Book Review: Latest Readings
by Clive James
Yale University Press: 2015
In reading what is probably the last book of essays we will ever receive from the hand of Clive James, I could hardly help comparing it to another book recently published by the same press. Alberto Manguel’s Curiosity, like James’s Latest Readings, is written by a man who has staked the worth of his life on literature and who owes at least a part of his eminence to essay writing. Manguel tells an anecdote about reciting passages from his favorite books in a hospital room after he has suffered a stroke. And the whole premise of Clive James’s book is that he has leukemia, so that what he is reading now he knows to be the last books he will ever read. Both essay collections, in other words, are about the value of literature in the face of death.
But Curiosity and Latest Readings could not be more opposite in style or in the impression they made on me. Curiosity tries to bind a fundamentally digressive hodgepodge of essays into the pretense of a monograph, while Latest Readings confesses immediately to its author’s inability to tame the whims that still guide him, even at the verge: “[Samuel] Johnson, who often convicted himself of indolence, might possibly have approved my plan for the organization of this volume: there isn’t one.” And yet Latest Readings proves to be a draught of perfectly distilled Clive James, a writer who need not fear formlessness because his personality and moral outlook shine through anything he chooses to say. Curiosity looks back, like a man walking in the library which has come to constitute his soul, while Latest Readings looks forward, like a man whose soul – and library – won’t stop growing.
Clive’s family installs him, after his diagnosis, in a house in Cambridge. He settles there with his library to die. Despite dignified resolutions about the futility of book-buying in his condition, he discovers Hugh’s bookstall just down the road.
Hugh doesn’t say much, but those in the know tell me that he scores all this mouthwatering stuff at car boot sales. I suppose that the original owners of the books have died off, and their families have put the books back into the economy in the simplest way possible. As I was scheduled to die off myself, even if I did not precisely know when, it was madness to start making small piles of books on Hugh’s stall that I wanted to take home. But the madness was divine. Even if I already had the book, he might have a handier edition; and often they were titles that I had once owned but lost along the way; and most often of all they were books that I had never owned before but now realized I ought to possess. Somewhere in there was an itching sense of duty. The childish urge to understand everything doesn’t necessarily fade when the time approaches for you to do the most adult thing of all: vanish.
The title, the setting, and above all the squinting grin of an obviously declining James, who is pictured on the cover, might lead you to expect the book to emphasize this reading-in-the-face-of-oblivion type of thing, to succumb to the gimmick of capitalizing on the drama of death. But it doesn’t. Instead, each very short chapter is intensely specific and simply written, with aphorisms of a prophetic cast emerging only as if by accident, like seashells beached by an unselfconscious wave. If anything, James takes himself less seriously than in prior collections. Beside Latest Readings, even James’s magnum opus, Cultural Amnesia, hardly a snooty tome, seems a little pretentious.
Had I been tasked to give this book a name, I would have called it And Another Thing, because most of the chapters seem like the addenda of an enthusiast, the anecdotes you get from a raconteur when you’re stuck with him in a doorway somewhere, waiting for a cloudburst to pass.
We find a chapter about incorrect illustrations for war journalism:
In my own time as a writer-narrator of television documentaries, few of the young researchers could understand why I got so exercised about footage of the wrong plane dropping bombs on the wrong place. Just as long as it was a plane and it was dropping bombs on something, they protested, it fitted my narrative.
We find chapters touching upon preoccupations familiar to his faithful readers, such as slightly new angles on the monsters of WWII: on Albert Speer’s secret diary – “all his books are good for your German, but I am not at all sure they are good for your soul” – on Hitler’s interest in the arts – “he had the con-man’s knack of making himself seem profoundly steeped in any subject just by the fluency with which he could learn a list of facts and reel them off to the susceptible ear.”
But the best chapters are undoubtedly about James’s newest preoccupations:
My elder daughter should take some of the credit, or blame, for getting me started reading again as if there might be a tomorrow, when I was ready to settle down on my deathbed and read nothing but the Bible. She had all of Patrick O’Brian’s Jack Aubrey novels in her house and urged me to try the first one.
He finds himself devouring all twenty volumes of the series. He also discovers the trilogies of Olivia Manning, and, quite appalled by his own belated passion for novel sequences, finds himself rereading the whole set of A Dance to the Music of Time by Anthony Powell.
“The critic,” James observes at one point, “should write to say, not ‘look how much I’ve read,’ but ‘look at this, it’s wonderful.’” If that’s correct, then in this slight, unassuming, humorous final missive, he has more than lived up to his vocation.