Monday, September 04, 2006

today : turns out I have an unusual hero

I have recently put all my books up for sale. It is liberating. They are just objects - blocks of paper really - and I found that, mainly, they don't have the meaning that I ascribed to them. They are just things after all, even though as someone who reads a tremendous amount and always have, they have loomed quite large in my mind.

The thing is I am old enough to realise that, mostly, I will never re-read them. I am not the kind of person who hangs onto the past and I figure two things: firstly if I continue to read at the rate I have been going then I won’t have time to re-read. Secondly if I do have cause to return to any of them they will be available for me somehow. In the future I imagine I could download a digital facsimile of a soothing voice of my choosing to read the text to me, or I could order them cheaply from the very place I am selling mine.

But, of course, there are one or two exceptions. I have been ruthless in the extreme - stripped my bookshelves of nearly two hundred items already and nominated another thousand to be sold if someone wants them. Yet I've saved books that I do re-read. Catch 22 by Joseph Heller and Room Temperature by Nicholson Baker are two examples. In fact I have kind of kept authors. I saved James Lee Burke, for example because I can envisage reading him again from the start. I have also saved all the other Hellers - I think that Something Happened may be a better book than Catch 22 and at some point I'll check, event though I tend to read the latter once a year.

And Clive James, who is the point of this missive. Today I read Martin Amis's piece in The Observer in the last days of Mohammed Atta. It is a shining diamond of prose. Amis can make clever and elegant sentences for fun. Yet I always found his extended writing a little clever clever and ultimately rather dry. Amis is feted as probably the best writer of modern times, but my vote goes to James.

Humorists, of course, never make the lists just as Comedies never win Oscars. Somehow you have to be serious and laden with heavy thoughts and comment to be admired. Yet James constructs his sentences (as well his paragraphs) so beautifully that they are a genuine pleasure to behold, even before you get to their actual content. 'Humorists' are also always are also oversold. James is invariably described as 'hilarious', just as Joe Queenan (who occupies a similar place on my shelf i.e. not for sale) is described as vicious, acerbic and sarcastic. James is almost never just hilarious, just as Queenan is never truly vicious without a more apposite point .

Clive James is about to publish his fourth volume of memoirs, which has led me to re-read the first three. And even in the first few pages of Unreliable Memoirs you can find lovely writing that holds an instinctive comic rhythm as well as a visionary talent for description. James's use of simile and metaphor is always astute and surprising. And it is this talent that he harnesses to make points both hilariously trivial, but more often than not hilariously deadly serious.

An example from memory: hundreds and thousands eaten from a slab of buttered bread are described as 'powdered rainbow' an image that in two words perfectly evokes the time, place, situation and wonderstruck mindset of a wartime child offered a cheap but impossibly glamorous treat.

And another: struck totally by the lightning of adolescent desire, glimpsing the hem of his pocket Venus's underpants, James describes his eleven year old self appearing as if 'injected by cement'

But, like the great comic actors who have to do tragedy to get attention for their acting, Clive James's problem is that he is not really seen as a writer. Most people know him from the telly, where he would poke fun at the Japanese and pretty much everyone else. Presenting foreign advertising as if it came from another world - which it did. And even as a pen and ink man he is most famous for being not only a journalist but a critic, and at that a critic of that most trivial and unserious medium, television.

It is this unselfconscious and unselfish yoyoing between perceived high and low culture that makes James into one of my heroes. He is as comfortable writing about Torville and Dean as TS Eliot, watching TV and reading Thomas Paine. Sometimes his classical and literary allusions are jarring to a non-classicist like myself and I wonder if he is not just showing off his Cambridge education a little. Yet to a classicist his references to popular culture when reviewing poetry may seem just as jarring. I think he just draws on whatever is necessary to get his point over. He can mix pop culture with classicism and clowning with politics, often in the same sentence. Unpretentious, even whilst appearing pretentious.

Perhaps the best of Clive James's work is his travel writing. Again, even Dickens travel writing is kind of forgotten about because it is treated as second division. Even journalists seem to be sniffy about people who go abroad simply to write about it (unless, of course, they go abroad to get shot at and then write about it). I include in this the series of postcard films he made for ITV, which combined fascination, wit and silliness in equal measure, and should get a DVD release so we can watch them again and hear the rhythms of Clive's jokes intoned in his own voiceover.

This reached its peak in the series of articles and reports he filed from the 2000 Sydney Olympics (published in Even as We Speak). You come away from reading them feeling the pride, joy and heart of a city in celebration. They sum up my feelings about his work. What makes him so pleasurable to read is his generosity of spirit, enthusiasm and delight in observation. Now, this is personal taste on my part. I am rather tired of cleverness and cynicism. I prefer stand-up comedians who don't fall back on the 'you know what I hate' routines. My favourite novel of recent years is Rohinton Mistry's 'A Fine Balance'. Mistry, somehow, creates characters that are so real that you genuinely love them, enough that when the novel ends you miss them, like lost friends.

People slated Clive James for writing (in Even as We Speak) a piece on Princess Diana that was a eulogy to her. They chastised him for admitting to falling a little in love with her. Yet he didn't seem to care. He was unembarrassed about his affection for her, and throughout his extensive and varied work this affection for his subjects and generosity towards the world is his overarching theme.

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