Latest Readings by Clive James
I was supposed to review this book for the latest issue of Shiny, but just couldn’t write it up in time, so Simon obliged with a review for Shiny (here), in which I was surprised to read that Simon was actually new to James’ writing. To me, he’s an old friend. I grew up reading his TV column in the Observer each week, went on Flying Visits with him, read most of his memoirs, and of course I diligently watched him on the telly. His rapier wit and deadpan Aussie delivery was perfect for dissecting the week’s TV viewing in a literary yet accessible and hilarious way.
Of course, he’s getting on a bit now, although still only 76 he’s sadly suffering from leukaemia – but as he said in the Guardian the other week ‘Still being alive is embarrassing.’ He’d expected to be dead by now, but new treatment is helping. Long may it continue.
James may have retired from making personal appearances, but in his reading and writing he is still indulging with gusto, and this book is the result of his publisher asking him what he’s been reading lately. It caused him to set off on a voyage of exploration amongst his newly winnowed shelves (having moved), but added to with each visit to Hugh’s bookstall on Cambridge market.
Even after the request came, I went on reading in no particular order, 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, and sometimes you will find things out from fans and buffs that you won’t from a tenured professor.
However, he does institute a bit of plan to give this book an arc or re-readings – starting and finishing with Hemingway, going from young to old, and a peppering of Conrad throughout. We begin with Hemingway’s debut The Sun Also Rises:
All too often he overdoes the repetitions in those dialogue passages where the speakers seem mainly intent on echoing each other’s phrases. Worse, when they get drunk they start echoing themselves. But even with that irritating trick, he occasionally gets it so right that you laugh.
At this point, I had to (somewhat smugly) agree with him! The next chapter moves on to Conrad – an author I’ve never read (but feel as if I have). On re-reading Lord Jim, which he’d found boring as a student. He says:
… the book struck me as no more exciting than it had once seemed, but a lot more interesting.
I found that a fascinating point of view, and so true too, given a lifetime of reading and experience you would approach the historicity of a novel differently. In contrast, he says Nostromo is ‘one of the greatest books I have ever read.’
He discovers a love for Olivia Manning’s Balkan and Levant trilogies, wondering why he’d never read them before (making me want to re-read them instantly), and discusses other series of novels such as Waugh’s Sword of Honour trilogy and Ford’s Parade’s End quartet, before moving on to devote a chapter to the charms of ‘Patrick O’Brian and His Salty Hero’. Urged into reading them by his daughter, he polished off all twenty volumes of the Aubrey/Maturin books, despite musing that O’Brian ‘doesn’t know what to do with an interesting female character.’
He talks eloquently about his love of factual books about the second world war and its leading figures, even if the contents are suspect or controversial.
We move on to another series of books – Anthony Powell’s A Dance to the Music of Time. (I must get my reading of this series back on the tracks.) James had been determined not to re-read them, but was waylaid by a complete set of paperbacks on Hugh’s bookstall with cover illustrations by a dear late friend of his, Mark Boxer.
And they do read well, as I soon found out all over again; because when I got them home I started reading them one after another. In the last years of his life I knew Powell well enought to be sure he would have approved of how I relished the 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.
I could go on and on, for James’s prose is just so quotable, whether he’s talking about big volumes on politics and history, or his love of poetry. What I particularly love is his unsnobbish attitude and his joie de vivre for reading. He can also make anything sound interesting. This little volume was an absolute joy to read, and it ought to go on your Christmas present lists for anyone who likes books about books. I’ll finish with a quote from a chapter called ‘Extra Shelves’:
When is an extra bookshelf not really an extra bookshelf? When you don’t have to build it. In my house I am under steady pressure from my most frequent visitors – wife, two daughters – not to turn it into a book warehouse like every other dwelling I have ever been in.
… We are often told that the next generation of literati won’t have private libraries: everything will be in the computer. It’s a rational solution, but that’s probably what’s wrong with it. Being book crazy is an aspect of love, and therefore scarcely rational at all.
Couldn’t agree more! (10/10)
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Source: Publisher – thank you!
Clive James, Latest Readings, August 2015, Yale Hardback, 192 pages.