'Latest Readings' comprises 30 essays written, as the title suggests, in the saddest of circumstances. Diagnosed with terminal leukemia in 2010, Clive James does not seem to be raging against the dying of the light so much as reading until it finally goes out. Late, later, latest: these are almost last readings, undertaken with an affection fit for James' fantasised blue plaque: "I would like it to say: 'He loved the written word, and told the young'."
As literary bucket lists go, James' choice of reading is pleasingly scattershot. Heavyweight novelists (Proust, Powell, Conrad, two helpings of Hemingway) mingle with poets (Kipling, Larkin, Stephen Edgar, Richard Wilbur), who rub shoulders with odd sods like Hollywood, Villa America, John Howard and German flying saucers. There is not much recent writing, though Lucy Hughes-Hallett's biography of Gabriele D'Annunzio is one. But if I were in James' position right now, I might not have the time for Go Tell a Watchman either.
The meandering mood finds expression in the image of a walk: James recalls how Albert Speer survived Spandau by counting imaginary (goose) steps to Istanbul and Beijing. James himself is advised to "ambulate" after suffering a thrombosis en route to New York. Bored by simply putting one foot in front of the other, he reads Kipling as he goes, who serves up more congenial feet. His nicely sceptical essay on WG Sebald begins: "I know my way around the often intricate paths of all his major books".
James' tone wanders, too, from the critical to the personal. A preponderance of books about the Second World War hints at his vintage, and his father's death in the conflict. His fondness for comic fiction (Waugh, Osbert Lancaster) reminds us what a brilliantly funny writer and speaker James himself is. His prose seems to contain the twang of his voice, weighing points of view before coming to his own acute conclusion. For example, why he will not re-read Steven Bach on Leni Riefenstahl: "her movies were monstrous, but so was she, so there was no discrepancy between aim and result, and hence no lesson."
Best summer reads 2015
Best summer reads 2015
1/23 Best summer reads 2015
The Girl In The Spider's Web will continue Larsson's story of Lisbeth Salander and Mikael Blomqvist
2/23 Best summer reads 2015
'The Buried Giant' by Kazuo Ishiguro
3/23 Best summer reads 2015
'The Story of the Lost Child' by Elena Ferrante
4/23 Best summer reads 2015
'Purity' by Jonathan Franzen
5/23 Best summer reads 2015
Milan Kundera’s 'The Festival of Insignificance'
6/23 Best summer reads 2015
Candace Bushnell’s 'Killing Monica'
7/23 Best summer reads 2015
Mikhail Bulgakov’s 'The Master and Margarita'
8/23 Best summer reads 2015
'Alice in Wonderland' by Lewis Carroll, first published in 1865
9/23 Best summer reads 2015
A God in Ruins by Kate Atkinson
10/23 Best summer reads 2015
Roberto Saviano's 'Zero, Zero, Zero'
11/23 Best summer reads 2015
'It’s All in Your Head' by Suzanne O’Sullivan
12/23 Best summer reads 2015
Sunjeev Sahota’s 'The Year of the Runaway'
13/23 Best summer reads 2015
Benjamin Johncock’s 'The Last Pilot'
14/23 Best summer reads 2015
'Things We Have in Common' by Tasha Kavanagh
15/23 Best summer reads 2015
'The New Sorrows of Young W' by Ulrich Plenzdorf
16/23 Best summer reads 2015
Evie Wyld's 'Everything is Teeth'
17/23 Best summer reads 2015
'The End of Days' by Jenny Erpenbeck
18/23 Best summer reads 2015
Jane Hirshfield's 'The Beauty'
19/23 Best summer reads 2015
'The Beautiful Librarians' by Sean O’Brien
20/23 Best summer reads 2015
Miriam Toews 'All My Puny Sorrows'
21/23 Best summer reads 2015
'Rebecca' by Daphne du Maurier
22/23 Best summer reads 2015
Ezra Pound's 'Cathay'
23/23 Best summer reads 2015
'Emma' by Jane Austen
Reading is not, however, a solitary activity, as the regular mentions of swapping books with his daughters illustrates. This interaction extends beyond the family library. To read is to converse with other voices. Naipaul's essay about "Conrad's analysis of the colonial experience" becomes Naipaul talking about his colonial experience through which James is "faced with my colonial experience".
James has bones to pick with Naipaul, Conrad and Sebald. Marlow is a bore, Sebald is guilty of rare "fatuity, and James wonders whether the hilarity he feels at Naipaul's description of an Indian cleaner "would be less hilarious if you were an Indian".
Such reservations often double as James' highest praise. Citing John Carey's reluctant love of Waugh's Decline and Fall, he contends: "It's one of the good things about the study of literature: taste trumps prejudice." Humour, as Naipaul proved, is central to this seduction. In Decline and Fall, "the protracted demise of little Lord Tangent ought not to be hilarious but it is."
Reading gossip about JFK's affairs "is intoxicating but raises the question of whether we ought to be intoxicated. Perhaps not, but abstention would be difficult." One of many good things about Latest Readings is that James convinces us to try Richard Wilbur and give Osbert Lancaster a whirl too. If he sounds overly defensive about Larkin then maybe it is because he is so openly, if judiciously, generous elsewhere. The unadulterated love of literature proves infectious and a little humbling. Beneath the chatty, informal mood is an intensity that comes from "Promising myself to read only what I needed" (as he notes about Archie Burnett's The Complete Poems of Philip Larkin).
There were times when I dreaded writing this review, not because Latest Readings makes me sad (though it does), but because it reminds me what a joyful privilege reading can be. "The critic should write to say, not 'look how much I've read,' but 'look at this, it's wonderful'." Indeed it is.Reuse content