When I come upon a Clive James essay in a periodical, I save it for last, knowing it will be a treat. Confronted by two substantial volumes of his treats, I hoped my enthusiasm would survive. Four of the 27 Reliable Essays, drawing on three decades' occasional writing (Clive's Gems, as it were), are recent, taken from Even As We Speak: 400 pages of gleanings, largely from the last eight years.
The blurb declares Reliable Essays "an unmissable cultural index of the twentieth century". But Clive's Gems is certainly not a cultural index, omitting as it does modernism, misspelling Hans Magnus Enzensberger's name, exercising the political luxury of prophecy-after-the-event, and being insistently eccentric. It does, however, reveal what James likes best in his work. The book starts with an arch, superfluous introduction by Julian Barnes ("No, this should be an inside job, by one who lives by pen not stipend"), prefaced by an apologetic disclaimer by James himself, tweaking the knobs, realising that Barnes isn't quite on station.
Some pieces in both books are marred by a sense of the "inside job", the mutual back-lathering of the Media Lads (Barnes, Ian Hamilton, Christopher Hitchens et al). Clive James's success does not depend on this club: it's vexing how he sometimes proudly sports its tie.
He starts Reliable Essays proper with a section called "Writing About Writers", the literary essays at which he has always excelled. His tutelary spirit, George Orwell, gives a predictable cast to the politics. The same essay on Orwell opens both books, a kind of literary-political summa. Aphorisms swim free: "Orwell never liked it when the writing drove the meaning"; "For him prose style was a matter in which the ethics determined the aesthetics."
Attentive to his subject's style and the shape of his development, our critic forgets that Orwell wrote inside time, that his writing made a mark on a once-present political world. He may have corrected his "errors", but there was no way he could correct the impact they had. "If he had lived long enough," he might have reached James's own appraisal of the "mighty conflict in his soul". Iconic figures can become pious projections. Is it subtle legerdemain in this sentence, or empty rhetoric? "To write like him, you need a life like his, but times have changed, and he changed them."
Because James cannot help loving him, the four essays on Larkin in Reliable Essays and one in Even As We Speak are generous to a fault. (Would that he had extended a similar humanity to Bertrand Russell, whom he reduces to a libidinal monster.) His takes on Nabokov, Waugh, Heaney, Murray and others are alive to the complex challenge of place and style and to the political realities which help to shape and mis-shape a writer's work.
Next in Reliable Essays he places his entertaining travel writing and journalism, then broader cultural pieces (his inevitable compatriot Germaine Greer, and Marilyn Monroe, and Barry Humphries); then essays on totalitarianism and its effects. The Matter of Australia (at home and abroad) follows, and an informative, beguiling run of simply fun essays. Finally come "almost literature" and "almost art", considering Raymond Chandler, Torville and Dean, and photography.
His own essays are "almost literature": they entertain and inform. Is there a shape inside this "almost"? James diversifies taxonomies beyond the actual diversity of the work. He writes in three categories: about creative artists, about political themes, and journalism. He is funnier than Orwell; he is also, thanks to history, less serious.
"In the years of my apprenticeship I devoted a lot of effort to making writing sound like speech," he says. Was he ever deliberately an apprentice? Does his writing sound like speech? Like his speech, perhaps, with its accent, its studied pauses, its bright-eyed deadpan. The seductions of the well-made sentence, of paradox, of applause, get the better of him more and more. He can't resist a bit of bravura. In his essay on Princess Diana's death, each paragraph begins with "No".
Contributing to an Ian Hamilton Festschrift, he extends a conceit about football until it is hard to tell whether he is sending Hamilton up or celebrating him. His cheerful essay on learning to sing, his history of Europe in 1000 words, are formal challenges. Such pieces have little to do with speech: they are written for the page. A professional writer, Clive never short-changes the payer: pace Barnes, he earns the stipend. If the New Yorker wants 7,000 words, Clive delivers, even if it means stretching the canvas almost to transparency or bolting several canvases together.
On the whole, it is the easel pieces for the Spectator and other weeklies, and not the extended compositions, that contain the best of him. New Yorker word-counts can corrupt a writer who is, it seems to me, economical by temperament. There is also the New Yorker readership, different in expectation and sophistication from his English audiences. A skilful piper pleases the payer: a dissipation of perspectives and rhetorics, due to the diversity of audiences, may be inevitable. We can always recognise a Clive James, but is there the Clive James?
Has his writing developed? It's hard to tell; the pieces are arranged thematically rather than chronologically. The gap between the humane treatment of Larkin and the dismissive severity of his assault on larger figures reveals a basic limitation. He is at home with the medium-scale, the localised, with subjects he can feel larger than, or upon which he can cast a gaze made wise by retrospect.
His reluctance to engage the modernists puzzles me. Is he as disgusted by Eliot as he is by Russell, or – like some Australians he admires – would he rather not know about those problem figures? Where he loves he forgives: Larkin's racism and sexism are postures rather than perspectives. Where he despises, he gives no quarter.
If I had to choose one item from these books as the best of Clive James the original essayist, it would be the sequence of reflections entitled "The Gentle Slope to Castalia", focused comments on the nature of the photographic image. His dissenting take on Walter Benjamin's "The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction" restores to photography the status of art. This essay, written for the New York Review of Books, alters the way we might look, through various lenses, at the idea of the photograph. Like his best writings, it entertains and adjusts a frequency in the reader's head, and finds thereby new thoughts, new possibilities of feeling.
Michael Schmidt is the editor of 'PN Review' and the publisher of Carcanet PressReuse content