By Clive James
(Yale University Press, 180 pages, $25)
Poet, author, journalist, and TV personality Clive James has taken some of the last time available to him on this earth to produce a small but very readable book on reading, a lifetime passion for James, who describes himself as “book crazy.”
Even omnivorous readers might not be as cavalier as this comment from the 75-year-old James, who was diagnosed with terminal leukemia in 2010: “If you don’t know the exact moment when the lights will go out, you might as well read until they do.” And so he continues to read, and here takes us along for the ride in a series of short essays that will repay the time of those for whom reading has been central in their lives.
James is a thoughtful and articulate man with wide intellectual interests, but he’s not a scholar. He’s far too lively and full of wry humor and good cheer to be a don. And like so many non-academic thinkers, his reading is wide and diverse. These essays touch on James’s recent travels with such literary heavyweights as Conrad, Proust, and Naipaul. He has even been able to read and re-read Hemingway with profit late into adulthood (something many others, myself included, have been unable to do). And there are the poets: Shakespeare, Kipling, Larkin, Stephen Edgar, Richard Wilbur. He even re-strapped-on Boswell’s Life of Johnson.
James’ scattershot reading includes as well some lesser known volumes on Hollywood and various precincts of show biz, in which James has been involved and which he finds fascinating. But as he ages he fully understands the difference between the intellectually serious and literary empty calories, consumed for immediate pleasure and no more. “Finally you get to an age when a book’s power to make you think becomes the first thing you notice about it,” he writes.
He calls his rereading of Conrad, than whom there can hardly be anyone more serious, a rediscovery. “My Reconquista of his works is spread throughout this book because that was the way it happened. I didn’t revisit his major novels in a bunch. I tried to space them out, mainly because I was trying to stop. Time felt precious and I would have preferred to spend less of it with him, but he wouldn’t let me go.” (Conradians will understand.)
While James calls Conrad’s Nostromo one of “the greatest books I have every read,” he also whoops up Patrick O’Brian’s Jack Aubrey sea operas, to which James became addicted after his daughter gave him a copy of Master and Commander. James says he doesn’t read V.S. Naipaul for his (Naipaul’s) heart, there being various opinions on whether or not he has one, but for “his fastidious scorn.” Just so.
James’s audience for his literary criticism is the general reader, not the academic specialist. He celebrates literature. He doesn’t strangle it with theory. And he doesn’t put writers on the psychiatrist’s couch. “How did literary theory get started? Because the theorists couldn’t write,” he explains. (If you don’t think this is so, pick up any edition of the PMLA — the journal of the Modern Language Association -— and open it to any page.) “The critic should write to say, not ‘look how much I’ve read,’ but ‘look at this, it’s wonderful.’”
An example of his approach can be found in this riff on Philip Larkin, one of James’s favorite poets. “I wrote at least half a dozen articles about Larkin without doing much more than scratching the surface of his brilliance. But I’m sure my instinct was sound in not trying to plumb the depths. The turmoil of his psyche is the least interesting thing about him. His true profundity is right there on the surface in the beauty of his line.”
James’s reading also includes a heavy representation of books on World War II, on which subject James could justly be said to be an expert. He has an emotional as well as intellectual connection to that terrible conflict, as his father was a prisoner of war of the Japanese. He survived the hell of his imprisonment but died after liberation when the plane that was taking him home crashed.
James was born in Australia and has lived in England since he was 23. He says the “featherweight books about Hollywood” have “taught me about American cultural imperialism: which is, after all, the branch of American global dominance that actually works, however much the rest of us might fret.” But he recognizes the centrality of the serious writers. And they sustain him even now when, as he recently said to an interviewer with typical Jamesian irreverence, “the end is nigh, but not that nigh.” He concludes of this stage of his life: “The childish urge to understand everything doesn’t necessarily fade when the time approaches for you to do the most adult thing of all — vanish.”
Those who’ve read James’s books — 30 in all including novels, literary criticism, and poetry, even a translation of Dante’s Divine Comedy — know that James understands a good deal, and can present what he knows clearly, and usually with humor. Humor was certainly the staple of James’s television work, a sample here, and lots more on YouTube. He is an unpredictable thinker, neither of the left or right, but one whose reading, and the thought he has applied to that reading, has led to a great appreciation of the wonder and mystery of life, a tapestry far too complex to be explained by any political or cultural theory. He is not a fan of Big Ideas that purport to organize our lives.
The only complaint that people who consider serious reading to be essential to their lives can have with this book, is that it is over too soon. Latest Readings is an economical summing up of a long literary life. A life that James’s readers will hope contains more years, more writing, and much more reading.
There is some reason to be optimistic about this last. James recently told the Guardian that a new drug seems to be holding his leukemia at bay. Good news indeed.
Now back to my own reading of Conrad’s The Secret Agent, which somehow I managed to miss for all these decades. Thanks to Clive James for reminding me of it.