April 2013

Arts & Letters

The competing sides of Clive James

By Geordie Williamson

Clive James: criticism was the field in which he was obliged to subordinate himself to the texts under discussion © Britta Campion / Newspix

The clown v. the critic

There is a phenomenon that astronomers call “gravitational lensing”. When the light from distant, brilliant stars passes an object of sufficient mass, it performs a Beckham-like bend on its way to Earth and the human eye. Gravity curves the rays, magnifying and distorting the image. We don’t see what we think we see. Modern media and the celebrity it creates are not dissimilar. The ionised gases of our plasma screens deliver images that at once confirm and subtly alter our sense of reality. The people who emerge from the screen’s glow are themselves but more so.

Clive James has suffered – and profited, of course – from this more local spectacle. Most of us know him best as a licensed raconteur on British television throughout the 1980s and ’90s; a Renaissance man with a clownish grin. His celebrated memoirs conspire in forming this image, describing the mock-heroic progress of a callow youth from Sydney’s Kogarah to Cambridge-based fame. Even those too young to remember him in this role would be hard-pressed to extricate James’s wider career from his lingering on-screen presence, immortalised on YouTube and most recently reflected in fireside chats, mainly with celebrities, in his Barbican flat and housed online: EM Forster with a webcam.

But before Clive James became “Clive James” he was a literary critic of uncommon shrewdness and flair. Beginning in the late 1960s, at the fag end of his time as a scholar at Cambridge, James reviewed for the Times Literary Supplement, The Observer, New Statesman and other top-drawer outlets. For a number of years criticism was his primary occupation, although typically his energies were partly applied in avoidance of other tasks. The reviews and columns he wrote instead of completing a biography of the poet Louis MacNeice for Charles Monteith at Faber & Faber became his first collected volume of criticism, 1974’s The Metropolitan Critic, published by the same firm.

James could reasonably argue that he has never ceased writing literary criticism. His reviews and essays have appeared regularly over the years in most major organs in the UK, the US and Australia, from the New Yorker to the Australian Book Review. But it has become an adjunct rather than the main event. In 1994 James could boast that “in recent years I have never had to write a piece of journalism of any kind except from choice”. But that meant poetry and prose had to compete with excursions into subjects such as photography, ice-skating, Princess Diana and the Holocaust. By the time a best-of compilation of his essays appeared, in 2001, those pieces devoted to literature had shrunk to an unrepresentative rump. He has written, surely correctly, that full-time reviewing is a mug’s game, poorly paid and overly competitive. “So I paid for the groceries by doing television instead.”

But the gradual displacement of James’s criticism by his media career – as well as his forays into poetry, song lyrics, memoir, travel writing and novels – is a matter for regret. Not because these other efforts are lesser activities but because criticism was the field in which James was obliged to subordinate himself to the texts under discussion. In the Unreliable Memoirs sequence, for example, James’s subject is himself. As literary performances they have a bravura quality; you would not wish to have less of him in their pages. Yet the returns diminish as our hero grows to maturity and achieves wider recognition. In 2006’s North Face of Soho and 2009’s The Blaze of Obscurity the author must increasingly narrate his own self-constructions. James is no longer describing the man but that man’s reflection in the funhouse mirror of celebrity. He is merely meta.

James’s literary criticism is nothing like this. In The Metropolitan Critic and 1979’s At the Pillars of Hercules – two collections containing work from his period as a full-time practitioner – the personality of the writer is vividly present in the prose. His reviews are effortlessly aphoristic, both freewheeling and precise. He breathes the “mandarin yet demotic” tone he praises in earlier models such as AD Hope. If they are obviously the work of an ambitious young man, they also contain evidence of something in short supply elsewhere in James’s career: humility. The anathemas and admirations in this dazzling series are also acts of homage – documents of scepticism, contempt, love, awe, gratitude and respect.

The triptych of essays on WH Auden that opens At the Pillars of Hercules is a case in point. James quotes from the poet’s first volume and asks “Was there ever a more capacious young talent? It goes beyond precocity.” He ploughs through Auden’s subsequent career, exploring in one essay the effect of Auden’s sexuality on his lyric voice:


The need to find an expression for his homosexuality was the first technical obstacle to check the torrential course of Auden’s unprecedented facility. A born master of directness was obliged straightaway to find a language for indirection …


He then proceeds to tease out the implications of this insight over half a century of poetic output. Its companion piece is a review of Auden’s nonfiction writings, in which James marvels at how Auden creates


unbeatably, the feeling that education is lifelong, addictive, playful. In him there is no element of the self-immolating drudge. He would never have been capable of Eliot’s sermon on the necessity for the student to embrace boredom.


Such passages give a double pleasure: they are correct, in that we sense the rightness of the observation, but, more than that, they are expressed in language that enacts as well as explains the wit and brio of the senior figure. The reader soon intuits that in these essays James has an underlying motive: he is developing his own aesthetic by trying on other people’s thoughts for size. When we consider how replete James’s early essays are with quotation, it is worth noting what he wrote on American poet Randall Jarrell, whose criticism stands besides that of George Bernard Shaw (“the most powerful single recommendation for a practical critical engagement, as opposed to academic detachment”) and Edmund Wilson (whose “key collections [are] simply the richest concentrations of critical thought in modern times”) as James’s ideal:


Jarrell’s use of quotations approaches the mark Walter Benjamin set for himself, of writing a critical essay consisting of nothing but. The catch – that the quality of the quotation is self-demonstrating only to the reader who doesn’t need telling – was one Jarrell recognised and was worried by. Luckily he didn’t let it stop him.


Nor is it possible to read James’s poetry – corseted in formal terms and reliant on antique devices – in the light of comments scattered throughout his essays and reviews. Defending Philip Larkin (a poet on whom he has written at length and with increasing appreciation over the years) from charges of a crabbed world view and overly disciplined formal technique, James writes: “Without the limitations there would be no Larkin – the beam cuts because it’s narrow.”

Of Edmund Wilson’s ventures into poetry, James nakedly acknowledges:


I can only say that it was this poem [‘On Editing Scott Fitzgerald’s Papers’], along with certain passages in Roy Campbell’s bloody-minded satires, which first convinced me that the rhyming couplet of iambic pentameter was still alive as a form – that in certain respects it was the form for an extended poem. Wilson, like Campbell, by accepting the couplet’s heritage of grandeur was able somehow to overcome its obsolescence: once the effect of archaic pastiche was accepted, there was room for any amount of modern freedom. In fact it was the fierce rigour of the discipline which made the freedom possible.


Then there is Dante:


The triadic symmetries of the Divine Comedy are a set of disciplines so strict that lyricism has no freedom to indulge itself: when it happens, it happens as a natural consequence of stating the truth.


It is illuminating to watch an intelligence so admittedly magpie and scattershot approving such formidable strictures. Indeed, in the icy uplands of James’s early reviews is a piece on the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein and his self-administered constraints that takes this notion to its extreme:


... a poet would do well to regard him as an enemy, not a friend. But he is the necessary enemy. There is something about his mental landscape, its tungsten outcrops and cryogenic lakes, which quenches one’s thirst for austerity.


Rather, James zags back to middle ground. The arresting in medias res opening of ‘Augustan Wattle’, his first essay on AD Hope, surely transmits something of James’s own nascent beliefs:


Against modernism and for classicism; against the bloodlessly refined and for the sensuously robust; backing the past against the future … Hope is ... the poet who matters most in all of the largest island’s short but variegated cultural history.


On Australian poetry James is very, very good. Whether writing of Gwen Harwood, Les Murray, Peter Porter or (with reservations) Kenneth Slessor, he is a smoothly vigorous booster of Antipodean verse. Like comparable figures such as Herbert Read and Frank Kermode, James saw the value in this nation’s poetry and argued for its offshore acceptance. To his credit, James soon saw that the perennial struggle for British approval of one of the 20th century’s great poetic efflorescences was missing the point. As he put it, “the endorsement” of the UK literati “was as otiose as the condemnation” that it had traditionally laid down.

What he could not – or would not – see in his native poetic tradition was the variegated quality he mentioned in relation to AD Hope. The Generation of ’68, with its fascination with the US, its political edge and its more theoretical approach to language left him cold. James approvingly quotes Randall Jarrell on the poems of Marianne Moore, an avowed modernist, that they have “the lacy, mathematical extravagance of snowflakes, seem as arbitrary as the prohibitions of fairy tales; but they work as those work – dis-regard them and everything goes to pieces”.

But, as is perhaps already evident from the quotations above, James insists on a limited vocabulary for snow, at least in the Australian context. Perhaps this has less to do with poet-ry than with cultural misprision. I once had the opportunity to have afternoon tea with James’s fellow expatriate Barry Humphries. We sat in the lobby of Sydney’s InterContinental hotel and placed our orders with a young woman. When Humphries asked for a pot of Bushells, the waitress was nonplussed; it was clear that, while she was familiar with a variety of exotic brews, Bushells tea – that staple of mid-century Australian households – was not one of them.

In the momentary perplexity that followed I sensed a dolorous truth: the world that Humphries had spent a lifetime directing his satiric genius towards was gone, or else extant only in isolated suburban pockets. The expatriate perches uneasily above the changes wrought in their long absence; they view them as a threat to the stability of their memories of home. This is also why I find James’s admission that his favourite Sydney cafe is at Circular Quay so telling. The Quay is the most tenuous of native spaces: an area where the next table is more likely to seat Americans or Swedes than locals; where a certain touristic vision of Australia is held in aspic. It is a place for passers-through.

None of this affects the worth of those writings dealing with offshore subjects: in their cosmopolitan precincts James is an exquisite indigene. He has written that the impossible trick of enduring literary criticism is to “popularise without traducing, to simplify without distorting – to vulgarise without violating” – and this is what his early work does. Though we rarely place James’s reviews at the centre of his oeuvre, they should be at the heart of the merit we accord him. They are the ballast that has trued the cruise ship of his larger renown.

Speaking of Auden’s late technique – the auto-sabotage of his stunning early poems, the refusal of the mesmeric qualities that originally characterised his verse – James wrote that “Auden conquers Selfhood by obliterating talent”. Well, it was only here, in these luminous essays and reviews, that James, too, conquered selfhood, by making eloquent obeisance to those singular talents larger than his own. 

Geordie Williamson

Geordie Williamson is a writer, editor and critic.


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