his name bandied about the intellectual world without very many of its inhabitants being quite sure why, apart from the vague idea that he was a literary critic who somehow got beyond literary criticism: he got up into the realm of theory, where critics rank as philosophers if they are hard enough to read.

Which is, or should be, the final word on a whole generation of “theorists” and their academic epigones. But James knew that it would not be the final word, and that “an unintelligent intelligentsia is a permanent feature of human history”. He knew that the hard-to-read would go on being worshipped, and that writers who were merely funny, informed, and scrupulously honest would have to find their way as best they could.

Merely funny: as if being funny wasn’t the best thing a writer could be, and as if being funny wasn’t an aspect of being sane – maybe the defining aspect (“a sense of humour,” he wrote, late in life, “is just common sense dancing”). James enjoyed one great advantage over his hero Edmund Wilson: he was funny. Of course, being funnier than Edmund Wilson isn’t exactly a major accomplishment. But James was funnier than everyone else too. His TV columns for The Observer, collected in Visions Before Midnight (1977), The Crystal Bucket (1981) and Glued to the Box (1983), remain readable when every trace of the programmes he reviewed has vanished from the collective memory: because they’re funny. “Mary and Plunket were both insistent that work should be enjoyed, but never got around to tackling the problem posed by the millions of people who are well aware of this, but still don’t enjoy their work.” You don’t have to know who Mary and Plunket were to get the gag. And his books are full of sentences like that one. No, not just full: replete. Open any book to any page and there it is: a sentence so good that most of us would be happy to have written nothing else that year, or that decade, or that lifetime. On Judith Krantz’s sex-and-shopping opus Princess Daisy: “As a work of art it has the same status as a long conversation between two not very bright drunks, but as bestsellers go it argues for a reassuringly robust connection between fiction and the reading public.”

He could do this stuff at will. Everyone knows his description of Arnold Schwarzenegger: “a brown condom filled with walnuts”. But everyone should know his description of the Sydney Opera House: “a typewriter full of oyster shells”. Or his retitling of a TV programme featuring Jonathan Miller in conversation with Susan Sontag: “Captain Eclectic Meets Thinkwoman”. Or his assertion that Moby-Dick is ““one of those books you can’t get started with even after you’ve finished it.” Or his crushing summation of the career of Colin Wilson, author of the 1950s pop-philosophy hit The Outsider: “his reputation ebbed away to the peripheral bedsits of the barely employable not-quite-bright, where it lined itself up along brick-and-pine bookshelves in a row of paperbacks from progressively less prestigious publishers”. The Wilson piece was so devastating that, when it was collected in The Metropolitan Critic, James felt moved to apologise for it: “this is a textbook example of how not to write an article”. Of course it isn’t any such thing. What James meant was that obliterating Wilson was too easy – that Wilson himself was such a clodhopping literalist that setting Clive James on him was like dropping a nuclear warhead on a water pistol. The brilliant are as susceptible to temptation as the rest of us. He could do it; so he did it. 

To borrow a gag from Martin Amis’s The Information, when Clive James reviewed a book, it stayed reviewed. Once a year or so I reread his assessment of John Le Carre’s The Honourable Schoolboy (collected in From the Land of Shadows, 1982):

To start with, the prose style is overblown. Incompatible metaphors fight for living space in the same sentence. “Now at first Smiley tested the water with Sam – and Sam, who liked a poker hand himself, tested the water with Smiley.” Are they playing cards in the bath? Such would-be taciturnity is just garrulousness run short of breath.

Unimprovable. Sometimes he overdid it of course. Writing about the sex life of Ford Madox Ford (the piece appears in The Metropolitan Critic), he couldn’t stop himself: “the Grade A crumpet came at him like kamikazes, crashing through his upper decks in gaudy cataracts of fire”. To say that you wouldn’t get away with that nowadays is to ignore the fact that James barely got away with it then. The least of it was that he was mocked for engaging in “stunt writing”, and it’s fair to say that he never managed entirely to dispel the whiff of attention-seeking that wafted from his fancier phrases. But stunts, by definition, are memorable – maybe especially when they don’t come off. “Kamikaze crumpet” is a permanent fixture of my mental concordance of Clive James one-liners. It doesn’t really work, but it only fails according to the highest standards of taste (although I do cringe at “Grade A crumpet” – you wouldn’t get way with that nowadays because you shouldn’t get away with it). Lesser writers don’t even fail this interestingly. The danger with stunt writing, I suppose, is that it will lapse into spectacle. But spectacles are – what else? – spectacular. Even a failed spectacle is worth the price of admission.

The glittering, omniscient style was there from the beginning, though he always spoke of himself as a slow learner. On Keats: “Given all the qualities at a young age, it would have been large of Keats to envy the plodders who acquire them, if at all, only over time.” Implicitly, James aligns himself with the plodders. But in his early essays (the Edmund Wilson piece, done anonymously for the TLS, was his first big hit), the voice is already there: the big square paragraphs (solid blocks of thought, with every corner sealed up tight); every rift loaded with ore; the sentences that hinged on neat reversals, or reversed themselves neatly on hinges smoothly oiled by extended metaphors (tricky to do, as you can see; he made it look easy).

Several generations of writers have now tinkered with the Clive James formula: not just TV critics (Charlie Brooker equals Clive James plus misanthropy) but restaurant critics, theatre critics, movie critics (Anthony Lane equals Clive James plus archness). But the Clive James formula is like the formula for Coca-Cola. Cherry Coke is still coke – just with added flavour. There was no substitute for the real thing. And he never stopped producing the real thing. The voice that comes through the pages of Latest Readings, a short collection of literary essays published in 2015, when James was already gravely ill with leukaemia and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), is still the voice of the metropolitan critic: “How did literary theory get started? Because the theorists couldn’t write.”

He could write. And he had read everything, and he made you want to read everything too, even if it was always tempting simply to read more of him instead: how could the classic writers he praised (Montale, Hazlitt, Benedetto Croce) possibly be as entertaining as he was? Cultural Amnesia – 876 pages in my Picador hardback edition – would be endlessly re-readable even if it was twice as long and included twice as many essays on writers I had never heard of before I read it and still have not gotten around to reading even now (Marcel Reich-Ranicki? Alfred Polgar? Leszek Kolakowski?).

Cultural Amnesia is the book for which he hoped to be remembered, even if his title satirised his ambition before the first page was turned. Alphabetically arranged and subtitled Notes in the Margin of My Time, it is a kaleidoscope of feuilletons: essays of startling brilliance on writers from Anna Akhmatova to Stefan Zweig, though really, as James says in his introduction, it is a single digressive essay about “philosophy, history, politics, and the arts all at once, and about what happened to those things during the course of the multiple catastrophes into whose second principle outburst (World War I was the first) I had been born in 1939”. 

In other words, Cultural Amnesia is a kind of summa theologica of the politically sceptical, passionately literary strain of twentieth century liberal humanism. This was what the metropolitan critic represented and embodied, and in Cultural Amnesia we meet the metropolitan critic in full cosmopolitan flight. In writing it, James knew that he was fighting a rearguard action (“a competent writer would look twice at ‘rearguard action’ to make sure that he means to evoke a losing battle” – from the essay on Georg Christoph Lichtenberg). Of the twenty-first century – which grew from the twentieth century, he said, “as a column of black smoke grows from an oil fire” – James observed that “the arts and their attendant scholarship are everywhere […] they have a glamour unprecedented in history – but humanism is hard to find.”

Since 2007, when these words first appeared in print, they have not become less true. The point of half a century of academic “theory” has been to mock humanism out of existence (once, at a conference, I heard one academic scream at another: “That’s a statement from the superego of liberal humanism!” You were left in no doubt that this was meant to be a devastating blow). But the lesson of the twentieth century, as Clive James understood, was that if you dismantle humanism, you make it easier to dismantle human beings. The thinkers who contrived to ignore this lesson are the villains of Cultural Amnesia. Here is James on Jean-Paul Sartre:

Sartre’s gauchiste vision was the style-setter of French political thought […] A key principle in this vision is that the Communist regimes, no matter how illiberal, had serious altruistic intentions in comparison with the irredeemably self-serving capitalist West. (Academics in the capitalist West greeted this brainwave with awed approval, failing to note that their society could hardly be self-interested if it allowed them to do so – unless, that is, freedom of expression is a sly trick played by capitalism to convince the gullible that they are at liberty.)

Common sense, dancing.

In an ideal world, Cultural Amnesia would be the first book assigned to undergraduates when they arrive at university, and they would spend the next three years getting to grips with the writers and thinkers it celebrates. If nothing else, it would offer students a model of ideal prose – and, not incidentally, a model of ideal sanity. The sense of loss provoked by its author’s death is, for some of us, not merely personal but political too – or perhaps I should say cultural, in the sense that the death of Clive James feels like the death of the old liberal humanist idea that a sane individual equipped with talent and taste could make sense of the world for us, and make us laugh while they were doing it, and that this was what mattered, over and above the dreams of crazed despots or the distractions of mass-produced schlock. Then again, the death of a sane individual is especially wearying, because it reminds us, in the bleakest possible way, how few sane people we could count on to begin with, and how urgently we depended on those few we did have to keep us steady in dark times.

Clive James was – but here we encounter the real difficulty. He has moved from is to was. Clive James in the past tense? Unimaginable. But the books remain – and on the page, every writer is permanently in the present tense. The talent still burns. But the world is a colder place without him.

28/11/2019