Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Critic critique

The other day, browsing our shelves for a book which I had been reminded of while reading another book which I had taken up in order to distract my attention from a different book which I had been perusing on and off as a distraction from a further book I came across some other book that (and it's okay if you don't follow me, because I don't either) I had purchased years ago and never got around to reading. This book - the last book, the distraction from the distraction used to distract myself from the other distracting distraction - proved to be quite an effective distraction indeed, and I have been reading it on and off ever since. What? Oh, yes. It's The Metropolitan Critic, a collection of the early criticism of Clive James.

" of the books which the reader admires and lays down, and forgets to take up again," said Samuel Johnson of John Milton's Paradise Lost. Well you might say a different thing of any of James' books: they're easy to put down, and easy to take up again. Most of his essays are done with in a few pages, and there is no overall argument; perfect for people like me who are endlessly able to be distracted, really. James is the sort of writer who a lot of people love, and a lot of people love to hate, and, I suppose, I find myself feeling both ways about him. He is a shameless poseur, helplessly vain, sometimes completely untrustworthy. Does he even trust himself? He's even changed his own name. But his ideas, sometimes wrong, are always interesting, and at least he cares about his writing; you get the feeling he spends many long hours agonising over his next spontaneous one-liner. I spent many pleasurable hours myself immersed in perhaps his best work, Cultural Amnesia. It's essentially a collection of essays about people that James' is interested in, although it's only fair to say that there's a complicated argument in there about culture and history and the world wars too; and besides, James' interests are always interesting.

Anyway, this book, The Metropolitan Critic, has stuff from the Times Literary Supplement, and other of the posh papers and journals at the time of writing. James enthuses about e.e. cummings, argues with A. Alvarez, cooks a snoot at Susan Sontag, seems sound on Peter Porter and quibbles entertainingly about A.D. Hope. He also begins haggling with himself; each essay is concluded with a note, about a page or so in length, in which James criticises the critic he was, sometimes patting himself on the back, and often splitting microscopic hairs. This sort of thing can bring out his worst: the obtuse grammarian ('Too many colons and loose 'ands') and the cheap joker ('Can't agree' was an over-colloquial, and hence under-spontaneous, way of saying 'I can't agree'. Wouldn't do it now...') Worse, when he finds one of his arguments (about the once-famous Professor Leavis) lacking, he excuses it in the worst possible way -
When I called his view of history 'enormously complicated', the 'enormously' was the tip-off. I not only didn't really believe it, I thought his view of history was the opposite of complicated - i.e. actively simplistic and misleading. But I didn't yet dare to say what I thought. But I didn't yet dare to say what I thought, partly because not enough people seemed to be thinking it. 
How can we be sure he's not lying now?

This excuse might very well come from a kind of sensitive snobbery James has about the upper echelons of intellectual culture. He doesn't always feel so restricted in his criticism, as his take downs of Alvarez and Sontag show. Or, for that matter, his very funny and completely untrue dismissal of a whole continent, our very own Australia. 'Crazed gangs of taipans have been known to steal cars', he writes, 'and cruise up and down the Pacific Highway, looking for trouble.' Just as Milton Friedman said that the easiest money to spend is other people's money on things for other people, the easiest, (and often the worst) sort of journalism is that written about other people in other countries which your readers will never visit. If he gets away with this one, it's because he is himself an Australian. And his article is funny; very funny.  

I can't help liking Clive James. It's not because of his vanity, or his posing, or his being occasional misleading, but it's not in spite of those things either; they're signs of a deeper personal unease. He gives the impression of being endlessly uncertain about his own identity, just who he is, and where he really comes from, and what he should be doing. As a result he constantly questions himself, and argues with his former arguments, and adopts a position because he hopes, desperately, he'll end up being in the right at last. Sometimes he is, and sometimes he isn't. Basically, though, I think he just wants to be loved - which really is rather lovable. Clive old boy, you're all right.


Steve said...

Nice analysis, I think.

As I am uninterested in poetry, and high falutin' novelists (by and large,) I don't have much interest in reading his high brow stuff.

But then, some of his low brow interests (you can buy collections of his TV criticism columns) are only relevant if you read them closer to when they were written. Same with his often amusing TV shows.

His continual moving between both extremes of culture has always bothered me a bit: I tend to prefer a critic to stay in one field or the other. I would also say that his on screen comic lech shtick (on some of his TV shows) always did make me suspect he was a bit a lech in real life, and of course it was one example of the pits of low culture (an evening tabloid current affairs program) that recently outed him as a long time adulterer. Some irony in there somewhere, I think.

TimT said...

You're on to something there with his comic lech persona. He does that in his writing, too. The most famous (and best, it has to be said) example would be his poem 'Bring me the perspiration of Gabriel Sabatini' - best because it takes that idea to the most hyperbolic extremes. But it's the sort of thing you can only do once and he does it again and again.

Email: timhtrain - at -

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