Clive James shares the books that mat­ter at the end

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Contents - James McNa­mara

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.

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