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On the Beat

First Reactions: Critical Essays 1968-1979

by Clive James
Knopf, 240 pp., $12.95

Unreliable Memoirs

by Clive James
Knopf, 171 pp., $10.00

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 last poems were written, it was virtually prescient to be able to see it, since that quality had not yet reached its full concentration.

Wilson paid heavy penalties for being plain—or rather we paid heavy penalties for not seeing the force of his plainness….

From Wilson, James has learned to prize not only plainness but proportion—moral proportion. An awareness that life isn’t all bottomless sorrows and bloody extremes is what allows James to prefer the cool delicacy of Richard Wilbur’s best work to the shrill doom of Ted Hughes’s Crow. In an essay on A. Alvarez’s The Savage God, he tries to coax contemporary poetry off the suicide’s ledge—or at least to take a bit of the glamour out of the plunge. Suicide and madness are the marks of the modern era, Alvarez argued; the sensibilities of poets like Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes mirror the mass-death derangements of our time (Hiroshima, the Holocaust). Or, as James rephrases Alvarez’s argument, “It wasn’t enough to mention an H-bomb or concentration camp, [the poets] had to be in there somewhere; somehow the contemporary violence had to be reflected.” When, in response to a remark by the critic John Bayley, Robert Lowell characterized Sylvia Plath as an avenger “rising in the saddle to slash at Auschwitz…,” James’s patience snaps.

A lot of rhetoric had to go over the dam before all the concentration camps in the Reich and the occupied territories got whittled down to that one word “Auschwitz”—hundreds of journalists and television anchormen had to do their stuff. And at last, after the whole infinitely ramified nightmare had been trimmed to that one stub and the stub itself had been crushed to powder, it was time for Lowell to come along and toss off a line suggesting that in Sylvia Plath the Endlösung finally met its implacable opponent. Carrying a sword. Riding a horse.

Given James’s distrust of poets who act as if all History were a conspiracy to topple their sanity, it comes as small surprise that the contemporary poet James most esteems in First Reactions is Philip Larkin, whose poems of loss and regret have a chill Hardyesque clarity. “On the theme of modern life being an unmitigated and steadily intensifying catastrophe he reads like his admired Betjeman in a murderous mood—no banana blush or cheery telly teeth, just a tight-browed disdain and a toxic line of invective.” In a tribute to Randall Jarrell published in At the Pillars of Hercules (but not reprinted in First Reactions), James praises Jarrell for being one of those rare critics as crisp in praise as he is in attack. Clive James isn’t as keen a critic as Jarrell—he doesn’t have Jarrell’s gift for compression, or his flair for the fluky, lethal epigram—but he too is at his best writing about his enthusiasms, not only in the piece on Larkin but in the two memorial pieces for W.H. Auden (“Farewelling Auden”) and the appreciation of Raymond Chandler’s ruefully brittle comic style (“The Country Behind the Hill”).

One of the pieces I miss in First Reactions is the kind glance at Edmund Wilson’s occasional verse which appeared in Pillars. James doesn’t make extravagant claims for Wilson’s poetry—he doesn’t pretend that glittering masterpieces are locked away in dusty trunks—but he makes a persuasive case that the technical brio and erotic heat of Notebooks of Night (published in 1942; now out of print) have survived splendidly the stresses of time, and he makes the reader want to descend into the bowels of a second-hand bookstore, pick-ax in hand, to rescue the book from the papery rubble.

To make room for the Wilson revaluation, other essays might have been quietly tossed overboard and gone unmissed. Little is gained by reprinting yet another tribute to Solzhenitsyn’s granitic courage (“Bitter Seeds: Solzhenitsyn”), or by trying once again to peek behind the terse, tough-cookie posing of Lillian Hellman. “The Sherlock-ologists”—a round-up of books about Sherlock Holmes and his creator—is a fitfully amusing but slightly awkward performance, with James leaping from book to book like a rodeo cowboy, sometimes hitting the saddle with a clean smack, sometimes not. Pieces like these fail to survive their moment because the sly insights and scattered ideas haven’t been smoothed into a shapely whole. He doesn’t bear down with the full force of his attention; his mind seems to be straying as (is it fair to speculate?) deadlines begin rapping at the door like a posse of bill collectors. No use trying to pretend you’re not at home, Mr. James…we saw you peeking behind the curtains as we came up the walk. It’s this absence of saber-point concentration which so far keeps Clive James from joining the ranks of the best literary journalists: Wilson, Jarrell, Cyril Connolly, Wilfrid Sheed, and (though he squanders too much time prowling the corridors of English departments, stalking deconstructionists) Gore Vidal.

Sandwiched between two sections of lit-crit is a good selection of James’s television criticism taken from the 1977 collection Visions Before Midnight. James has a hefty love for pop—for Little Richard pounding away at the piano, for comic book heroes zipping through the cosmos on gleaming surfboards—and an even greater love for silliness. So television is a heaven-sent beat: it allows him to drop his grown-up tone and giddily ricochet from one absurd fancy to another. He notices that a certain talk show host puts the emphasis on every second word; that an actress in costume drama splinters her words into odd syllables (“Your extravagance is be. Yond understanding”). And unlike most American television reviewers, James actually has sporting fun with trifles like sets, make-up, costumes. A review of the three-part series based on the Oresteia of Aeschylus shows James at his slashing best.

As Klytemnestra, Diana Rigg had a wardrobe of Pocahantas numbers for day wear. They came with a complete range of Inca, Aztec, and Zulu accessories. But it was en grande tenue that she really knocked you out. The bodice of her evening gown featured a gold motif that circled each breast before climbing ceilingwards behind her shoulders like a huge menorah. It was a bra mitzvah….

But it was Kassandra who took the biscuit. Helen Mirren played her as an amalgam of Regine, Kate Bush, and Carmen Miranda. In a punk hair style the color of raw carrots and frock left open all down one side so as to feature a flying panel of her own skin, she did a preparatory rhumba before laying her prophecies on the populace. “Now do you get it?” she hissed, but she was too late. Klytemnestra had persuaded Agamemnon to peel down to his gamma-fronts and take a bath. Blood mingled with the Pine Essence. Fancy things were done to frame the image. The whole deal looked like a dog’s breakfast.

Unfortunately, none of the bits quoted above makes its way into First Reactions. Of the fifty-nine pieces in Visions Before Midnight, only fifteen are turned loose for this book: and since this book draws only on those columns printed in Visions, nothing James has published on TV in the last three years is even eligible for parole—which leaves out Diana Rigg and her bra mitzvah.* Happily, James’s cool look at Ingmar Bergman’s Scenes from a Marriage is here, as is his shrewd puncture-job on Frederic Raphael’s The Glittering Prizes; but missing are his hilarious annual reports on the Eurovision Song Contest and his send-up of the George Sand Notorious Woman series (entitled “Chopin Snuffs It”). It’s the sampler format that’s at fault. If you’ve followed James regularly in the Observer, the few columns reprinted here can only remind you of all the ones that aren’t; and if you’re unfamiliar with his stuff, these entertainments are little more than fizzy bubbles to tickle the nose.

A larger dose of Jamesian comedy has just disembarked on these shores. A best-seller in England, Unreliable Memoirs is a piece of raunchy nostalgia about James’s Tom Sawyer misadventures in post-World War II Australia. In The Metropolitan Critic, James did a brief riff about the fearsome Australian sharks—sharks so fierce they had swastikas painted on their sides and stomachs full of razor blades—and in Unreliable Memoirs he elaborates on the baroque nastiness of natural life down under, devoting nearly an entire chapter to spiders and snakes. Treading carefully in the buffalo grass, young Vivian—James’s first name before it was changed to the more manly Clive—is constantly on the look-out for the cunning, exotic enemy. “The funnel-web spider is a ping-pong ball in a fox-fur coat. It inhabits a miniature missile silo in the ground, from which it emerges in a savage arc….” He’s also evocative and funny on the rogue pleasures of boyhood; building trenches and tunnels in the backyard, stuffing oneself senseless with chocolate at the movies, telling whopping lies (“Climaxing a story of my close personal acquaintance with Rommel, I produced a pair of old sandgoggles…”).

Writing about pranks, James speeds along confidently, but he’s far less assured writing about friends, teachers, relatives; most of them are used like stooges in a vaudeville sketch—they enter, and ssszzzzz! a blast of seltzer sends them swiftly into the wings. These bursts of slapstick can’t disguise the fact that there are memories Clive James is still unable or unwilling to grapple with, messy, feelings he gingerly avoids. James’s father died shortly after the Japanese surrender when the plane carrying him home crashed in Manila Bay, leaving the boy to be raised by his shattered, grieving mother. She’s treated glancingly in these pages, she never comes to solid life; she’s a vague cloud of worry, drifting, dissolving…. Without her presence, there’s a hollow at the center of the book—an emotional emptiness no string of wisecracks can stitch shut.

Yet what undoes the book is its surprisingly crass humor. In the preface, James jocularly refers to Rilke as “a prick,” and at the close of chapter two he offers the reader advice on the best way to soil one’s pants (“…produce a rock-solid blob which will slide down your leg in one piece…”). “A Prong in Peril” is the title of one chapter, “The Sound of Mucus” is the title of another, and it becomes painfully clear that young Vivian’s body was a leaky multichambered catastrophe. He farts, masturbates, kacks himself: not since Portnoy watched his spunk sizzle on the bathroom light bulb has so much attention been paid to the secrets of the loo. I’m not squeamish, I love the whoopiecushion comedy of Uncle Floyd and Benny Hill, but James’s dirty jokes gave me shudders—I really didn’t want to know about every little disturbance in his trousers. Fame seems to have coarsened James’s comic gifts. From the “Rilke was a prick” crack on, this memoir is a push-button crowd-pleaser, the humor as calculatingly cute as a sitcom skit “sweetened” with a laughtrack. Fans of Clive James’s work (I’m one of them) can only hope that the coarseness of Unreliable Memoirs is a temporary skid—that the success of the book in England has sated James’s desire to pander to the peanut gallery. The sound of mucus is a sound to silence.

  1. *

    Perhaps those pieces are just a come on. In April, Jonathan Cape will publish a new collection of TV columns (The Crystal Bucket, $11.95).

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