James McNa­mara

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books -

In 1623 John Donne, the great wit of his gen­er­a­tion, lay tor­mented by fever, con­vinced he was soon to die. When the fever broke, Donne wrote a po­tent med­i­ta­tion on sick­ness, death and the love of God, De­vo­tions Upon Emer­gent Oc­ca­sions, from which we draw the adage “never send to know for whom the bell tolls, it tolls for thee”. Our own great wit, Clive James, is near the end. He has leukaemia. His lungs are tat­tered from em­phy­sema. He’s down to one good eye. Latest Read­ings, James’s ex­cel­lent new book, is a med­i­ta­tion on sick­ness, death and his love of sec­u­lar gods, literature and read­ing.

When first di­ag­nosed, James was de­spon­dent. He could “hear the clock tick­ing” and won­dered if “it was worth read­ing any­thing both new and sub­stan­tial”. “I was ready,” he says, “to set­tle down on my deathbed.” But James re­cov­ered his pas­sion: “If you don’t know the ex­act mo­ment when the lights will go out, you might as well read un­til they do.”

James reads through his sick­ness, in spite of and around it. Dur­ing in­tra­venous an­tibi­otics and “what seem gal­lons of im­munoglob­u­lin”, he reads Joseph Con­rad and Stephen Edgar. Told to “am­bu­late” by his doc­tors (ward­ing off throm­bo­sis), in sum­mer he walks to Hugh’s book­stall in the Cam­bridge mar­kets and in win­ter paces “up and down the kitchen”, with Rud­yard Ki­pling and Sa­muel John­son held “in front of [his] nose”.

Half his books were culled in the move from his Lon­don base back to Cam­bridge, but he roams the thou­sands re­main­ing, “old pur­chases beg­ging to be read again even as the new pur­chases came in at the rate of one plas­tic shop­ping bag full ev­ery week. In­san­ity, in­san­ity.”

In Latest Read­ings, James brings us into the book-lined kitchen where he works, vol­umes over­spilling his shelves on to the counter. And he tells us what he’s read­ing, “mix­ing books of ob­vi­ous se­ri­ous­ness with books of seem­ing triv­i­al­ity; as I al­ways have, in the belief that cul­ture is a mat­ter not of cre­den­tials, but only of in­ten­sity”. In do­ing so, he shows what makes him our pre-em­i­nent critic: vast learn­ing, treat­ment of both high and pop­u­lar cul­ture, and above all an en­thu­si­asm for literature shared in a prose that is at once earthy, sparkling and eru­dite.

The book’s con­tent is en­joy­ably eclec­tic — “my plan for the or­gan­i­sa­tion of this vol­ume: there isn’t one. It just sort of hap­pened.” James ranges through the heavy­weights. “I have spent a good part of my adult life read­ing books about Ernest Hem­ing­way,” he writes, “and I don’t want to die among a heap of them, but they keep get­ting into the house.”

He re­vis­its Hem­ing­way’s The Sun Also Rises, a beau­ti­ful swag­ger of a first novel: “the sharp­ness of the de­tails I re­mem­bered — the ch­est­nut trees of Paris, the run­ning of the bulls in Pam­plona — was a suf­fi­cient re­minder that the book had al­ways struck me as fresh and vivid, the per­fect ex­pres­sion of a young writer get­ting into his stride”. Dis­cussing Paul Hen­drick­son’s book Hem­ing­way’s Boat, James analy­ses Hem­ing­way’s com­plex­i­ties, a per­son­al­ity “so ex­trav­a­gant that his cre­ative work oc­cu­pied only a small cor­ner of it”.

Hem­ing­way por­trayed him­self as a “man of dis­ci­pline” and his friend F. Scott Fitzger­ald as a feck­less “rummy”. But Hem­ing­way was a prodi­gious booze-hound, and James sees him as a study in waste, his mind ul­ti­mately ru­ined by drink. As James recog­nises, the younger Clive wasn’t shy of a pint or a smoke. Yet he is a “Pu­ri­tan” when it comes to self-harmed tal­ent. His own, as the wit and crackle of Latest Read­ings shows, works just fine.

Hem­ing­way and Fitzger­ald were both guests of the leg­endary pa­trons Sara and Gerald Mur­phy, said to be in­spi­ra­tions for Ni­cole and Dick Diver in Fitzger­ald’s Ten­der is the Night. Writ­ing on Amanda Vaill’s Ev­ery­body Was So Young, James evokes the lan­guid world of the Mur­phys’ An­tibes house in the 1920s, where Amer­i­can writ­ers mixed with Euro­pean greats: Pablo Pi­casso, John Dos Pas­sos, Hem­ing­way, and Fitzger­ald, fur­ni­ture-break­ing drunk. “You can see your­self loung­ing about on the beach and feel­ing bound to start writ­ing a mas­ter­piece, if not to­day then to­mor­row.” The Mur­phys’ “lit­tle king­dom gen­er­ated a spe­cific tex­ture of bliss that was re­mem­bered by all who touched it”.

An­thony Pow­ell’s 12-vol­ume se­quence


‘If you don’t know the ex­act mo­ment when the lights will go out, you might as well read un­til they do’ Latest Read­ings By Clive James Yale Univer­sity Press, 192pp, $29.95 (HB) nov­els A Dance to the Mu­sic of Time evokes a sim­i­lar feel­ing in James: “How I rel­ished the ac­tual phys­i­cal ex­pe­ri­ence of con­sum­ing his lit­tle books like plates of sweets and grapes as I sat on my gar­den ter­race while the heat grad­u­ally went out of a long sum­mer.” But there’s a pit within the fruit: notwith­stand­ing that “the whole se­quence is an al­most un­bro­ken stretch of ge­nius”, parts of it are, James says, dull. So too are parts of Con­rad, who ranks sim­i­larly highly in James’s es­ti­ma­tion. Mar­low — Con­rad’s re­cur­rent nar­ra­tor ( Lord Jim, Heart of Dark­ness) — “is a bore ... Con­rad’s sole te­dious cre­ation”. Con­rad’s Nostromo, “one of the great­est books I have ever read”, ben­e­fits from hav­ing “no Mar­low in it: the nar­ra­tor’s voice came through un­fil­tered by an in­ter­ven­ing cloth of tedium”.

James’s pow­er­ful in­flu­ence as a critic re­sults, in part, from his will­ing­ness to treat pop­u­lar cul­ture se­ri­ously and on its own terms. “I have al-

Clive James at his desk:

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