First Reactions: Critical Essays 1968-1979
Even in repose, Clive James gives off an industrious hum as he gears up for the next deadline, the next dispatch from Hollywood, Rome, Manhattan. Born in Australia and living in London, James is a journalist who is capable of knocking off several hundred entertaining words on everything from a fashion show in Paris for Vogue—“Ba-Boom! Ba-Boom! Flashing spotlights and doomy rock portend great things”—to an account of his “breathtakingly wonderful” work-a-day life for a fashion mag called Honey. Whenever the London Observer isn’t out on strike, he reaches more than a million readers with a surrealistically boppy TV column—a column so lively it makes his American counterparts (Michael Arlen, John J. O’Connor) look like statues with pigeons perched on their noses. James also appears often on British television, and occasionally interviews actresses and other rare birds for the ultra-chic Warholish gossip sheet Ritz. In his more bearing-down moods, he writes epic verse satires on politics and the London literary world (Britannia Bright’s Bewilderment, Peregrine Prykkes’s Pilgrimage), and contributes book reviews not only to these pages but also to The London Review of Books and the TLS. A busy bee; yet with all this buzzing hustle, Clive James hasn’t made much of a dent in public awareness in this country.
First Reactions: Critical Essays 1968-1979 consists of pieces chosen from three volumes of criticism previously published in England: The Metropolitan Critic, Visions Before Midnight, and At the Pillars of Hercules. (That last title is less vainglorious than it seems—the Pillars of Hercules refers to a popular Greek Street pub where many enter, few emerge.) The book begins with a review of Edmund Wilson’s memoir Upstate, an occasion which allows James to honor those qualities he most treasures in a critic: clarity, curiosity, flinty seriousness, a near-insatiable appetite for words and facts, an unwillingness to surrender one’s instincts to a critical system; and the unshakable conviction that literature matters—that it isn’t simply something you season your life with, like pepper or adultery. James prefers Wilson’s blunt, learned reasonableness to the severity of F.R. Leavis or the fussiness of the New Critics, because Wilson’s sanity provides a bedrock upon which truth can be built.
When, in the Yeats chapter of [Axel’s Castle], Wilson compared the Yeats of 1931 to the Dante who was able “to sustain a grand manner through sheer intensity without rhetorical heightening,” he was writing permanent criticism criticism which can’t be superseded, certainly not by pundits who are boning up their Dante from a parallel text instead of learning it the hard way from a teacher like Christian Gauss. It is barbarism of a peculiarly academic kind to suppose that truths of this order—not insights, explications or glosses, but truths—can be appropriated to a data bank or dismissed as obsolete. A Dantesque “epigrammatic bitterness” is precisely the quality to see in the mature Yeats, and in 1931, before the …