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Brilliant Creatures

[ Picador paperback edition, 1984 ]
to Prue Shaw

Mi trasse Beatrice, e disse: ’Mira
Quanto è il convento delle blanche stole!
Vedi nostra città quanto ella gira!’

Paradiso XXX, 128–30

       I have looked upon those brilliant creatures,
       And now my heart is sore.
Yeats, The Wild Swans at Coole
But when Queen Guenever wist that Sir Launcelot bare the red sleeve of the fair maiden of Astolat she was nigh out of her mind for wrath. And then she sent for Sir Bors de Ganis in all the haste that might be. So when Sir Bors was come tofore the queen, then she said: Ah, Sir Bors, have ye heard say how falsely Sir Launcelot hath betrayed me? Alas madam, said Sir Bors, I am afeared he hath betrayed himself and us all.
Malory, Le Morte d’Arthur, XVIII, 15

his book is my second attempt to avoid writing a novel. The first, called Unreliable Memoirs, I got away with by labelling as an autobiography, but the same trick will not work twice. So this book will have to be called a novel, even though it is patently not a novel in the accepted sense. For the novel in the accepted sense I have nothing but respect. Hundreds of them come out each year and the few that I manage to absorb rarely fail to astonish me by the author’s capacity to take a genuine interest in the world and put his own personality in the back seat. I have made all the usual cracks about there being too many novels. I believe I was the first to suggest that there should be an Arts Council grant for not writing a novel. The candidate would submit an outline of the novel he proposed not to write. If he proposed not to write a whole sequence of novels, the grant would be renewed annually.

But such jokes were defensive. I had long since become impressed, not to say depressed, by the high state of development the modern novel had reached, especially among my acquaintances. Some of these latter I knew to be personally ambitious beyond the point of mania, yet their novels were miracles of detached limpidity. All the lessons ever taught by my illustrious ancestor Henry (this is a rare acknowledgement of consanguinity, since the Australian branch of the family seldom mentions the American connection) had been thoroughly assimilated. Not even the first-person narrator, if the novel had one, could remotely be identified with the writer. If a man were writing, it would be a woman’s viewpoint. If a woman were writing, it would be a child’s. If a child, a dog’s. Everything was distanced, poised, gravid with implication. What room could there possibly be for a would-be novelist who wrote directly from the self, could create no characters that were not elements of the self, and had no real area of interest beyond what Gide, talking about Montaigne, called the mutability of the self? Not a lot.

Not a lot, but some. Because although the novel proper has always tended towards an autonomous naturalism in which everything must pass the test of credibility, there has also always been, tending in the opposite direction, the novel improper. The relationship of the novel improper to the novel proper is nothing like so grand as the relationship of antimatter to matter. There is no antagonism: they do not explode when they meet. Indeed there is no real equivalence: the novel proper is in the main line of human achievement and the novel improper is. at best, what used to be called a sport. But in the English language the novel improper has its own interesting heritage from Sterne down through Peacock to Firbank and beyond, and in addition there has always been a gratifyingly high incidence of respectable novelists who show signs of wanting to kick over the traces. Trollope often got sick of thinking up realistic names, for example, and employed facetious ones instead, to the pious anguish of my aforementioned great namesake thrice removed.

Whether Finnegans Wake is the one thing or the other is a question that a sensible critic will dodge answering, even if he has read it. All I mean to say is that for the writer who hasn’t got what it takes to write an adequate novel, there are precedents to suggest that the inadequate novel is a worthwhile category of its own. Peacock’s Nightmare Abbey hasn’t got much character development, but think of its high good humour. Firbank’s Vainglory hasn’t got much political commitment, but think of its distilled elegance. It will be pointed out that these men had genius. But often, in the arts, that is what genius does for the rest of us — it shows the way by taking childish liberties. Peacock wanted to goose his friends while unloading some of his curious erudition, so he did it. Firbank wanted to call a stuffed shirt Sir Somebody Something, so he did it.

We are all thankful for the way contemporary poetry explores the depths, but most thankful is the poet who scratches the surface, because he can go on working with a clear conscience. By the same token, with so many gifted, dedicated novelists pushing their medium to its limits, there is some warrant for reactionary frivolity. The worst that can happen is that nobody will notice. So in this book, with my sense of duty taken care of by a hundred seriously toiling contemporaries, I have undertaken to do nothing except indulge myself, although I hope it has not been done at anybody’s expense except my own. The character called the world’s most famous young female film star might possibly recognise herself. There is a notoriously clever playwright who might just pick himself out of the crowd. Otherwise those who think that every roman must have a clef will speculate in vain. Everyone in the book is a fabrication, either fulfilling the author’s wish for virtue or placating his regret for vice. Saints and monsters may identify if they wish, but no normal person looks like any of these people, talks in their measured sentences, or has so much free time in the day. Everyone I know works for a living if he is lucky. There are no bright and beautiful television girls who drive Porsche 928 sports cars. Most of the bright ones aren’t beautiful, most of the beautiful ones aren’t bright, and of the two that are both, one can’t drive and the other owns a second-hand Audi with the back bumper crumpled from a shunt.

These are the creatures of my mind, such as it is. Perhaps I invent them only to prove that solipsism, in its next to final stage, is at least capable of diagnosing itself. ‘I am all the daughters of my father’s house,’ says Viola in Twelfth Night, ‘and all the brothers too.’ There are no prizes for feeling like that. But there should yet be space on a bookshop shelf for the kind of novel that can never win the Booker Prize. And there is no telling that I will not get a grant to write another. In Australia a novelist got a grant for a book called I Strapped a Mirror to My Brain.

Which could almost be the subtitle of this book, if I stopped to think about it. But why think about it when I have a trained scholar to think about it for me? Ably providing the critical notes at the end of the text, Peter C. Bartelski (of Sydney, Sussex and Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge) is a living legend who, if he did not exist, I would scarcely dare to invent. To fabricate my polymath compatriot would have been to ape Nabokov’s Pale Fire, an example of the novel improper with which only a fool would try to compete. Besides, as a part-time critic myself I am slow to mock the full-time don who can go on seeing significance when the rest of us have been forced by pressure of time to abandon the quest. Most readers will call it a night at the end of the last chapter if they get that far, but in the unlikely event of My First Novel making its mark in the academic world, Peter C. Bartelski’s efforts will at least help ensure that any critical discussion, even if condemnatory, takes place at a suitably informed level. He knows everything. If I have ever read half the books he says I have, I long ago forgot what was in them. It is good to be told that their contents have been incorporated into my innermost being. Only one objection to his line of argument can I find. He seems to suggest that this book rehearses the imminent collapse of civilisation as we know it. I don’t think we’ll get out of it that easily.

This book is so full of other books, old pictures and remembered music, is such a box of borrowed clothes which the characters put on themselves and on each other, that it might seem at first like an echo of what Nietzsche once said about how only an aesthetic attitude can justify the world. But it will emerge, if the reader perseveres, that my own belief is to the contrary. The world justifies itself and would still be worth living in if there were no art. Only on that assumption does art provide solace. Art can’t be escaped to. It isn’t Switzerland.

This is the story of a man who thought it was. He mistook his weak moments for sensitivity, gave himself up to the allure of the beautiful, and almost vanished. One knows him well, although one can never know him well enough. In the year 658 BC a certain Chinese individual, important then but forgotten now, was described in the official annals as having been robbed by Heaven of his mirror. They meant that he had become blind to his own faults.

Read on: Chapter One
[ Clive's pseudonymous Notes form a valuable part of this Archive copy,
but we have excluded the print version's page-number index — Archive Ed. ]

Jacket Blurb

‘The brilliant creatures of the title live in a world of lost innocence and vast incomes; publishers, writers, media men and consultants, they belong to a charmed circle where everyone knows everybody else’s business and thinks it the most important thing in life. It’s all marvellously clever; Clive James doesn’t miss a trick. It’s funny too. Enjoy, enjoy’
The Times
‘Foaming with ideas and afterthoughts and after-afterthoughts, Clive James’s first novel is a joy to read. He is nearer to Wodehouse than to Waugh. He is not setting out merely to raise laughs. He takes vigorous swipes at most of the unacceptable faces of society, and, as with all good satirists, there is venom in the indignation’
The Listener
’I thought I was going to hate Brilliant Creatures, the first novel by Clive James. But before long I found myself greatly enjoying this romping satire of London literary life. The chief pleasure of Brilliant Creatures lies in the writing, which sizzles off the page with a rare merriment’
Illustrated London News
’James is up on a tightrope of style, wobbling away, relentlessly funny. James’s achievement, beyond the fizz and the jokes, is to have created characters who begin to be likeable, and who make and live with a decision worth pondering’
London Review of Books
‘You will find this either wildly funny or irritating beyond belief. I loved it ... as a pyrotechnical display it is dazzling.’
Daily Telegraph
‘Too clever by half, but for unhurried readers (I took two days over it, dammit) it’s the wittiest novel of the year.’
The Bookseller
‘Clive James writes one-liners the way John McEnroe wears headbands — they’re bright and colourful in themselves, topped with unruliness, and below it all lurks a fit and dangerous power.’
Frank Delaney
[ Cover illustration shows a detail from Botticelli’s Primavera, courtesy of The Bridgeman Art Library ]