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Clive James at Last

A genius sunburned by his faith in humanity
Clive James at Last

Here is Orwell, writing in 1941 on H.G. Wells, then 75 years old: “is it not a sort of parricide for a person of my age (thirty-eight) to find fault with H.G. Wells? Thinking people who were born about the beginning of this century are in some sense Wells’s own creation.”

For “H. G. Wells” substitute “Clive James,” and for “thirty eight” substitute “fifty.” This done, the above passage’s first sentence becomes relevant to what the Sydney-born Clive James meant for most of us Australian scribes who emerged during the 20th century’s last two decades. Not merely did we long in vain for James’s mastery of English. We also could not imagine imitating any other Australian author.

What recent local models—outside the monstrously overcrowded Australian annex of the John Berryman bughouse—did we have then? Well, we had Patrick White, whose tortured poeticisms usually resembled the first prize in a Saul Bellow parody contest. We had Roman convert James McAuley, almost forgotten save by his friends, with most of his verse and polemics out of print following his premature 1976 demise. We had a half-dozen female novelists, ranging from gentility to grunge, who reversed the late Nora Ephron’s motto: they achieved more kudos for describing hangnails than their masculine colleagues could for describing cancer. At least all the above were recognizably literate, as was the Americanized and often virtuosic Robert Hughes, who died last year. A far more prevalent danger lay in aping ex-historian Manning Clark, whose fake-scriptural bombast and superhuman carelessness James himself epitomized in seven cruel words: “Let alone rewrite, he doesn’t even reread.”

Then along came James, aged 22 when early in 1962 he reached England. Surmounting initial setbacks, he did what few literary émigrés since T.S. Eliot have done: succeed in Oxbridge and London on his own terms. When you had recovered from his finest journalism’s impact, there was his finest rhymes’ impact to contend with. (Petrarchan sonnets, if you please, or the quatrains of his new translation of The Divine Comedy.) He was polyglot. He was routinely televised. He was prodigiously well-read. He was—and this factor’s charm should never be minimized—bald. Afforded every incentive to adopt Margaret Thatcher’s speech patterns, he still talked like a New South Wales coalminer. So he was, to his compatriots, fundamentally ours. And his wit was like nothing attained in his homeland before or since.

The locus classicus of James’s wit, and the James production which all should read if they read no other, is his Unreliable Memoirs: the best autobiography by an Australian (which will suggest thin praise) and among the best modern autobiographies by anyone (which should not). Its account of James’s conscription—his was Australia’s last pre-Vietnam draft—is so dazzling as to leave the much-lauded Good Soldier Schweik asleep in the sentry-box. Any editor will writhe in sympathy with the book’s account of James’s early days as a broadsheet proofreader:

writing is essentially a matter of saying things in the right order. It certainly has little to do with the creative urge per se. Invariably the most prolific contributors were the ones who could not write a sentence without saying the opposite of what they meant. One man, resident in Woy Woy [50 miles north of Sydney], sent us a new novel every month. Each novel took the form of 20 thick exercise books held together in a bundle. Each exercise book was full to the brim with neat handwriting. The man must have written more compulsively than Enid Blyton, who at least stopped for the occasional meal. Unlike Enid Blyton, however, he could not write even a single phrase that made any sense … It was my first, cruel exposure to the awkward fact that the arts attract the insane. They arrived in relays from daylight to dusk. For all the contact they had with reality they might as well have been wearing flippers, rotating bow-ties, and sombreros with model-trains running around the brim.

Alas, the law of diminishing returns mars Unreliable Memoirs’ four sequels. Nor is James inherently at home in fiction, except with Brrm! Brrm!, as sadistically perfect a novella as Saki could have furnished. Still, to dip into many of James’s non-fiction releases is to be enriched beyond the proverbial dreams of avarice.

On stoicism: We would like to think we are stoic … but would prefer a version that didn’t hurt.”

On the clueless antipodean abroad: “An Australian expatriate in London or New York has only to mention Proust or Rilke and he is greeted as an avatar, as if Paracelsus had come to town.”

On Schwarzenegger: “A condom stuffed with walnuts.”

On a photo of Bill Clinton shaking Nelson Mandela’s hand: “Both these men have highly outspoken wives, but only one knows where her husband has been every night for the last 26 years. Which one?”

On the notorious blank-faced, rifle-toting image of Dallas’s best-known killer: “Lee Harvey Oswald in an early attempt to avoid suspicion.”

On Josephine Baker: “She joined the Resistance during World War II, as distinct from other entertainers who joined it after the war was over.”

On Brezhnev: “Lenin had been injected with formaldehyde after his death. Brezhnev had apparently received the same treatment while still alive.”

(Improbably, Brezhnev made a lasting appeal to James’s critical imagination. His 1978 attack on Moscow’s official Brezhnev biography is among mankind’s greatest book reviews. It starts: “Here is a book so dull 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.”)


To James, early in the 21st century, something peculiarly bad happened which straightforward memento mori cannot explain. Perhaps the Internet must take the rap. The Internet’s knack for driving into near-extinction “the man of letters”—or, in the comparable 1934 phrase of composer-conductor-critic Constant Lambert, “the disappearing middlebrow”—appears infinite. Bernard Levin, Kingsley Amis: how authoritative their historiographical pontificating sounded in the 1980s, and how easy it is now to demolish most of their allegations after 20 minutes’ Wikipedia perusal.

James can no more be impugned for not predicting cyberspace’s intellectual impact than Passchendaele Tommies could be impugned for not predicting atomic weapons. Where he can more reasonably be queried is in post-Berlin-Wall geopolitics. Upon James, 9/11—rather than being the nightmarish but ultimately foreseeable shock that it was for anyone familiar with Washington’s Middle East policy, or lack thereof—seems to have left that particular spiritual concussion which Molotov-Ribbentrop once left upon Marxists. If 9/11 was James’s Nazi-Soviet disillusion, worse came with the October 2002 Bali bombings. They appear to have formed, for him, the non-Marxist equivalent of Khrushchev’s secret speech and Hungarian invasion combined.

Someday a profound sociological tome will analyze Homo Australianus’s public meltdowns in response to the Bali atrocity. They had no local precedent. Sure, we hated—rightly enough— Hirohito’s Greater East Asian Co-Prosperity Sphere for its disgusting crimes. (The emperor’s Australian prisoners included James’s own father, killed in 1945.) But our general cognition did not cease thereby. We had not then acquired what our education system’s subsequent progressive gurus imposed on us: the adamantine conviction that, for Aussies, death is optional. This conviction—as can be confirmed by the oafish mummery which characterizes Australia’s average post-Christian funeral rite—has become, above all since Bali, our cultural default mode.

Indonesia’s 1975–1999 extermination of 180,000 East Timorese inspired in the Australian masses total indifference—and in Australian Prime Ministers from Gough Whitlam to Paul Keating a discreet but active pleasure at having 180,000 fewer Catholics in the neighborhood to disturb the Western Enlightenment Project. Not so the Bali carnage. Over the slaying by terrorists of 88 roistering Australian nightclubbers—the other 114 victims were Lesser Breeds, and thus could be safely ignored—our rent-a-mobs set up the same institutionalized howling with which London’s schmaltzy sans-culottes and their junk-media enablers had greeted Princess Diana’s apotheosis. James had prided himself on channeling Homo Australianus, just as Walt Whitman had channeled Homo Americanus. Now Bali hurled the credo of “the Anti-Death League” (Amis’s terminology) back in Homo Australianus’s face.

Can you imagine James’s resultant anguish? His pre-2001 worldview had exceedingly little room for Kant’s “crooked timber of humanity,” or in non-German language, Original Sin. That it had any transient room whatever is to James’s lasting credit. Pascal would not have been ashamed to write what James once wrote about Satan: “the beast drives a car and knows what time our daughter leaves school.” But from this insight into evil, what did James conclude? It is not altogether evident.


A lifetime’s reading is distilled in James’s 876-page Cultural Amnesia (2007). While many habitual essayists have turned to a big book, none can have invested more ardor in the marathon than James did. Had James simply announced, “I hope I earn lots of money for these brief smooth profiles of 106 notables whom I enjoyed writing brief smooth profiles of,” nobody could have had the smallest objection. But when you have grown less interested in art or commerce than in saving the world, a profiler’s dexterity no longer suffices. James wanted Cultural Amnesia to be not just his big book but his Summa Theologica, and indeed his university. Hannah Arendt had her Human Condition and Origins of Totalitarianism, so why should not James join the epic writers’ club? (It is true that James, unlike Arendt, had never got up close and personal with Heidegger, but it is equally true that Arendt, unlike James, had never dared appear on Japan’s trash-television.)

The sad reality is that Cultural Amnesia, notwithstanding its commendable things, suffers overwhelmingly from the Economist Syndrome. As James Bowman said in these pages seven years back: “The Economist is an excellent magazine for keeping informed about subjects you don’t know anything about, but its deficiencies begin to appear as soon as it addresses one you do.” Let us concede that James must have examined Poland’s Witold Gombrowicz and the Franco-Austrian psychologist Manès Sperber more deeply than has any other individual, living or deceased. Meanwhile James continues to display difficulty in getting right the simplest facts about far more distinctive figures. Relying, as he does, on the posthumous Shostakovich “memoirs” is like relying for Holodomor scholarship on Walter Duranty. The research level of James’s references to Richard Strauss, Wilhelm Furtwängler, and Herbert von Karajan would disgrace a sophomore. But then, any overarching theme in Cultural Amnesia amounts to no more than: “liberal secular democrat four-legs good, elitist or even quietist two-legs bad.” “Darkest Zeitgeistheim”—C.S. Lewis’s phrase—is still a prison, even if James is as ebullient within it as were the Blues Brothers in Joliet Penitentiary.

May/June 2013 issueArendt, in her big books and elsewhere, triumphed on three vital counts where Cultural Amnesia cannot. First, she was from head to toe a scholar, not a publicist, even a prodigiously gifted publicist. Second, she gave her readers the benefits of a stratospheric Mittel-European IQ. Third, being conversant with abstract thought imbued her with what a malign fusion of temperament and Anglo privilege denied to James: an actual operative moral philosophy with which to undermine the commissar.

James has delightfully mocked the commissar, a species now largely confined to Pyongyang, Ottawa, Canberra, and Harvard. But what creed can he set against the mullah, the Beltway chickenhawk, the cyberpornographer, and the therapeutic statist? Mere liberal secular democracy: a phenomenon largely meaningless outside European-derived mores and, at best, intermittently functional within them. It might continue to play in Peoria. Its allure in Tehran, Cairo, Beijing, Harare, Jakarta, or Riyadh (Eretz Netanyahu we shall silently overlook) remains probationary.

Forbear to blame him. The fault, dear Brutus, lies not in our Australian stars, including our Australian TV stars, but in our Australian selves. Take away the short-lived influence of B.A. Santamaria’s Catholic-dominated political machine—doomed by its failure to prevent Whitlam’s 1972 election—and Australia’s Cold Warriors consisted disproportionately of tenured Sydney and Melbourne academics whose response to Enver Hoxha’s atheism Mmuseums was to build their own atheism museums, from which they debarred Hoxha on an aesthetic technicality.


About the recent developments in James’s hitherto private life—that is, the eight-year extramarital debauch—compassion demands a diplomatic reticence. Apropos James’s leukemia-induced torments, gossip would be unseemly. He himself has confessed that today he needs so much extra oxygen as to render future Australian visits impossible. How desolate this realization must make him can be gauged from Unreliable Memoirs’ glorious final prose-poem:

As I begin this last paragraph, outside my window a misty afternoon drizzle gently but inexorably soaks the City of London. Down there in the street I can see umbrellas commiserating with each other. In Sydney Harbor, 12,000 miles away and 10 hours from now, the yachts will be racing on the crushed diamond water under a sky the texture of powdered sapphires. It would be churlish not to concede that the same abundance of natural blessings which gave us the energy to leave has every right to call us back. … Pulsing like a beacon through the days and nights, the birthplace of the fortunate sends out its invisible waves of recollection. It always has and it always will, until even the last of us come home.


R.J. Stove lives in Melbourne, Australia.



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