The Lightning Before Death: A Tribute to Clive James

By Morten Høi JensenNovember 28, 2015

The Lightning Before Death: A Tribute to Clive James

Latest Readings by Clive James

There will always be young men coming up who will find his achievement a clear light.

— Clive James on Edmund Wilson


I MET CLIVE JAMES by accident, about five years ago, while navigating the literary nonfiction stacks at the Strand bookstore in New York. I had an old collection of James’s essays in my hand when I suddenly, and improbably, stumbled on the author himself a few feet ahead of me. I hesitantly introduced myself and we spent some time book-browsing together. James told me almost immediately that he had been admitted to the hospital for leukemia as soon as he arrived in New York, and that the doctor had forbidden him to leave his hotel room. Despite the doctor’s precaution, however, James was not only out of his room but alarmingly scaling the shelves for hard-to-reach books. At one point, he caught sight of Van Wyck Brooks’ The Times of Melville and Whitman, wedged atop a particularly menacing shelf. I nervously held a rickety stepladder as he climbed to retrieve it while arguing a point about Brooks’ relationship to Edmund Wilson. When he came back down he fell silent and handed me the book. “Take it,” he said, “I already have several copies at home.”

Nothing about this encounter surprises me now. To his readers, James always sounds as if he is writing from the back of a dust-strewn bookstore somewhere, making an impassioned case for a forgotten poet or little-read critic. One of the many joys of reading him as a young writer is feeling the textures of life in his prose. He doesn’t just tell you about a book he’s read — he tells you where he bought it, what year it was published, and what condition it was in. Despite now being in his late 70s, he still has the air of the student about him, and often happily evokes his undergraduate days in Sydney or early years as a book reviewer on Grub Street in London. He is in perpetual harangue with these younger selves, sometimes modifying their opinions or even challenging them. But the true lover’s protective instinct has never waned, and the student in James can be mercilessly (and sometimes wearily) impatient with his more dutiful elders (usually literary academics and theorists). “You can’t help wondering why it is thought to be good that the study of literature should so tax the patience,” he once wrote in an essay on the literary scholar Wayne C. Booth. “After all, literature doesn’t. Boring you rigid is just what literature sets out not to do.”

In his native Australia, and certainly in his adopted England, James may be better known as a TV broadcaster and memoirist (and, more recently, as a vivid translator of Dante), but it is his stature as a literary journalist and cultural critic that ought to endure. In his breakthrough literary essay — “The Metropolitan Critic,” a tribute to Edmund Wilson published in the Times Literary Supplement in 1971 — he emerged with the enviable erudition and irresistible charm that have characterized all his essays since. Clearly he had not just read, but reread, all of Wilson’s books. He even had the nerve to refer to Benedetto Croce, the Italian philosopher-historian, without using his first name (casually assuming the reader’s familiarity). Yet he wrote in a style that was anything but highbrow. Of Wilson’s memoir Upstate (1957), James wrote, “[it] shivers with the portent of an advancing ice-cap.” In a later essay, he wrote that Nabokov’s translation of Eugene Onegin “makes Pushkin sound like a Scrabble buff.” Later still, in an essay on Ezra Pound, he observed, “Whether The Cantos is, or are, a singular or a plural, is a question that I believe answers itself eventually, but only in the way that a heap of rubble gradually becomes part of the landscape.”

One of the distinguishing features of James’s essays is his comedic vigilance — his readiness to make you bark with laughter before stunning you with some insight about literature or film or politics. He is an entertainer at heart, and perhaps it is his anti-elitism and omnivorous cultural tastes that keep him from sounding curmudgeonly or old-fashioned. If it is taken for granted today that critics should also be conversant in TV, fashion, or film, then no doubt this owes a good deal to James’s example. He writes about Coco Chanel and Louis Armstrong with the same wit and brilliance that characterize his essays on Tacitus and Alexander Solzhenitsyn, and as early as the 1980s he transformed television reviewing into an art of its own. This cultural promiscuity, this defiant lack of centrality, may recall William Hazlitt, who claimed to have spent his life “reading books, looking at pictures, going to plays, hearing, thinking, writing on what pleased me best.”

James’s prose fuses two styles that might, at first glance, appear incompatible. On the one hand there’s the swagger and peacockery of 1970s London, where James competed for column space with literary pals like Ian Hamilton and Martin Amis. This is the reason his prose plumes with hyperbole: “Here is a book so dull,” he wrote in a famous drubbing of an official Soviet biography of Brezhnev, “that a whirling dervish could read himself to sleep with it. If you were to recite even a single page in the open air, birds would fall out of the sky and dogs drop dead.” On the other hand, even though James is so steeped in British literary tradition, the cadences of his writing often bring to mind German and Austrian writers of the early 20th century. He is a close and appreciative reader of Alfred Polgar, Peter Altenberg, and Golo Mann, whose prose, James once said, “approaches the ideal of the continuous aphorism: you find yourself learning it like poetry.” If he were less modest he might have added that the same applies to the languid music of his own writing. James has a wonderful ability to say important things in a memorable way:

“[Randall] Jarrell was against knowingness, and he possessed the antidote: knowledge” (from “Poetry’s Ideal Critic: Randall Jarrell”)

“To understand Auden fully, we need to understand how a man with the capacity to say anything should want to escape from the oppression of meaning too much” (from “Farewelling Auden)

“The wretched of the earth get no help from witch doctors, and when academic language gets beyond shouting range of ordinary speech, voodoo is all it is” (from Cultural Amnesia)

The American writer Tom Bissell once told me during an interview that he had made a point of carefully studying the way James’s writing moves on the page. This passage from an essay on Solzhenitsyn, written for The New Review in 1974, is a good example of what Bissell might have had in mind:

Solzhenitsyn can imagine what pain is like when it happens to strangers. Even more remarkably, he is not disabled by imagining what pain is like when it happens to a million strangers — he can think about individuals even when the subject is the obliteration of masses, which makes his the exact reverse of the ideological mentality, which can think only about masses even when the subject is the obliteration of individuals.

There you have it: Solzhenitsyn’s massive achievement and the inherent failure of ideology expressed in two sentences. Notice how James forms his entire argument simply by teasing out the implications of his initial statement; each point is contained in the previous one, like a Russian nesting doll. How memorably it is expressed, how artfully he makes his case simply by repeating a few words. As James remarked of Randall Jarrell, he makes being simple look easy. 


Since his diagnosis five years ago, James has been writing against time, churning out books at the rate of a one-man literary factory, leaving the rest of us looking achingly geriatric by comparison. He followed his grand, humanistic opus Cultural Amnesia (2007) with three books of poetry, a fifth volume of memoirs, three essay collections, and, as if that weren’t enough, a translation of The Divine Comedy. Now there’s Latest Readings, published by Yale University Press, a slim assortment of short, appreciative essays in which James revisits some of his favorite books and authors, and makes about a library’s-worth of new discoveries to boot.

The opportunity for these second (and sometimes third, fourth, or fifth) readings arose when James moved from London to Cambridge to be nearer the hospital where he goes for treatment several times a month. He was joined there by his immense library, whose presence is like some benevolent occupying force: “Upstairs there is a whole floor of the house which has similarly not only been taken over, but where the taking over is being taken over.” Not that he would want it any other way. “If you don’t know the exact moment when the lights will go out,” James muses in the introduction, “you might as well read until they do.”

Though Latest Readings is modestly sized, James’s reading list is as gargantuan as ever. Anatole France’s irresistible quip about In Search of Lost Time — “Life is too short, and Proust is too long” — is obviously not for James. On the contrary, he plows through a whole shelf of Joseph Conrad novels without even breaking a sweat. Then he goes straight for Evelyn Waugh’s Sword of Honour trilogy (“Sword of Honour has the broadness of concept that makes Waugh’s other novels look as if pennies are being pinched”), devours Olivia Manning’s “magisterial” Balkan trilogy and the Levant trilogy — followed, naturally, by Deirdre David’s biography of Manning — and lounges late in the afternoon with Albert Speer’s diaries and Anthony Powell’s novel sequence A Dance to the Music of Time. For James, you feel, Proust is hardly long enough.

There is a subtle and touching comedy to all this eleventh-hour reading. In the introduction, James explains that he sold half his library to make space for more useless objects, like furniture, and vows that his book-buying days are over. Until, that is, he meets Hugh, proprietor of Hugh’s bookstall on Market Square in Cambridge, “known to its devotees both literary and academic as one of the great bookstalls on earth.” Hugh is James’s accomplice and enabler; it only takes about a page and a half for the reader to imagine James walking down Academy Street under a heap of books:

[…] it was madness to start making small piles of books on Hugh’s stall that I wanted to take home. But the madness was divine. Even if I already had the book, he might have a handier edition, and often they were titles that I had once owned but lost along the way; and most often of all they were books that I had never owned before but now realized I ought to possess.

Clive James eventually runs out of shelf space and must resort to “nonshelf shelving”:

I had already read the whole Jack Aubrey saga, but when I spotted a bunch of the individual volumes on Hugh’s bookstall I thought I had better start my own collection. Madness. Horizontally on the footlocker are also arranged some biographical books about Hemingway. Double Madness: they don’t look as if they are standing on a shelf. They just look as if they are lying around.

How is it possible to retain such youthful passion and enthusiasm, such unseemly levels of energy and vigor, in the midst of a protracted, fatal disease? The sheer range of James’s interests is enough to make even Susan Sontag seem parochial. I would have expected, for instance, that the inside dramas of Hollywood would be one of the least important subjects to read up on before kicking the bucket, and yet here is an entire chapter on “Women in Hollywood.” James has not only read many of these memoirs, but even formed judicious opinions of them: Producer Linda Obst’s Hello, He Lied gives us “a lesson in what intelligence and sensitivity can do when combined with the near-military practical sense needed to organize a movie”. Obst however, is not as funny as Julia Phillips, author of You’ll Never Eat Lunch in This Town Again, whom James characterized as “Nora Ephron and Elaine May rolled into one.” Needless to say, James has read both these books at least twice.      

Though Latest Readings is perhaps not expansive enough to display James at his metropolitan best (it is a province to the richly populated cities of his longer essays), the book still displays all of his usual talent for jokes and zingers, splendid metaphors and delicious aphorisms. Hemingway’s later work, he writes, was ruined by the fact that he “overstated even the understatements.” In a short piece on Richard Wilbur, we are reminded that “any overview of the cultural world, like any system of mathematics, can’t be complete without being false.” And surely there is nothing better than James’s description of his youthful and debauched 70s-era self: “I drank too much, smoked cigarettes and cigars like an idiot, and at one period I was the kind of pothead who looked like a small cloud being propelled by a pair of legs.”

Latest Readings brims with a zest for life and learning, and yet, it is stoically conscious of the certainty of death. James writes early on, “The childish urge to understand everything doesn’t necessarily fade when the time approaches for you to do the most adult thing of all: vanish.” In a beautiful gesture, the book is dedicated to the doctors and staff of Addenbrooke’s hospital in Cambridge, with special attention paid to the nurses. In an essay on Mark Bostridge’s biography of Florence Nightingale, James confesses, “Nurses are on my mind of late. At Addenbrooke’s I see them all the time, and I expect the day will soon come when I see almost nobody else. Bless them, of all colors and creeds.” The incident that prompts this sudden tribute is painfully moving:

Just after I first got ill, and while I was waiting for my prostate operation, I was wearing my urinary tract externally, in an arrangement featuring a catheter plus a hefty bag taped to my leg. Or anyway it was hefty when it was full. One night the bag broke and suddenly the floor was awash with amber piss. I signaled the night nurse, who told me to stop apologizing. (In such circumstances, I have found, one tends to apologize for one’s mere existence.) She set about mopping it up. She had a deformed body, with limbs all the wrong lengths. Life could not have been easy for her. But now she was making the end of life easier for me. It was a night to remember, and I haven’t forgotten it for a second. I can only hope that the sum total of my writings has been as useful to the world as her kindness, but I doubt that this is so.

James wrote of Edmund Wilson that “there will always be young men coming up who will find his achievement a clear light,” and this is no less true of himself (and, since we mercifully no longer live in the 1970s, can we please extend “young men” to include young women?). For me, there is no clearer light than Cultural Amnesia, that large and generous paean to liberal humanism, worthy of being stood alongside Lionel Trilling’s The Liberal Imagination and Albert Camus’s L’Homme révolté. In a recent profile in The Financial Times, James spoke to Caroline Daniel about the frailty of civilization when it is faced with totalitarian threats: “The problem with the virtues of civilization is they sound uncertain. It’s a civilization if it leaves room for doubt [and] it’s uncivilized if it doesn’t. This gives the tremendous advantage to the other side.”

There will always be a need for advocates of complexity over simplicity, of doubt over certainty. For the last half-century, James has been among the best of them, and whether he lives another few months or many more years, his absence will be keenly felt. I sometimes wish I had thanked him when I met him, or simply explained how much his writing has meant to me, but there is always between reader and author an insurmountable body of work — the true object of gratitude. Latest Readings is itself an affecting and nimble work of gratitude — a tribute to the reading life, certainly, but equally one that pays tribute to the life beyond it, and, inevitably, the long life that lies behind it.


Morten Høi Jensen is a Danish writer and translator living in New York. He is writing a biography of the Danish novelist Jens Peter Jacobsen.

LARB Contributor

Morten Høi Jensen is a writer and critic from Copenhagen, Denmark. He is the author of A Difficult Death: The Life and Work of Jens Peter Jacobsen (Yale University Press, 2017). Photo by Niels Hougaard / Kristeligt Dagblad.


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