By Catherine Wagley
By Catherine Wagley
By Wendy Gilmartin
By Jennifer Swann
By Claire de Dobay Rifelj
By L.A. Weekly critics
By Catherine Wagley
By Zachary Pincus-Roth
Every Sunday morning during two memorably awful years for me in the mid-’70s, I found relief by riding the top deck of a London bus for as long as it took to memorize Clive James’ weekly television column in The Observer. Back home I’d howl on the phone with friends as we repeated James’ funniest lines over and over in what we fondly imagined to be dead-on imitations of his Australian twang.
By the early ’80s, when James’ greatest hits had been collected in the wonderful The Crystal Bucket and, along with some choice literary criticism, in First Reactions, I had moved to this country and begun writing television criticism myself at the Boston Phoenix — largely as a way of not writing my doctoral dissertation. As best I could, I plundered the elegant, unmannered prose in which James affectionately goosed American pop and British trash, skewered BBC bombast, and admired the best in all three. Here he is, watching a prenuptial interview with Princess Anne and her amiable dim bulb of a first fiancé, Captain Mark Phillips: “Much more inhibiting was the problem of impersonal speech: second nature to Anne, it was as yet an obstacle to Mark, who still had to grasp the principle that the whole art of making oneself understood when one is confining oneself to the one pronoun is just to bash on regardless even when one’s ones threaten to overwhelm one.”
Moving on to American aristocracy, James, a devoted fan of Dallas, bows low before Charlene Tilton’s Lucy (“a neckless blonde sex grenade”) but socks it to Alexander Haig for wanton crucifixion of the English language. “General Haig squared his jaw and talked of the restructured multi-capable inter-parity situation of the SALT ceiling. Robin [the interviewer] adjusted his glasses and rephrased his question. General Haig squared his jaw even further and rephrased his answer, talking of how the shortfall in assessment of the balanced triad necessitated that he participate in the evolution of viable agreement postures. Apart from hitting General Haig in the face with a custard pie, there wasn’t a lot Robin could do except plough on.” James is a master of the art of strategic quoting in order to let subjects hang themselves. But it is entirely characteristic of him that, having gleefully taken the piss out of Henry Kissinger’s accent (“‘With all due respecd, I think your whole line of questioning is maging a moggery of whad wend on in Indo-China’”), he went on to give serious consideration to Kissinger’s defense of U.S. policy in Cambodia.
At once erudite and accessible, James’ television column was widely read across the British age and class structure. Still, I think it’s fair to say that his sensibility — literate and democratic, laced with an irreverent bullshit detector — spoke most eloquently to those of my English generation who came from working- or middle-class families, who had grown up on movies and television and pop music, but who, thanks to post–World War II Labourite educational reforms, had penetrated elite universities hitherto reserved for the rich or blue of blood. James himself, a lower-middle-class boy who, having decamped in the early ’60s to England along with fellow Aussies Germaine Greer and Dame Edna (Robert Hughes opted for New York), went to Cambridge, then joined the glittering ranks of the London literary mafia that, then and now, includes his friends Martin Amis and Julian Barnes, and, until his recent defection to Manhattan, Salman Rushdie.
By his own account, James is a dedicated hobnobber among the glitterati. Yet even — perhaps especially — among this etherized crew, James stands out for his staggering versatility. At 63, he’s barely slowing down in a career as a literary critic (The New Yorker, The New York Review of Books and the Times Literary Supplement are his favorite venues), a poet, novelist, endlessly reprinted memoirist, and, lately, Web-site operator and, with his Cambridge buddy Pete Atkin, songwriter and performer. He’s also enjoyed a thriving, if wildly uneven, career as a television personality in his own right. With his bald pate, feral grin and corpulent build, James is enchantingly untelegenic — no amount of fancy tailoring will make him look less like a cross between Oliver Cromwell and a cannonball — but the Brits have never required their media stars to be good-looking, so long as they’re dependably funny and smart. James is both, and also almost unbearably well-read. One wonders when he sleeps.
In As of This Writing, a new essay collection spanning more than three decades of writing about poetry, fiction and literature, culture and the visual arts (no television criticism, alas — he chucked it in when he became a TV star in his own right), James unveils a few of his intellectual heroes, who include several Americans: Edmund Wilson, for his “sheer range of critical occupation”; James Agee, for “the referential lushness of his intelligence, when he allowed it to run wild” and his “versatility in an age that doesn’t understand versatility”; Mark Twain, “whose colloquial verve gave me support for writing about serious art in a conversational manner, and about unserious art as if it counted.” When he writes with equal verve about Judith Krantz, Primo Levi, John le Carré, George Orwell and Peter Bogdanovich, when he is unpersuaded by Robert Lowell and admiring of the Australian poet Les Murray, when he is hard on Gore Vidal, Susan Sontag and Lillian Hellman while lauding Greer, James is not trying to level the cultural field. He’s taking the measure of the cultural and political terrain of the 20th century, and parsing it as a skeptical, tough-minded humanist who’s alternately amused and saddened by the hash it has made of civilization, an idea he loves.
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