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Feather-ruffler at work

Clive James still has plenty of wit and insight to share.

Clive James: disdain for literary theory and a know-thyself scepticism of all trumpet-blowers. Photo/Getty Images
Clive James: disdain for literary theory and a know-thyself scepticism of all trumpet-blowers. Photo/Getty Images

Clive James, author, critic, poet, memoirist and translator, still has, at 76 and with a cluster of life-threatening ailments, writing skills to burn. He has the acuity of a man who has seen – and read – it all. And he has wit, broad and brainy. Combined, they have – in Cultural Amnesia, The Revolt of the Pendulum, and again here in Latest Readings – the uncanny effect of persuading you to read or revisit authors you might skim past in a second-hand bookshop: Conrad, Patrick O’Brian, Powell, Kipling, Sebald.

He laments more than once that his generation is the last that will have read, or want to read, some of these dusty names. But that’s just what he’s doing in the last months of his life – perhaps; even he admits he has been dying for a long time – rereading, checking his original views, filling in the odd space in his much-reduced library, from Hugh’s bookstall in Cambridge.

As that magpie mind roves, quotable lines on all subjects pour out of him. Sometimes it’s a Wildean epigram: “I still remember seeing [Heaven’s Gate], and feeling my life growing shorter in a way that I don’t feel even now, when it is.” Or: “Then Kevin Rudd realised that the only way to win against Howard was to promise to do all the same things Howard did, but do them younger.”

Is he right on Rudd? Who cares?

James clearly feels he has earned the right to judiciously ruffle feathers. He has disdain for literary theory and a know-thyself scepticism of all trumpet-blowers. “Such a conceit is a déformation professionnelle for critics: after an initial period of relative sanity, they tend to think that nothing – not even the career of, say, Horace – ever happened without their interest in it.” Or: “Feminism is an ideology, and like any other ideology it can easily transmute a necessary perception into an indulgent madness.”

Even if you are immune to his bon mots, or any of his verse, it’s harder to deny he has a poet’s learnt knack for rhetorical appositeness: “Being book crazy is an aspect of love, and therefore scarcely rational at all.”

LS0516_b&c_Latest-readingsIf I have specific criticisms, it’s that some chapters are criminally brief, and he could read someone new, for god’s sake. But James has always had the talent and fan base, and now has the singleminded­ness honed by imminent mortality, to do what he likes. Anyway, he’s far from ­finished, having just completed, yes, a verse commentary of Proust’s À la Recherche du Temps Perdu and is finalising his collected poems. He’s also still finessing his reputation, you may have noticed, at one point here slipping in this line: “If I ever had a plaque, I would like it to say: He loved the written word, and told the young.”

Classic Clive James: self-important, a touch corny, but also true. It will be a sad day when he taps his final full stop.

LATEST READINGS, by Clive James (Yale University Press, $32)

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