Books: First Reactions — Critical Essays 1968–1979 |
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First Reactions — Critical Essays 1968–1979

Hardback, Alfred A Knopf, New York 1980. ISBN 0-394-51233-2.
Essays from The Metropolitan Critic, Visions Before Midnight and At the Pillars of Hercules.
To Jenny and Star Lawrence
Literature without tradition is destiny without history
Ernst Robert Curtius


This book is a selection from the critical prose I have published during my first ten years or so as a serious writer, if that is not too grand a term. It is a further sifting, done with an eye to what might interest an American audience, of a small hill of material that had already been sifted down into three books published in England. The first of these, The Metropolitan Critic (1974), was a book of essays about literature and related topics. The second, Visions Before Midnight (1977), was a book of essays exclusively about television, drawn from my weekly column in the Observer. The third, At the Pillars of Hercules (1979), was another book of essays about literature and related topics. I can almost see the American reader’s eyes glazing over as I provide this information.

Supplying notes on one’s own bibliography, like making cross-references to oneself, is an attention-losing activity even if the person doing it enjoys wide fame. I am very conscious of being, to the American reader who might chance to open this book, an entirely unknown quantity, and of being likely to stay that way unless I let my work speak for itself. But the urge to have one’s excesses or inadequacies understood and forgiven in advance is hard to quell. Critical prose is even more likely than any other kind to be bound up with one’s autobiography. Another way of arranging this book would have been to put all the essays about poetry at the front and everything else at the back. But in their author’s fond regard, some of these pieces are a young man’s work or else there is no excuse for them. They either go in at the start or they don’t go in at all.

When I wrote the essays collected in The Metropolitan Critic—and several other essays which were too obstreperous to include even in that brash volume—I was still trying to say everything at once. Style, I thought, was not only the most compressed way of speaking to the point, but a way of suggesting to your audience that you had all the other points covered too. The usual term for this kind of grandstand play is showing off, but I hope that in this case there was more to it. One tries, in one’s early days, to reassure the experienced reader that he is not wasting his time.

Anyway, I found it hard to stop turning cartwheels. Most of these I have left in, even though they make me cringe to read them now. The essay on E. E. Cummings, for example—my first professionally published critical essay of any length—is written throughout with a would-be bravura which would nowadays, if I found myself even thinking like that, cause me to go somewhere dark and sleep off the fever. But at the time, when beatnik poets who could hardly string ten words together were being hailed as geniuses, it seemed important to convey something of the excitement contained in the collected works of an old bohemian who, for all his protestations of spiritual liberty, belonged firmly in the eternal tradition of schooled art. Though I was never quite foolish enough to believe that I had discovered this tradition all by myself, I was certainly foolish enough to behave as if I had. Yet if I were to calm myself down retroactively it would be to play false not just with an early self but with the temper of those times.

During the late sixties and early seventies, both in the little magazines such as the Review and in the established literary papers such as the Times Literary Supplement, the younger critics did their best not merely to say abrasive things, but to sound like abrasiveness incarnate. It wasn’t enough to make astute remarks. You had to defend the faith. Trendiness had taken over in London to a degree that seems incredible even at this short distance. The enemy was at the gates; he was within the gates; he had appointed himself gate-keeper. He talked like a self-satisfied fool. It was necessary to sound nothing like him, especially when your opinions happened to coincide with his. Writing in praise of Baudelaire you could perhaps relax, but writing in praise of the Beatles you had to sound like an oracle.

Viewed in the long term, most of this doggedly cultivated razzle-dazzle was a waste of effort. In Great Britain there was no direct involvement with the Vietnam war and hence no political reinforcement for the social pretensions of the counterculture, which soon bored itself out of existence. Unshaken throughout the event, the educated reading public had retained its traditional homogeneity. You could speak quietly and your drift would still be caught. Realizing this, and relieved at the realization, I tried hard to write straightforward critical prose. But the impulse towards pyrotechnics had to go somewhere.

It went into television criticism. I became the Observer’s television critic in 1972 and instantly found myself faced with the task of interpreting the entire range of human experience in one thousand words per week. Here was not just an excuse, but a demand, for every elliptical trick in the bag. A television column had to be allusively conversational: quiddities, quibbles and riddles were the only means of keeping up with the requirements for comment that came gushing out of the screen. Every Sunday morning a million sharp-witted readers were waiting to test my responses against theirs. I won’t presume to say that I rose to the challenge. All I can be sure of is that the urge to shine was well taken care of.

I am still writing the column eight years later, and still find, every Friday morning when I sit down to compose it, that the condition of elementary adequacy is to leave no phrase unturned. Visions Before Midnight was selected from my first four years at the task. American readers who wonder why there is nothing about Upstairs, Downstairs will not, I hope, feel insulted if they are told that some of the British television programmes which are screened on Masterpiece Theatre in the U.S.A. are regarded as run-of-the-mill fantasy in their land of origin. The same applies, perhaps, in the reverse direction. In Britain The Rockford Files is admired not just for its qualities of story and character but for James Garner’s miraculous social ease and the way the California air looks so warm.

With the impulse to startle being satisfied elsewhere, the essays in At the Pillars of Hercules show, I hope, a more tranquil ego. That they hint at less, while feeling obliged to get more said, is surely some advantage. There are enough deficiencies to ensure continuity with earlier work. Among these are some errors of emphasis which will be particularly apparent to an American reader, since they concern American subjects. I think I was right in tracing Edmund Wilson’s early radicalism to the American past rather than to the Soviet present, but I was probably wrong to make light of it. An informed American will no doubt smile at my naivety. At the time I wrote the essay, however, Wilson was on the verge of death and it was time to pay tribute, even at a distance and before one was ready.

The essay on Shaw, and the long essay on Solzhenitsyn, both need some measure of apology. I am well aware that Shaw’s imagination failed catastrophically in later life, so that he became a promoter for the totalitarian regimes whose evil he should have been the first to see. But in the second volume of his collected letters—the book I was reviewing—his moral qualities are all on show, and I persist in believing them to be great ones. As for attributing cool reason to Solzhenitsyn, it was the right thing to do at the time. Having praised him for his avoidance of messianic rant, I had the choice, when messianic rant subsequently turned out to be exactly the thing he wanted to go in for, between suppressing my original remarks or else letting them stand as an example of what seemed reasonable to say about Solzhenitsyn in 1974. Nor indeed, on that subject, is there much that I would want to say differently in the light of later developments. Solzhenitsyn, like Shaw, is a master spirit who has the limitations of a master spirit. He wants the free world to have an integrated sense of ethical purpose, such as he has himself. The free world can’t have that, but if he were not the man who thought it could, then he would never have given us his analysis and evocation of what an unfree world is actually like.

Most of my essays about literature, and a good proportion of the ones about television, are written in praise of something. It would be pharisaical thus to concoct an unwarranted reputation for easy charm. In fact there is a good deal of bitchery in the essays I have left out. The London literary world is a cockpit clouded with flying feathers. On the other hand it has a remarkable unity. The feuds are more personal than political. Sworn ideological enemies quite commonly join each other for lunch each week. The bitter divisions of New York intellectual life are difficult for the London literati to comprehend. Similarly the American onlooker would perhaps regard the typical London literary quarrel as a teacup-sized storm strangely without aftermath.

But these differences, though they are the most subtle and pervasive cultural differences of all, are essentially differences of tone. On the whole, with due allowance for disparate concerns, London and New York share the same literary culture. Perhaps I am bound to believe that, since lately I have been publishing essays with equal frequency on either side of the Atlantic. But I think I would believe it anyway. The language of considered judgement is spoken in both cities. Eugenio Montale, somewhere amongst his marvellously sane critical prose, defines poetry as a dream in the presence of reason. Once again I don’t claim that these essays embody reason; but they all aspire to it, and could never have been written without the belief that it exists.

Clive James, London 1980

Jacket Blurb

For the last fifteen years, the brilliant and irreverent Clive James has been one of England’s most respected critics of literature, television, culture—his work best known to us through its appearance in the New York Review of Books. Here is his first collection to be published in the United States: an extensive selection of critical essays from the past decade, many of them on American subjects, that will confirm for the American reader the special pleasure of listening to his eclectic and singular critical voice.

Clive James is a propagandist of the first-rate and a gadfly of the pretentious and overpraised, his range of interest encompassing the highest bastions of culture and the lowest common denominators. He writes of important modern poets—Auden (“I can still remember those unlucky hands ... one of them had refurbished the language”), Berryman, Roethke, Lowell—and of giants like Solzhenitsyn and Lawrence. And he pays certain lesser literary figures no less attention: his piece on Lillian Hellman is entitled “It Is of a Windiness,” and of Raymond Chandler he says: “He had an ear for depth—he could detect incipient permanence in what sounded superficially like ephemera.” His view of both Norman Mailer and Marilyn Monroe (“Mailer’s Marilyn”) is wickedly brilliant; his slant on the Sherlockologists, demolishing. And then there are his TV reviews ( from the television column of the London Observer), written in the voice of the unabashed, yet skeptical, addict: “Tolstoy Makes Television History,” “Anne and Mark Get Married,” “Hi! I’m Liza,” “Mission Unspeakable,” while in an affectionately barbed essay called “Drained Crystals,” James explains his love of Star Trek.

One of the most moving essays in the book, “The Metropolitan Critic,” takes Edmund Wilson as its subject; and, indeed, James, in sensibility and spirit, is reminiscent of Wilson in his New Yorker days. James’s rambunctious and provocative tone, his humor and clear intelligence, his capacity for profound appreciation, make First Reactions a book to be read and read again: for the ideas it imparts, and for pure pleasure.

Born in Australia in 1939, Clive James emigrated in 1962 to England, where he attended Cambridge. Aside from his critical work, James writes poetry (several volumes of which have been published in England) and song lyrics (most of which have been recorded). He has written for television, and since 1972 has been the television critic for the Observer. He divides his time between London and Cambridge.