Ian Garrick Mason

Book Reviews

National Post -- July 12, 2003

As of This Writing

Clive James
W.W.Norton, 640pp, $47.50

by Ian Garrick Mason

To the general public, Clive James has always been a humorously offbeat television personality from Australia, the host -- to pick a recent example -- of a series of playfully written documentaries on various world cities. Whether piloting a clapped-out Trabant through Berlin, or being fitted for a toupée in Los Angeles, this is the Clive James the world knows.

But James has a secret identity: Once away from the makeup and the lights, he changes clothes in the nearest phone booth and becomes a respected literary critic. In this role, he has been writing for the Times Literary Supplement, the New York Review of Books and other intellectual publications for more than 30 years.

As Of This Writing presents the "essential essays" from this period. Over 600 pages long, the collection amply demonstrates James' remarkable range of interests and expertise: He analyzes W.H. Auden's poetry, plunges into historical and philosophical argument with Daniel Goldhagen's Hitler's Willing Executioners, provides a comprehensive assessment of Fellini's films, critiques the effectiveness of Nabokov's translation of Pushkin, and surveys the field of 20th-century photography. Read those pieces, and you'll still have another 41 to go.

In compiling his essays, James has deliberately refrained from improving or updating them; instead, he offers comments and second thoughts in a "postscript" after each piece. More than a technical innovation, this is a reflection of his belief in the "contingent" nature of critical writing. "If it tries to cut itself free from time and chance," he asserts, "it removes itself from life."

One of James' great strengths is that he takes criticism so seriously. Throughout this collection, we find him reflecting on "the critic's duty."A critic must assess the importance of writers, but must also not hesitate to identify their aberrations (like Robert Lowell's later poetry, the product of a "clinical dementia" mistaken by too many critics as a final creative flowering). A critic must have the strength to avoid being swept away by a single "big idea." Most importantly, a critic exists to uphold standards, and should never be swayed in judgement by considerations of an artist's personal obstacles. James is tough-minded about this because he knows it matters. "Criticism is not indispensible to art," he states. "It is indispensible to civilization."

No supporter of academic literary theory, James openly worries about whether "the study of literature is killing literature." To counteract these tendencies, a critic must remain an ordinary reader first, and must never hesitate to ask "childishly elementary questions." In an illuminating postscript on his discussion of British poet Stevie Smith, James recommends "the common food of custom and instinct" to balance the critic's "rich diet of art and knowledge." Primum vivere, deinde philosophari -- first live, before you philosophize -- are among the last words in this book.

James does have his flaws, but virtually all of them are traceable to an excess of critical zeal. It is good to fight against sloppy grammar and spelling, but James makes a fetish out of catching even a single error in a book. In Gore Vidal's collected essays, Matters of Fact and of Fiction, he spots an "as" missing from a sentence on page 260 -- and confidently credits the 281 other pages as being "error-free." He is also fond of pointing out title changes between the American and British editions of a book, inevitably taking the American publishers to task for missing subtleties that the Brits understood. And woe betide the unfortunate author who incorrectly identifies an aircraft: James is on the scene to make sure that Spitfires remain Spitfires, and do not ever become DeHavillands.

The collection also includes two rather lacerating essays on "the Sherlockologists," a group of authors obsessed with analyzing the world of Sherlock Holmes, and on Judith Krantz's Princess Daisy. He quickly destroys these softest of targets, but one wonders why he spent any ammunition on them at all.

But oh, the fun he has! "As a work of art," he writes, "[Princess Daisy] has the same status as a long conversation between two not very bright drunks." This sense of style, properly focused, elevates all of his writing -- even the most serious. Thus a passage of Theodore Roethke's poetry, too obviously influenced by Yeats, is amusingly damned as "a stolen car hastily resprayed and dangerously retaining its original number-plates." James revels in such wordplay, but he is also aware of its dangers: "Any successful style is a spell whose first victim is the wizard," he warns. Luckily for his readers, the glint in this wizard's eye remains irrepressible, and as mischeivous as ever.