‘We are often told that the next generation of literati won’t have private libraries: everything will be on the computer. It’s a rational solution, but that’s probably what’s wrong with it. Being book crazy is an aspect of love and therefore scarcely rational at all.’.
My first introduction to Clive James, apart from a snippy reference to a review at the start of one of Spike Milligan’s war memoirs*, was his television shows in the 1980s. Have to confess I wasn’t a fan. The shows seemed a mix of cheap laughs and often a slightly sleazy air. Not my cup of tea.
They was also his poem on the Charles and Diana wedding, which quite embarrassing.
Sometime in the late 1980s or early 1990s I came across a piece of his about poet Philip Larkin, who I just had discovered.
It was like finding that Krusty the Clown was, in real life, Montaigne**. It was perceptive, it showed things I hadn’t noticed, it was witty, humane,intelligent.
Dammit , it was good.
James is now dying of leukemia, and it is this death sentence which hangs over much of his latest works – it is there, of course, in the title, with its dark pun.
And he is not going quietly: commendably though, rather than rage he is writing, writing, against the dying of the light.
Some people parade their learning. In the past James has tended not so much as parade his knowledge: he’s been more inclined to take his on night manouvres with the Panzerdivision. If he could draw a reference to a sesquipedalian continental writer, or some obscure Russian, all while peeling the spuds, it seemed he would do so at the drop of a quotation mark.
Life, and the wisdom which comes with not only experience but the ability to learn from experience, has seen him tone this down.
A bit. The learning is still very much present: one of the favourite recent additions to my bookshelves is his magisterial Cultural Amnesia, which is full of obscure byways and is one of those books of learning which are a joy to dip into from time to time.
But he has learned not to overdo it.
“The critic should write to say, not ‘look how much I’ve read,’ but ‘look at this, it’s wonderful'” he comments towards the end of Latest Readings. Theres a rueful, if implicit, acknowledgement of follies of younger years there.
The critic should also, of course, send you off to check out his subjects. On the strength of reading James – not only here, but more recent pieces in the Guardian – I’ve had another bash at Conrad. Apart from “doing” Heart of Darkness at Uni, I have read little of his work. I picked up ‘Nostromo’ at a second hand store in Auckland, back in Uni days in the late ’80s but struggled with it and it was a book which was, amongst others, wiped out in The Great Sandringham Road Leaking Roof Catastrophe of 1992.
But when James writes, as he does here, that he first read it full of admiration for both Conrad and himself: Conrad for his moral scope and himself for his endurance in actually managing to read the thing, it struck a chord with me.
“Perhaps to induce self-esteem in the reader had been one of the author’s aims. There are those who believe that Wagner made Siegfried so wearisome because he wanted the audience to admire themselves.”
He has more time for Conrad now – and on James’ recommendation, I’m currently about half way through Under Western Eyes. For reasons I can’t quite put my finger on, it reminds me of some of William Golding’s later writing. It’s hard work, but its also difficult not to persevere. There is something about it which draws the reader on – well, this reader, anyway.
James quotes Samuel Johnson, approvingly, on the way language changes and notes the man famous, amongst other things, for writing a dictionary wrote as if language is an ever-changing thing. Johnson was not trying to resist this, but make sure that as it changed it did not become corrupted.
“That our languages and perpetual danger of corruption cannot be denied; but what prevention can be found? The present manners of the nation would deride authority and therefore nothing is left but that every writer should criticise himself.”
All he needed to add was that unless you can criticise yourself you’re not a writer, James adds.
James remains impressed with Anthony Powell: and, sorry, but I’ve never managed to get beyond a few dozen pages with A Dance To the Music Of Time, despite having several bashes at it. But I loved James’ characterisation of Powell’s writing which, he says, ‘sometimes piled on the subtlety to the point of flirting with the evanescent’.
This is, I think, the crucial attributes of a great critic: the ability to write enjoyably about something the reader may not like and may even have no interest in. (In the New Zealand context, Diana Wichtel – like James, a television critic – in the Listener falls into this category. I enjoy reading her columns about tv programmes I have never watched and have no intention of doing so).
And on Larkin – who features, as he so often does, in James’ work, – he defends the poet against the backlash which followed the Andrew Motion biography in 1993 and the revelations Larkin was, in his private life, something of a porn-loving creep.
As James writes now,
‘The turmoil of his psyche is the least interesting thing about him. His true profundity is right there on the surface, and the beauty of his line. Every ugly moment of his interior battles was in service to that beauty.’
He is right about the first claim. I am not so sure about that last sentence though. Sometimes the point of Larkin is where the ugly moments obtruded on the beauty, especially in some of the ‘High Windows’ collection, not to mention some of the works which were left unpublished until after Larkin’s death.
Mention of Larkin brings me to Robert Dessaix’s memoir, What Days Are For.
I’ve never heard of Dessaix, but the title is the first line in a Larkin poem and when I saw it on the pile at good ol’ Unity Books, I swooped.
The poem, in full, is here:
What are days for?
Days are where we live.
They come, they wake us
Time and time over.
They are to be happy in:
Where can we live but days?
Ah, solving that question
Brings the priest and the doctor
In their long coats
Running over the fields.
It has been one of my favourite poems since coming across it sometime in my 20s. It’s message seems to me to be you have to live the life you have got: ‘days’ does not refer to a 24 hour period but a much more broad thing, they are simply ‘where we live’.
The last four lines are marvellous. There is something risible about the image of the priest and the doctor. The ‘doctor’ here, I am sure, is not a medical person but an academic, an ideologue.
And like the priest, the ideologue comes running over the fields, all flapping coat and wagging finger, telling us how to solve the question of life with their pat answers.
Dessaix – like James, an intellectual Australian – wrote the book while recovering from a medical mishap and pondering the Meaning Of It All.
His life appears somewhat abstract: he has a (male) partner and their life together, as depicted in the memoir, appears to be very much of the mind. It is in some ways enviable but in other ways there seems something curiously airless and un-grounded about it all.
Which is not to say his book is not a thought provoking and enjoyable read.
He ponders a visit to the sub-continent, wonders about the attractions of India and in particular its religions have for well heeled Westerners.
He writes of “middle-aged women with Alice in Wonderland hair from Melbourne and Milwaukee…in search of the spiritual moment that will last a lifetime (to misquote Casanova)” – a few men and crushed linen pants and no socks, Suede and scarves, but mostly woman.
‘What is the attraction of Indian religions for Westerners? What is it the cast the spell? It’s got something to do with the way they can claim not to be religious as such I suspect. “Oh it’s not a religion it’s a way of life “– how many times have I heard that?’
He also points out acidly the gods of the region are a long way from the Judao-Christian God – at least, a long way from the watered down version of God taught in many churches.
He doubts anyone would speak of ‘love’ in a Kali Temple in the way the term would be used in a Christian church. Gods and the Indian imagination are much more ferocious, he writes.
There is not the message that all will be well (Dessaix puts this in italics) which is familiar to the sort of Protestant churches he recalls from his youth.
One of his companions who has a Tamil background suggest that this sort of thing and what he calls lovingkindness (again the italics are his) is a bit middle-class and sentimental when applied to any sort of God. Lovingkindness along with disinterested courtesy and altruism, is, he argues a western luxury, born of economic security.
The Greek gods ‘had no time for mercy or compassion either: Zeus and its progeny are as stony heart as earthquakes and thunderstorms.’
But then so is the God of much of the old and new testaments. While Dessaix quotes almost rapturously Paul’s first epistle to the Corinthians
‘though I speak with the tongues of men and angels and have not charity I am become sounding brass or a tinkling cymbal. And I have the gift of prophecy and understand all mysteries and all knowledge; and though I have all faith, so that I could remove mountains, and have not charity, I am nothing’.
he also points out the stony judgementalism of much of the Bible – and not just the Old Testament, either.
‘On Judgement Day, if I’m not mistaken, on his right hand will stand those who gave them something to eat and drink when he was hungry and thirsty, gave them close to put on when he was naked, and visited him when he was sick and imprisoned… On his left however will stand those who gave you nothing to eat or drink, did not close, and did not visit him when he was sick and imprisoned. They will be cast into everlasting fire. This now seems a bit over the top. He was about to be betrayed and killed when he made that threat, and he knew it, so he was understandably a little overwrought, but all the same the punishment does not seem to fit the crime.’
He muses this diatribe is not about just being nice to each other anymore than Hinduism is, although it largely was when he was growing up. It is about seeing Truth face-to-face, and the need to be empathetic in doing so.
‘… Go out of the way to put yourself into the shoes of others, unlock your heart as you look into their ears, and do whatever you can to ease their wretchedness. And in blessing you will be blessed.’
There is a whiff of Hindu Darshan, in this, he notes.
There are other – often highly tangental but nevertheless enjoyable – asides.
Dessaix defines a masterpiece as a book you’ve never quite finished reading, which strikes me as being uncomfortably, if amusingly, accurate.
He suggests romantic love as being ‘often barely sexual at all when it first strikes, except very late at night and very early in the morning’ which doesn’t strike me as being particularly accurate at all, but then, we all have our own different experiences in this area.
He visits Damascus in Syria, sits at a cafe, sipping a banana milkshake in the street where a blinded St Paul is reputed to have been taken to refuge by his companions.
He meets an English tourist who is pondering doing the Santiago de Compostela pilgrimage. He cheerfully says he’s not a believer and hasn’t been since nine has done it before wants to again because he likes to feel linked into something.
That striving for some sort of ‘linking into something’ seems, in fact, to be the book’s main undercurrent.
And he reads David Lodge’s novel Deaf Sentence , in which the narrator quotes Larkin’s Days.
He doesn’t find the poem disheartening or depressing even though he is aware Larkin’s poems tend to be on the dolorous side. The scurrying priests at the end he says look like clowns, and could even be a bit on the macabre side – what is he seeing here? Death in a gown?
‘That would be more in keeping with Larkin I suppose. We live in days not in Hobart or Hull or in this year all that year or even lifetimes or eras let alone “in the moment” or even in God’s timeless gaze. We live in” our own succession of days”. Learn to value that’.
Again, the italics are his.
There is much to value in both these books.
* James had reviewed, otherwise favourably, a previous volume and commented the work was not historically accurate and Milligan took grave offence. I will return to the Milligan books another time: for now it is worth noting Milligan did not hold a grudge, as his subsequently published letters shows.
** Ok. Slight exaggeration at both ends of the scale.