By Matt Hanson
Imagine a combination of Stephen Colbert (the real one, that is) and John Updike.
When I started excitedly telling people that I was going to be interviewing none other than Clive James, I have to admit that I was a little surprised to find that most people hadn’t heard of him. Maybe it’s one of the pitfalls of being bookish; almost without being able to help it, you will inevitably be enthusiastic about books and authors that no one else has heard of, no matter how great they might be. In James’s case, the problem is probably more due to geography than anything else — James grew up in Australia but made his name in England, reading literature at Cambridge, as a journalist on Fleet Street, and on the BBC as a talk show host and globe-trotting documentarian. He lives in a small house near Cambridge and an enviable library with thousands of titles, many in each of the several languages he speaks.
So due to reasons beyond anyone’s control, I’ve repeatedly found myself in the unenviable position of trying to briefly encapsulate Clive James, and I’ve decided that my first response is the one I’m going to stick with: imagine a combination of Stephen Colbert (the real one, that is) and John Updike. I say this because James has the rare distinction of having hosted popular TV talk shows and also written voraciously across several genres for magazines on both sides of the Atlantic.
We’re not used to the idea that a writer can be a public figure, a culturally omnivorous pen about town, but James has shown over a long career that you can be both bon vivant and scholarly critic without having to choose one or the other. James hosted popular interview shows featuring guests from Martin Amis to The Monkees, and directed documentaries in, say, Cairo or Paris, while hanging out with the likes of Princess Diana and Christopher Hitchens, writing bestselling memoirs and publishing volume after volume of poetry and literary criticism that people actually read, while consuming vast oceans of “high” and “low” culture. It’s fair to say that James is, in a literal as well as a metaphorical sense, what used to be called a public intellectual.
It’s sad and a little outrageous to think that we just don’t have a lot of people left in the culture who could plausibly fill that space. Maybe the secret to being a public intellectual is to be able to write wittily and incisively about the things the public already cares about and through eloquence and taste make the public care about the things it doesn’t yet know about. The proper place for a writer isn’t just in the library, it’s out in the world too. James is among the great readers who, when talking about the books they love, make you feel like you have read them yourself.
Either the best minds of our generation have burrowed far too deeply into their own rarefied private specialties, which is possible, or they have withered on the vine because of a lack of attention and recognition, which is probably more likely. I’d hate to make the lugubrious claim that James is the last of a dying breed, because of the plain fact that he has been dying for quite some time now. Sadly, I mean this literally, not literarily.
A hubcap-filling smoker in his prime, James was diagnosed with leukemia quite a few years ago and, characteristically, has often joked that he is worried that the consistently premature announcements of his death are becoming annoying. Samuel Johnson once said that finding out one will be hanged in a fortnight concentrates the mind wonderfully, and James has put his remaining powers to enviable good use. He’s finished a translation of Dante’s Divine Comedy, a verse mediation on Proust, criticism of TV shows like The Sopranos, Game of Thrones, and The Wire, a few pieces on his recent readings (including Joseph Conrad, the entire twenty volumes of Patrick O’Brien’s Master and Commander series, reflections on various poets and of Philip Larkin, and much else).
Now he’s returned to his essential literary passion, which is poetry. The River in the Sky is his informal version of an epic poem, running to roughly a hundred pages and mixing the deeply personal with the oracular. James can brood and mourn with the best of poets, but he never loses touch with his sparkling wit. Erudite as he certainly is, he is never pretentious. He and his wife “have been married now so long/ Vinyl is back in fashion.” He savors the memory of a friend, a notable racecar driver and art collector who was “the only connoisseur at his exalted level/ To have driven in a demolition derby.” And you’ve just got to love a poet who can describe the Egyptian god Seth “carrying the ankh/ like a designer handbag” — it’s such a funny, memorable, and extremely precise image.
What sticks with you about his new poem isn’t just its length, or the wide-ranging erudition. James’s verse succeeds because of the poignancy he gives to the impressions left on his fading memory. Understandably, he is still rhapsodizing about seeing Thelonious Monk play live back in the ’50s. He doesn’t think twice about accessing this personal memory by plugging into “YouTube’s vast cosmopolis,” What follows — a lovingly detailed account of seeing the great musician in the flesh — is a glissando of memories connected to this moment within the private labyrinth of his well-stocked mind.
A skilled artist’s reflections on life’s ebb are often worth reading for their own sake. Edward Said dedicated a book to examining the peculiar power of the late styles of various artists. But a writer’s reflections, written under the extraordinarily loud ticking of the existential clock, become especially affecting. Some of The River in the Sky isn’t easily digestible, but that’s understandable. James is writing about the finer grains of his own life, and it’s very difficult to ever really know someone else entirely, even in art. Overhearing someone describe their intimate memories can be hard to follow, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t worth doing.
When James writes about the afternoon sunlight shining dully against the shelves of the classic books that he’s spent a lifetime acquiring, studying, and writing about, or the delight he takes in visiting his daughter’s painting studio, or the magnificence of fireworks exploding in the night sky, all of these impressions, no matter how deeply they convey his love truth and beauty, doesn’t change the fact that death is nigh. He muses that “If my ashes end up in an hour-glass/ I can go on working./ Patterns of gravity/ Will look like writing.” It’s a fine sentiment for a man who has fruitfully dedicated his life to literature. Composing his own poetic send-off is a fitting way for this all-around man of letters to bow out gracefully. All that fancy book-learning won’t deter extinction, but it will at least grant you the chance to fully have your say before the lights go out. Let’s hope The River in the Sky won’t be his last will and testament of reading and writing against the dying of the light.
Through the good offices of Deborah Meyler, his generous amanuensis, The Arts Fuse was able to contact James via email about his new book’s mysterious title, what poetry can do that prose can’t, and why he thinks Salman Rushdie shouldn’t be included in the ranks of the legendary Friday Lunch Group.
Arts Fuse: You’ve been writing very prolifically in the past few years, but it seems like there’s been more poetry than anything else. There was the book on Proust done entirely in verse, the poetry collections Sentenced to Life and Injury Time and now this one. Is there something about poetry that particularly resonates for you now that didn’t before?
Clive James: Most poems are summaries and I suppose I’m in a summary mood. A poem does offer the prospect of getting something definitively said. On the other hand it nearly always takes more work than might be apparent. The last aspect, I find, is the governing factor: I keep at it until it sounds easy.
AF: Taking a slightly different angle: is poetry able to do something that other forms of writing can’t? Is there more implication in the language of poetry? Immediacy?
James: The only thing poetry can do that prose can’t do is the biggest thing of all, in my view. A poem can make its sense of form the incarnation of the subject, or the mood, or both. My model for that quality was always Louis McNeice’s poem “Sunlight on the Garden,” which I can still recite from memory, sixty years later. The whole poem dances like the light it describes.
AF: What’s the significance of the title?
James: “The River in the Sky” is a literal translation of the Japanese name for the Milky Way, Ama no gawa. Something big, something endless, something up there, and yet you turn out to have been part of it all along.
AF: You’d said in an article in the Guardian that you’d initially had a series of unfinished poems that you thought might belong together. What inspired you to combine them?
James: I knew they all came from the one impulse, but I needed to explain why the impulse to watch the birds fly was the same impulse as to watch the squirrel crouch. While I was figuring it out, the squirrel took off, and right then I realized that I had been handed my connective principle: a visual echo chamber.
AF: Should we think of this poem as strictly an autobiographical work, or something a little different?
James: It’s autobiographical all right, although the autobiography of Louis XIV is in there along with mine. Also Greta Garbo and Miles Davis.
AF: As you read the poem, it seems as though some of the most vivid moments aren’t necessarily very dramatic events. I think the sense impressions, such as when you describe the color of the light off the water in the harbor in Sydney. Was this something you consciously wanted to explore as you wrote, or was it something that surprised you?
James: I can promise you I was surprised by the next bit every single time. Indeed I would scratch things out if I saw them coming. What I wanted was a tumult, and I hope that’s what I got: a quiet tumult, like the light on the harbor, or the snow leopard diving down the cliff.
AF: Could you say a little bit more about the line “books are the anchors/ left by the ships that rot away”?
James: Aha, that’s the stroke that I know is a complete success because people always quote it and I haven’t got a clue about how to explain it. My solitary deduction is that other people are as worried as I am about just why they keep all those books they’ll never read again.
AF: You’ve been a part of a very interesting group of writers, including Christopher Hitchens, Martin Amis, Salman Rushdie, Ian MacEwan and others. Have any of you ever considered what your literary circle might be named?
James: Really, you should take Salman off that list because he was always somewhere else being guarded by armed men. Maybe you could slot Julian Barnes into the same space, or Peter Porter. There’s no doubt about the name of the cenacle: it ended up being called the Friday Lunch. I realized only the other day that I have no memory at all about what we ate. It’s because everyone was either talking or listening. Remember those beautiful lines by MacNeice? It was all so unimaginably different, and all so long ago.
Matt Hanson is a critic for The Arts Fuse living outside Boston. His writing has appeared in The Millions, 3QuarksDaily, and Flak Magazine (RIP), where he was a staff writer. He blogs about movies and culture for LoveMoneyClothes. His poetry chapbook was published by Rhinologic Press.