A Quest for Clarity

Clive James and Russell Davies on the British television show Think Twice, 1970

In the introduction to his most substantial and perhaps his finest book, Cultural Amnesia, Clive James explains that over the forty years of its composition, he gradually came to realize that this collection of “Notes in the Margin of My Time,” as the subtitle has it, could be true to the pattern of his experience only if it had no pattern. There could only be “a linear cluster of nodal points,” working in the same way that the mind does as it moves through time: “a trail of clarities variously illuminating a dark sea of unrelenting turbulence, like the phosphorescent wake of a phantom ship.” It is a beautiful metaphor—beautiful in its accuracy as well as in the richness of its language—and wholly characteristic of this fabulously gifted, enviably well-read, generously inclusive, and always commonsensical writer.

That succession of adjectives ends, of course, with something of a thud. Many a critic known and praised for his common sense is in fact nothing more than a complacent mediocrity who will dismiss with a snicker anything that falls outside the rigidly maintained narrow band of his taste, experience, and perspicacity. Clive James’s interests know no limit. Consider the alphabetically organized contents page of Cultural Amnesia: under C we begin with Albert Camus, Dick Cavett, Paul Celan…, while E has Alfred Einstein followed by Duke Ellington. In his lifetime, now coming to an astonishingly productive end, James has been a stage manager and stage performer, noted TV quiz contestant, songwriter, poet and critic and translator—his Englishing of the complete Divine Comedy appeared not so long ago—television reviewer and presenter, radio broadcaster, novelist, satirist, memoirist, and travel writer.

He is as well known for his friendship with the late Princess Diana as he is for his championing of poets such as Stephen Edgar and Michael Donaghy. He interviewed, on various of his television shows, a large number of the less than great and rarely good among show business celebrities of the closing decades of the twentieth century; he was made a Commander of the Order of the British Empire by Queen Elizabeth; and he allowed himself, merrily if infamously, to be filmed for television cavorting in Hugh Hefner’s hot tub with a bevy of Bunnies.

In the way of things human, it was probably inevitable that such a rich and gloriously varied life would culminate in a slow disaster. Since 2010 James has been suffering from leukemia, emphysema, and kidney failure. In 2012 he announced publicly that he was dying and near the end. Three years later, he is still going strong, intellectually if not physically. His valedictory poem, “Japanese Maple”—“Your death, near now, is of an easy sort”—published in The New Yorker last September, became a not so small literary sensation, attracting many thousands of readers and a…

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