15 August 2008

Clive James - Cultural Amnesia

Most people know Clive James as the host of a variety of TV programmes in the 1980's and early 90s, all irreverent and mostly concerned with television around the world - he introduced British audiences to Japanese endurance shows, and may have contributed to the raising of the bar, and lowering of standards, in British reality TV. Not something to be particularly proud of, although I've no doubt he is. His laconic drawl and tortuous style was easily recognisable, and much mocked.

Plenty will also know of him as a memoirist, and also as a TV reviewer of some note. Fewer will know of him as a literary critic, but that is what he originally was, and I remember a teacher in the 80s, himself a noted poet and critic, telling me that James's poetry criticism was of high quality. This book is James's attempt to renew his reputation, and it's working - most reviews now refer to him as an Australian polymath rather than an ex-tv presenter, which must be gratifying.

And the book is largely about gratifying Clive James. He never neglects to tell us that he's read the authors mentioned in the original, or that the easiest way to learn a language is by reading an obscure writer's essays. And of course the namedropping, not just of authors read but of personalities met and charmed by the ubiquitous James.

The book is a collection of essays, inspired by quotations from notable people, not all of them authors, ordered alphabetically. The essays aren't always about the people concerned, although they are all prefaced by a brief biographical sketch, which is often the best part of the piece. Mostly they are digressions using the quotation as a starting point and mostly, for me, they don't work.

His main obsession is with the Jewish experience in Europe in the twentieth century, and he has a particular fascination for the Viennese intellectuals of the early part of the century, who are largely neglected in Britain. I hadn't heard of many of these writers, such as Lichtenberg and Altenberg, so it was stimulating to have new recommendations. And a particular favourite of his, to whom he devotes one of the largest chapters, is Stefan Zweig, who I'm also fond of.

The trouble with the essays is that few of them say anything worthwhile, and they're not particularly well written. James has a discursive, rambling style, that he obviously sees as a virtue, perhaps in the manner of Alistair Cooke's broadcasts. But Cooke's essays were remarkable because the digressions were always logical, and always led, miraculously, back to the initial premise. James digresses because of a pun or a coincidence, or just a poor analogy to set up a poorer joke, just for the sake of it. He also employs his favourite construction, a punning chiasmus, which is so familiar from his tv programmes that it's hard not to read it in his accent. This would matter less if he wasn't so obsessed with the writing style of his chosen authors, and so proud of his own - he has said, in an interview about this collection, that he has never written better.

James is plainly well-read, and broadly cultured, although there are huge gaps in his knowledge - films, for example, he appears to know little about, nor science. An introduction to James might say that he stretches from high literature to low television, but he leaps over much in between. That may appear to be a small quibble, but he does present himself as such a know-all that it's inadvertently funny when his ignorance shows through. More than once, for example, he refers to 'the fifth page of x's Google entry', which shows a lack of understanding of what Google is, and how dynamic searches change from day to day, rendering his reference inaccurate before it's even hit the page. The main essay on films is about the hairstyles in Where Eagles Dare, a fine example of James focusing on a banal inconsistency and flogging it to death.

It's hard for me to judge James's views on writers I'm unfamiliar with, although many of them aren't particularly worthwhile - to say that a writer was bad because he collaborated with the Nazis doesn't add much to the sum of human knowledge. He includes Goebbels and Hitler, and Thatcher purely to ridicule her for saying 'Solzhenitskin'. This is one of James's worst essays - he assumes Thatcher got the Russian writer's name mixed up with 'Rumplestiltskin', although there's no reason to believe it was any other than a slip due to unfamiliarity. He then wonders why no journalist apart from himself picked up on it (because it had no significance, perhaps?), and then admits that in his haste to put her down, he got Rumplestiltskin mixed up with Rip van Winkle rendering his satire harmless. The piece is a mess, but you can be sure James is rather proud of it.

There are one or two occasions when he's just plain wrong. He writes a paean to Mario Vargas Llosa, assuming, as he does throughout, that Llosa's political views are imitative of those in his novels, that a humanist writer standing for public office is necessarily to be praised, and that because his victorious opponent turned out to be corrupt, Llosa was vindicated. None of these are true. Alberto Manguel, who knows significantly more about South American politics than Clive James, has written a very impassioned essay about Llosa, who he despises precisely because his political opinions contradict the philosophy of his writing. Llosa has spoken in support of dictatorial regimes in the region, particularly in Argentina, and Manguel wonders whether the contradiction is unintentional, so Llosa has a double personality, or intentional, in which case neither his writing nor his politics can be trusted. James omits to say, or perhaps is unaware, that Llosa was leading the presidential election polls by a long way against a relatively unknown opponent, until his arrogant, patrician air put voters off him. For James, the fact that Lloisa is a good writer is justification enough.

The worst aspect of the book is that James just doesn't know how to construct an argument. His points would be more graspable if they were clearer, but he's always distracted by the irresistible witticism that adds nothing to the case. In the end he comes across as a bit of a bore.


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