Clive James shares the books that matter at the end
ways been convinced,” he writes, “that a national consciousness is formed by secondary writing rather than by serious writing.” Apropos of which, James reveals with gusto how his daughter — “like a drug dealer handing out a free sample” — got him hooked on Patrick O’Brian’s Jack Aubrey novels about a 19-century naval officer. If “the Jack Aubrey books are merely entertaining”, James declares, “they are that at a high level”.
Part of James’s interest in Aubrey and CS Forester’s fellow fictional sailor Horatio Hornblower is their embodiment of “leadership, discipline, and carelessness of danger”. These characteristics draw James’s focus in the histories he reads, particularly those of World War II. Although “Britain would not have survived without” Winston Churchill, “the war would have been lost if he had been left to himself”. David Fraser’s biography Alanbrooke shows the powerful influence of Field Marshal Lord Alanbrooke, whose skill at handling Churchill and the latter’s wilder schemes benefited from “having been brought up well-off and well-placed” enough to “fearlessly contradict his boss”.
That silvered quality didn’t put off the Americans, “normally suspicious of toffs”, and Alanbrooke’s successful working relationship with five-star general George Marshall was part of the joint Atlantic command that “shows what democratic nations can do when the chips are down”. The US interests James: “reading about American politics was as thrilling, and almost as much fun, as reading about Hollywood”. The two are combined in the figure of John F. Kennedy, and James relishes Sally Bedell Smith’s Grace and Power, “a chronicle of the JFK White House” that exemplifies “the Higher Gossip: always a suspected genre, because we tend to enjoy it too much”.
JFK — with his Camelot cool and “compulsive womanising” — is far from John Howard. James praises Howard’s autobiography, Lazarus Rising, as “adding to the essential literature which will help to explain to the next generation of Australians just how their nation has come to hold its exceptional position”. James, a self-described member of the “blue-collar left”, meditates here on Australian political discourse, criticising the “vocal white-collar left” and “Australian intelligentsia” for unsubtle demonisation of Howard.
The intelligentsia is, James thinks, doing a better job with the nation’s culture. In his praise for the great Australian formalist poet Stephen Edgar, James reflects “on how far the Australian cultural expansion has come” in his lifetime: “Any feelings of isolation that its intelligentsia once had … no longer fit the facts. Its film directors and actors, its singers and conductors, are everywhere … Even in poetry, a field which has no real commercial existence, there is an Australian presence in the world.” James spends a chapter, too, cheering the much-needed “rise to influence of women” in the film industry.
Latest Readings is a frank book. Like his recent Poetry Notebook, there is a feeling of summing up. But, echoing his latest poetry collection, Sentenced to Life, James writes more expressly about mortality here. He is constantly aware that “time is not infinite, even though the love of art might seem to make it so”. When “you start the slide to nowhere”, the “air is lit by a shimmering tangle of all the reasons you are sad to go and all the reasons you are glad to leave. It’s the glow of life: apparently simple, yet complex beyond analysis.”
Writers often have a final blaze of clarity — a flame that roars hardest before it blackens to a wick. In Latest Readings, every burning line of prose I read, I feel aloft and singed: lifted by the brightness of his spirit and pained by the coming of his death. There is some comfort, though: Clive James has, surely, earned his immortality.
is a writer and critic.