Leukemia hasn’t slowed Clive James down a bit. The prolific critic, poet, and broadcaster continues to put out books at an impressive rate since being diagnosed in 2010. He wrapped up his translation of The Divine Comedy in 2013, published a collection of poetry criticism in 2014, and followed it with a book of his own poems earlier this year. Now we have Latest Readings, a collection of short essays on newly discovered books and those he’s been reflecting on his whole life.
The title is just right. These aren’t last readings—at least, I’m sure, James hopes not. Death may be waiting around the corner, but until James meets him, he will keep as busy as possible, it seems, reading and writing or browsing the local bookstalls for some forgotten first edition, almost as if he is trying to postpone the inevitable. This doesn’t mean he ignores death. The book is dedicated to the staff at Addenbrooke’s Hospital, where James has been receiving treatment, and he is open about his increasing frailty. But there is little morbidity or self-pity. These essays are about the life of good books.
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Bad critics lecture, good ones share. James makes you feel as if you are sitting in his kitchen (with adjacent library) talking about his day, which just happens to be filled with reading.
What are the best novels-in-series (which, by the way, James thinks Americans are not very good at for some reason)? There’s Evelyn Waugh’s Sword of Honour trilogy. James remembers being unimpressed when he first read it. Waugh’s prose "is designed to go down like a glass of water," he remarks with the aversion of a formerly heavy drinker. On re-reading the series, however, he is struck by its "broadness" and "narrative drive"—no small accomplishment for a novelist with a gift for comic portraiture. There’s also Powell’s twelve-volume The Music of Time and Paul Scott’s Raj Quartet.
But what captures his imagination most is Olivia Manning’s Balkan and Levant trilogies—two series he had never read before. He is thunderstruck. "Few women, and indeed few men," James writes, have written fiction that "took in the sweep of modern history. Olivia Manning did it." The only apt comparison is to that of Proust. The Frenchman’s insight was "how the high society he loved was being riddled with an anti-Semitism that was bound to have long-term consequences." For Manning, it was "how Europe’s mission civilisatrice in the countries to the south and east was bound to fail, partly because Europe itself was less civilized than it liked to believe."
There are other recommendations, which James shares with unpretentious passion. Osbert Lancaster’s Drayneflete Revealed is still "one of the great British comic achievements," he writes. The point of Lancaster’s parody is that the distinctiveness of English architecture is its "agglomeration of mediocrity." Amanda Vail’s 1988 book on Sara and Gerald Murphy—American expatriates who entertained Fitzgerald, Hemingway, Picasso, and many other artists on the French Riviera—"is a disarming treatment of a subject that you have to treat disarmingly or get nowhere." W.G. Sebald’s thin Luftkrieg und Literatur (translated as On the Natural History of Destruction) is "exquisite."
James also muses on the accomplishments and shortcomings of a handful of the 20th century’s greatest writers. Kipling could have been one of the finest poets of the English language, James argues, if had only learned to rein in his interest in dialect and weakness for "flashy wordplay." Hemingway’s "pose of masculinity" ruined his prose, and Conrad’s accomplishment (in the boring Lord Jim and enthralling Under Western Eyes) is in identifying the 20th century’s struggle between "the imbecility of autocracy and the imbecility of revolution."
One of my favorite pieces is on V.S. Naipaul’s "nastiness." Naipaul may have written against the caste system in India, but he behaved "like an autocrat" to the women in his life. When a workman at his house once asked him to help open a window, James tells us, Naipaul apparently called his wife at work to complain about being disturbed and told her to come home because there was domestic work to be done. His writing can be equally derisive—but this is all part of his appeal, James writes. We read Naipaul "for his fastidious scorn, not his large heart."
There are a few topical essays. On wit, James writes that the "underlining of a single word is the stroke of wit." This is a play on Polonius’s remark in Hamlet as well as a gloss on it. On the topic of good artists behaving badly, James remarks with characteristic good sense that the two factors often having nothing to do with each other. "The provenance of art can never be as morally elementary as we wish it."
The first task of the critic is to know what needs to be ignored, a requirement that only becomes clear after many years of wide reading. James certainly knows, and his punchy, entertaining recommendations here makes one hope that his latest readings are only that.