The Kid from Kogarth Grows Up
Latest Readings, Clive James, Yale University Press, 2015, 192pp, £12.99 (hardcover)
When Australian polymath Clive James was diagnosed with terminal leukaemia in 2010, he could have been forgiven for bringing down the curtain on a long and glittering literary career. Instead, his unwanted contract with the Grim Reaper sparked a highly prolific second creative life. New volumes of verse, literary criticism, a translation of Dante’s Divine Comedy and a poetry handbook have appeared with almost indecent haste since his diagnosis, forcing James to make a running joke of his undelivered demise. The shadow of mortality has spurred James on to continue lighting up the page, including this year’s acclaimed death-haunted collection, Sentenced To Life. The newest instalment in this unexpected autumnal harvest is Latest Readings, a hymn to the pleasures, passions and obsessions of reading and collecting books. But just as importantly, James the bibliophile connects a love of reading with the larger issues of life itself, noting how ‘Being book crazy is an aspect of love, and therefore scarcely rational at all’.
Latest Readings — the title surely punning on medical as well as literary concerns, especially as the book is dedicated ‘To my doctors and nurses at Addenbrooke’s Hospital, Cambridge, UK’ — rarely reads like a valedictory book. Rather, it is a typically Jamesian collection, light on its feet, various and erudite, and packed with his trademark epigrammatic literary skills. A late love letter to favourite books and authors, old and recently discovered, it is also partly a homage to Hugh’s bookstall in Cambridge, where the ailing James still trundles to replenish his already overstuffed shelves. But devotion to literature has been the guiding principle of a writer born in 1939 in Kogarah, suburban Sydney, later immortalising his early life in the bestselling Unreliable Memoirs (1980.) Arriving in England in the early 1960s, James initially endured the life of the penniless poet, before his intellectual life blossomed at Cambridge University, where he took a second