Clive James is a man of letters in the classic English mode, updated for today. Born in Australia in 1939, he moved to England in 1962 and stayed there. Although he had already received a bachelor’s degree in Australia, he sought entrance to Cambridge University and read English literature. He went on to have a career of writing essays and literary criticism, composing poetry and song lyrics, publishing novels and (so far, five) volumes of candid and comic memoirs. He is a noted commentator on both television and radio – and along the way he also produced a well-regarded translation of Dante’s Divine Comedy.
Although I had heard of James, I had never read anything by him until I came upon Latest Readings, published just last year. My loss, not to have discovered him earlier, for now we do not know how much longer we will have him. Already suffering from emphysema, in 2011 he was diagnosed with leukemia. As he notes, “I could hear the clock ticking.” He then concluded, “If you don’t know when the lights will go out, you might as well read until they do.” His family descended on London, packed him up with his books and installed him in a house in Cambridge where he would “live, read, and perhaps even write.” There he does read and reread widely and deeply. Yale University Press had the wisdom to suggest that he “compose a little book about whatever” he had been reading. Thus we have Latest Readings.
The book is a “slender volume,” 190 pages with an introduction and 29 brief chapters, only one as long as 12 pages (“American Power”), one as short as two pages (“Speer at Spandau”), most running four to six pages. James takes pride in thinking that Samuel Johnson would have “approved my plan for the organization of this volume: there isn’t one.” The collection includes notes on new books and those he had turned to again, the serious as well as the trivial. The writers who are examined are as diverse as Shakespeare and Hemingway; Edward St. Aubyn, Evelyn Waugh, and Olivia Manning; W. G. Sebald and Anthony Powell. Chapter titles include “Phantom Flying Saucer,” “Naipaul’s Nastiness,” “Women in Hollywood,” and “Richard Wilbur’s Precept.” His sentences are wonderfully rich, full of wit, wisdom and wry twists. A delight to read.
Anyone who also loves to read will find in this book familiar friends as well as some new names to explore. Then you may find yourself doing what I’ve been doing since finishing the book: scouring bookstores and Amazon for more books by Clive James.
And if you might be wondering how Clive James is doing in March of 2016, he is still reading and writing, with a column in the English newspaper The Guardian as recently as March 13.
There is a Latin phrase, Hodie mihi cras tibi, often found on old headstones in English graveyards and roughly translated meaning “Me today, you tomorrow.” It is meant to remind anyone reading it that life is fleeting. James includes an epitaph on the page facing his Table of Contents, cras mihi or “me tomorrow,” a puckish inversion, no doubt expressing his assumption that the morrow would be his last. Yet he is still with us and we can hope he will have many tomorrows.