Clive James’ Last Act

by John Broening (August 2015)


In the fourth volume of his Unreliable Memoirs, Clive James gives an unforgettable account of a visit he makes to the home of a dying critic, a former wunderkind who has been, if not quite disgraced or ruined, at least led astray and made foolish by his erotic obsessions:

It was in Los Angeles. On an afternoon off from an Observer assignment I went out by cab to see him in the house he and Kathleen had taken in one of the canyons [whose name I forget]….If I had the biography here I could check up, but I hated the biography, even though Kathleen wrote it, and with a loving, forgiving hand. The biography, and the letters, helped to sink what was left of his reputation, so that now, when he is out of print, he is patronized, without a blush, by the sort of people he could write rings around.

But he was the stylist of the time; the true star critic. One of the things that made him so, apart from his turn of phrase was his limitless capacity for admiration. When I said that Hemingway’s style had fallen apart in the end, Tynan read aloud from that marvelous passage where Hemingway, towards the close of his life, talked about the Gulf Stream’s ability to take in any amount of junk and still run clean again after a few miles. I could tell that Tynan was talking about his lungs; and Hemingway was wrong, of course; but the prose sounded like holy writ in Tynan’s strained voice as the hot sunlight inexorably ate its way into the absurdly green lawn.

Tynan’ is Kenneth Tynan, the theater critic, National Theater founder and dramaturg, and proselytizer for the Sexual Revolution. James concludes:

Tynan had drama in his prose...It was only fitting that his death should be a drama too. It was a fight between him and the oxygen machine.

Depicting an experience in the late 70s in a book that was published in 2006, the passage has a much different resonance in 2015. In 2015, the dying critic is James himself, and the drama of his own dying far exceeds any drama Tynan‘s death was able to generate.

II

If you follow the British press, there’s a good chance you’ve learned a great deal about James’s private life.

In 1997, a woman who was marginally associated with the 80s pop band ABC told the News of the World that she had had a brief affair with the married James and that she was considering suing him for libelously portraying her in one his comic novels. In 2009, a former opera singer recounted a long-term affair with a writer she thinly pseudonymized as ‘Clyde’.

And in 2009, Leanne Edelstein, a former model who is a fixture of the tabloids, went on the show A Current Affair to detail her seven-year liaison with a man she called ‘Mr. Wolf.’ In what must rank as a low point for television (if not for British letters), camera crew in tow, the enhanced-looking Edelstein ambushed a frail and sickly James, demanding the return of a cache of compromising photographs.

What made James appear frail and sickly was leukemia, which he told the press in 2011 that he suffered from, along with emphysema and kidney failure; he also said that he expected to die soon.

Since the announcement there have been periodic updates: he was too ill to return to Australia, his home country (he has lived in England since 1962); he did not expect to live out the year; he would receive a ‘tragic’ BAFTA lifetime achievement award; and then, last year, as his health rallied, he told the press he was slightly embarrassed to still be around.

In 2012, James confessed to The Daily Mail that he was ‘a reprehensible character and a terrible husband’ and he hoped his family would forgive him. Like the singer Robin Thicke, who admitted to an extramarital affair, reluctantly separated from his wife and then issued an album called Get Her Back, James’s private drama has become a publicly acknowledged inspiration and subject matter for his art. In 2013, James brought out his translation of the Divine Comedy, largely, it would appear, as a peace offering to his stoical wife, a respected Dante scholar.

Last year, he published simultaneously in the New Yorker and the British press a poem called ‘Japanese Maple’, a poem as front-loaded with backstory as a Taylor Swift breakup song. The maple, we are told, has been ‘my daughter‘s choice’; the speaker in the poem hopes to see it flower at least once before his death:

Your death, near now, is of an easy sort.
So slow a fading out brings no real pain.
Breath growing short
Is just uncomfortable.
You feel the drain of energy, but thought and sight remain:

‘Japanese Maple’ seems to have a built-in pathos, a pathos that comes not just from the facts of James’ life, including his estrangement from his daughter, being well known to many readers, but from the obviousness of the poem’s devices: even the slowest and most unpoetic reader can congratulate himself on spotting that the shorter, five –syllable third line is meant to mimic the shortness of breath of a dying man.

So over the past few years we have had two concurrent dramas played out in the media revolving around James: the drama of his messy private life and the drama of his dying.

But of course all this attention has nothing to do with James’s stature as a writer, and everything to do with his other career as a fixture on British television for three decades, an unlikely combination of Bob Saget, Bill Moyers and Bill Maher. James has interviewed celebrities (with a radiant obsequiousness second only to James Lipton’s), done travelogues and talk shows, presented roundups of humorous TV clips, introduced Shakespeare to the masses, and dilated on Fame in the Twentieth Century.

III

His enormously popular memoirs depict a gauche but relentless provincial forever stumbling upwards. (‘The Kid from Kogorah’ is James’s self–chosen sobriquet; like many celebrities, he has the habit of referring to himself in the third person.)

The arc of the story goes something like this: After a rowdy and largely unsupervised childhood in Australia and a university career where he is overshadowed by the likes of Robert Hughes and Germaine Greer, James moves to England, finds daily living a hopeless tangle, squats – briefly – in a cardboard box in Tufnell Park, distinguishes himself at Cambridge in a manic, graceless Max Fisher-in-Rushmore way, enviously watches his handsomer friends have better luck with the women he covets, smokes like a fiend, can’t hold his liquor or his dope, develops the fashion sense of an Albanian pimp, marries and has children, continues to lust after women but in a chaste way, and makes his way up the media ladder.

James has many good qualities as a memoirist: he’s both self-absorbed and interested in other people; he has a fine sense of drama and a good ear for idiolect; a fascination with how things work, whether it’s a go-cart, a fighter plane, a heroic couplet, a television interview, or liberal democracy; he has a wide streak of gratitude; if he doesn’t have Tynan’s limitless capacity for admiration, showing respect to talent – even rival talent – often gives him vivid pleasure.

On top of these qualities, James has known most of the British literary and media elite and a lot of the top cultural players in America and Australia. The best parts of his memoirs are those where he develops the pose of a peripheral insider, close enough to the action to accurately note the loose, ad-hoc way things unfold (James’s writing is happily free of paranoia and conspiracy-mongering), near enough to the fringe that his own actions do not inhibit his capacity for sharp observation. And James has a connoisseur’s appreciation for megalomania in all its variety, which as he moves from the small literary world to the larger world of show business, serves him well. In North Face of Soho, James and a colleague interview Peter Sellers:

He launched into an account of how Blake Edwards, the director of A Shot in the Dark had screwed up the billiard-room scene. As his agent studied the ceiling while looking down at his plate  the trick needs a practiced pair of eyeballs Sellers moved pieces of cutlery about to demonstrate that whereas on screen the sequence had gone like that, it should have gone like this. Edwards, apparently had deviously seemed to agree with Sellers on the soundstage but had double-crossed him in the cutting room. As the well-modulated tirade went on, Arthur and I exchanged the glance shared by two coal-miners when they hear water coming down the tunnel.

About A. J. Liebling, Clive James has written:

He could make you laugh because he never made the mistake of speaking in a funny voice, and after reading him, neither did I. To the extent that I could rig the circumstances, I never tried to be funny in a funny context: only in a serious one. Humour as an exclusive genre I simply loathe.

But too of much of James’ memoirs are written in a funny voice, especially in the form of the Tall Tale; the joint he smokes is the Worlds’ Biggest Joint; the intrusive and high-strung landlady is The World’s Worst Landlady; the postmodern, Philippe Starck-designed bathroom stall is as difficult to open as Rubik’s cube, and so on. Instead of the joke as the clearest and most efficient path to the truth, it is a meandering diversion away from it.

IV

If there are two forms that best suit James’s talents they are the short column and the medium-length essay.

In the early 70s, James used the short column to create a new genre: television criticism. Realizing at the time that those two words were if not an oxymoron, at least an incongruous pairing, James approach was flip and slangy, anti-Leavisite, full of what he called ‘incisively expressed disbelief.’

Ingmar Bergman’s stilted dialogue in Scenes from a Marriage was ‘muesli without milk’; the alien planet on any number of Star Trek episodes ‘always turns out to be the same square mile of rocky Californian scrubland’; writing about a Charles Aznavour performance on a Liza Minnelli variety show, he describes him as ‘so worn by experience he’s got bags under his head.’

Occasionally, James would stop and make a deeper point about why television was so bad. In a column about an adaptation of War and Peace and historical dramas in general, he observed:

Marianne Moore wanted her poems to be artificial gardens with real toads in them. This production reverses that desirable order: the set and costumes are as real as research and technology can make them, while the people who inhabit them are of an artificiality no amount of good acting… can defeat.

The Marianne Moore reference was a tip-off: James’s first and greatest love is poetry. In Poetry Notebook, a recent collection of online essays, James often mentions his illness and impending death. The work of old and dying artists is often bitter, crabbed and desultory, but James’ writing here is energized with a lifelong passion and vividly compressed by a sense of urgency.

‘Readers of the Observer could turn to his column and find sentences good enough to leave their breakfast cold,’ James wrote about Tynan. Buried in the introduction to Poetry Notebook, in an offhand observation about young poets, James delivers a stunner worthy of Wilde: 'Real talent can survive anything, even encouragement.'

James recalls the birth of his love for poetry as a university student: reciting Dowson to a bathroom mirror and Cummings to the trees and the approaching traffic, virtuously chewing his way through Pound’s Cantos.

The lifetime close study of poetry leads James to a wealth of intimate insights. Rereading Frost, he discovers something he hadn’t noticed before:

Then I pick him up again and find that his easy-seeming, usually iambic, conversational forward flow is a deception, a way of not just bringing show-stopping moments to your attention but of moving them past your attention, so that you will form the correct impression that he has wealth to spare and does not want the show stopped for such a secondary consideration as brilliance.

Poetry has of late become like jazz; what once was a popular art is now unsustainable without institutional subsidy; and as the audience for it has disappeared, or rather deserted it for hip-hop, the number of professionally-trained practitioners has paradoxically increased. Like jazz, one of the reasons poetry appeals to initiates is because of its difficulty. James himself is a workmanlike poet rather than a brilliant one, a diligent versifier, really, but he has tried and failed at it enough that he understands what those difficulties are.

 V

James’ magnum opus, Cultural Amnesia: Necessary Memories from the Arts is an incoherent failure, perhaps because its stated aim, to showcase the culture of liberal democracy, is at odds with it true aim-to exist as a monument to its creator. Cultural Amnesia’s rigorous organization  it is alphabetized by subject and each entry has a capsule biography of its subject and two quotations highlights rather than camouflages James’s intellectual disarray, his inability to engage in systematic thought. Cultural Amnesia also draws attention to James’s weaknesses as writer, which have become more pronounced over the years: his tendency to drag in off-topic personal information and to make himself the center of an essay no matter what the given assignment; his inclination to hold forth on a huge range of issues and subjects, whether or not he has anything of interest to say; his atrocity-mongering (as Tibor Fischer said about Martin Amis, James is ‘constantly on the prowl for gravitas-enlargement offers'); his fanboy’s fascination with the particulars of show business; his knack for making a showy display of simple common sense.

All of these qualities are on display in Cultural Amnesia’s essay that is ostensibly about Sophie Scholl, the heroic young woman who founded the anti-Nazi White Rose movement and chose a martyr’s death. I say ‘ostensibly’ because most of the essay is taken up with James’s bizarre and irrelevant notion that Natalie Portman would be the ideal choice to portray Sophie Scholl and with a long, leering appreciation of the actresses’s dewy charms.

About the barely pubescent Portman in The Professional, James writes:

Embodying sensitive decency in a role which asked her to be mad keen about guns and to bare her tiny midriff to the ambiguous gaze of a mature imported assassin with a bad shave, she certainly made the made the film more interesting than it might have been, but a touch of quease was hard to wish away. What’s a girl like you doing in a joint like this?

He continues:

She did it again—or at any rate she did it again for me—in Beautiful Girls, a movie I knew nothing about when I first happened to switch it on during some long plane ride. I missed the opening titles and at first didn’t realize that the perfect little dream girl was Natalie Portman again. It’s a good film. I own a video of it nowadays, and I still find it hard to watch any of it without watching it all…

It’s hard to know quite what to say about this (and James goes on for another four pages): adjectives like ‘Humbertian’, ‘creepy’ or even ‘masturbatory’ come to mind. Not to mention the ludicrousness of equating Sophie Scholl’s incomparable heroism with Portman’s qualities, which thoroughly belong to the world of show-business (right down to her getting her break through nepotism).

VI

As James has gone from literary-world-famous to famous-famous, he has tended to censor himself less, and you also have the feeling that he has gone from thinking that he should publish something because it is interesting to thinking that something is interesting because it is he who is saying it.

When Princess Diana died, James, who was an acquaintance of both hers and Prince Charles', published a tribute to her that brought to mind nothing so much as the death of Little Nell:

When the mid-market tabloids ran a page of photographs featuring the men supposedly in Diana's life, my photograph was always among the venerable, sometimes senescent, advisers, never among the young, handsome and virile suitors. The assumption was that although she might listen to what her privy counsellors said, she would never look at any of them twice. In my case, that assumption, unlike the one about my role as the éminence grise behind her television adventures, was dead right.

No, there was nothing between me and her beyond a fleeting friendship. Many other men knew her better. Some men knew her intimately, and now, at last, I do not envy them, because what they have in their memories must make loss feel like death….

No, I never saw her again. Neither will anyone now. Not even once. Never even once again.

No, I can still see her. She's leaving the Caprice, heading for the back door, because a Range Rover full of photographers has just pulled up in the street outside. She's turning her head. She's smiling. Has she forgotten something? Is she coming back?

No.

There are any number of reasons you can find to object to this passage. It is maudlin, certainly, bathetic, and full of the kind of self-pity and self-laceration that is best kept private. You might even protest, from this remove, that Princess Diana was an ordinary person: ordinary in her good looks, ordinary in her emotions and her tastes, and that her ordinariness was made extraordinary only by its context. But there is no doubting the sincerity of the feelings expressed here.

Elsewhere James has taken it upon himself to be the noble defender of harassed young actresses (‘Stalkers Always Kill’). And everywhere, not just in his memoirs, but in the oddest places, in writings about politics and the Gulag, he cannot fail to mention his being smitten with every attractive woman he sees, just as he cannot fail to mention his baldness, his heaviness, his all-around sexual invisibility.                                                   

Though he writes about it with a forced joviality, there is a strong sense of an uncontrollable obsession, of something that is driven not by a limitless capacity for enthusiasm but rather by shame.

VII

One of the reasons James hated Kathleen Tynan’s biography of her husband was that it gave a relentless portrait of her husband’s sexual obsessions , of his joyless zealot’s pursuit of sexual extremism. (And like a true zealot, Tynan was unconcerned with personal enrichment. His sex revue Oh, Calcutta made hundreds of millions of dollars. Tynan pocketed a few thousand.) Yet it’s not hard to discern behind Tynan’s sexual vanguardism a kind of defiant shame, more honest perhaps than the unacknowledged shame that lies at the root of many of James’ follies.

VIII

A sure sign of the true obsessive, as opposed to the true enthusiast, is that when he is holding forth on his special subject, he is incapable of calibrating the effect of his words on other people. Because when he thinks he is being offhand, he is actually being deeply self-revelatory. When he thinks he is being poetically precise, he is actually being creepy. When he thinks he is being heartbreaking, he strikes the rest of us as maudlin.

IX

Tynan was a tireless foe of censorship. He was, famously, the person to say ‘fuck’ on British television. He was an advocate of removing all restrictions from sexual expression. (Though one of the many paradoxes about Tynan is that while his social views look forward, his literary style looks backwards.)

We live in Tynan’s world nowadays. It is uncertain whether we are any happier. But Tynan would certainly have been pleased to see that the opportunities for drama, especially in the public sphere, have greatly increased.

X

A common theme of James’ excellent literary criticism, in his writings on Yeats, Shaw, Solzhenitsyn, Auden and others is that it is futile to wish away the follies and blindnesses of great artists, because those failings come from the same place as the art and accomplishments we cherish.

XI

In the same volume of his memoirs in which tells of his final meeting with Tynan, James gives a fascinating account of an aborted project he undertakes with Tynan’s encouragement. Already ill, Tynan asks James to write a stage adaption of a book ‘by the prankster, brothel-keeper and strolling philosopher Willy Donaldson', who is best known for having briefly been the impresario behind the famous Beyond the Fringe comedy review.

According to James, Tynan believed that Donaldson would provide 'a usefully subversive libertarian critique of the institutionalized inhibitions of Western society.'

James describes Willy’s writing:

Willy had the knack for the prose that floods mundane reality with it a radiance it could never generate by itself. In his pages, the hypnotic hookers came swaying towards you in couture underwear, drunk on the perfume of their own armpits, their eyes alight with your reflected dreams, hungry to blend their burning need with yours.

But when James arrives at Willy’s place, he finds a ‘dim little flat’ and Willy’s girlfriend to be a dyspeptic old woman with 'a sour face painted on the surface of a veteran grapefruit.'

James continues:

Tynan had told me that Willy, once a tycoon of upmarket sexual commerce, had fallen on hard times. I hadn’t talked to him for half an hour before I realized that ther had never been any soft times. This was it. He had been making everything up since the days when the Beyond the Fringe boys had twigged that he was a bull artist and eased him out. He and I talked the same language. He was fabulist. It takes one to know one.

A fabulist. You might quibble that there is an earthier, more accurate word available other than ‘fabulist’. But in a work, and a career, full of mock-insights, the self-judgment has the sound of the real thing.

______________________________

 

John Broening is a freelance writer based in Denver, Colorado. His writing has appeared in GastronomicaDepartures, The Baltimore Sun, The City Paper, The Faster Times and The Outlet and his article on the Noble Swine Supper Club was featured in Best Food Writing 2012.


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