Books: <i>Reliable Essays</i> — The <i>Best</i> of Clive James |
[Invisible line of text as temporary way to expand content column justified text width to hit margins on most viewports, simply for improved display stability in the interval between column creation and loading]

Reliable Essays — The Best of Clive James

To Margaret Olley and Jeffrey Smart
Sidere mens eadem mutato
‘Life is a cemetery of retrospective lucidities’
—Jean-François Revel, La connaissance inutile

Author’s Note

Every author would like to think that the aggregate of his incidental prose, from the merest book review to that smart written reply to the tax inspector, forms a picture of his complex, subtle, infinitely ramified mentality: hence the tendency to put everything in, and the pain at seeing anything taken out. But if my editor has, as it seems to me, made his selection according to his own interests, at least he has found some of his interests reflected among mine; and a writer can’t hope for more from a reader than that. Bewitched by the example of his great precursor Montaigne, the habitual writer of non-fictional pieces goes on filling a long shelf in the belief that he will show the whole of his mind, but the reader he most fears — the one who will see through to his heart — should also be the one he most desires. Eventually he will be remembered only through intelligent appreciation, which is always cruelly selective. Even the aphorist, who tries to do the winnowing in advance, is winnowed in his turn: writing a hundred words to stand for a thousand, he would feel flayed to discover that only ten of them got through.

Peter Straus thinks that this book contains the essence of what I have done in the form. Ambition says that the essence is bigger and more complicated. Common sense should say — when it can get a word in — that an essence is a nice thing for a discursive writer to be thought of as possessing, even if it is only a few pages long. In the long run those few pages will come down to a few sentences, and even then only with luck. Usually they will come down to nothing. The harsh bargain we must accept, if we try to write our prose to last, is that most of it certainly won’t, and quite likely none of it will. But if that bargain were foremost in our minds as we sat down at the desk, we would get nothing done that was worth reading. So we write as if we were going to live. After all, we live that way.

To each piece I have added a footnote, meant more as an afterthought than a second guess. It is always too late to hedge a bet once the hand is played, but in our heads the game goes on, whether we won or lost. What we said, when we said it, what we might have said instead: all these things are part of a writer’s story. To think he has a story might be part of his egomania, but I have never been convinced that a lust for anonymity is a better guarantee of seeing the world as it is. A magnificent detachment should be the aim, but it can’t be aimed at except by a man sufficiently interested in himself to have found out something about his own failings. Julian Barnes knows my failings very well, so I am doubly grateful that he found time to write an introduction. He is wrong, though, about those studio audiences. They do indeed exist, and as with any other kind of audience their laughter is hard to get, and therefore well worth getting. But I know what he means, and I am flattered that he means it.

Clive James, London 2001

Introduction by Julian Barnes

‘I suppose,’ said Clive, ‘you wouldn’t consider writing an introduction to my selected essays?’ When he heard a micro-pause from my end of the telephone, he went on, ‘Seeing how you’ve always irritated me by calling them my best work.’ And then, as a clincher, ‘Because if you don’t do it, we’ll have to get ----- -------.’ He named a famous Professor Dryasdust.

Well, Clive, you asked for it — in both senses. So I’ll repeat on the public page what has (for no good reason, it seems to me) wound you up in various restaurants, pubs and domestic quarters down the years. You are, as the New Yorker once famously observed, ‘a brilliant bunch of guys’: literary essayist, TV critic, poet, novelist, autobiographer, rock lyricist, documentary-maker, TV host, famous person. You also draw pretty well and have a natural eye for a tennis ball. I admire you in nearly all of these guises. I frequently quote your incomparable poem of literary revenge, ‘The Book of My Enemy Has Been Remaindered’. I bond with strangers over your epic account of childhood karting in Unreliable Memoirs. I even remember your flawless impression of Norman Mailer on some long-forgotten TV arts show a quarter of a century ago. I trust there will one day be a blue plaque to you in Tufnell Park where, in your humbler days, you once bunked down inside the discarded brown paper bag from some plutocrat’s new mattress. But I still think your literary essays are your best work.

And though we could leave it to Professor Dryasdust, I don’t think we should. He’ll have his say in one or other of the literary pages. No, this should be an inside job, by one who also lives by pen not stipend. You are, in your own phrase, a metropolitan critic; a Grubstreeter, a passionate amateur, a full-time dilettante. Academe and Grub Street frequently affect to despise one another, and sometimes actually do. You yourself have been spectacularly rude about dons (‘There are professors in Cambridge who call the AA to help them park their cars’), but you also revere true, intense, honourable scholarship. You also know — not least because you are married to an Italian scholar — that academe and Grub Street need one another: like teeth, they work best when in nutritious opposition. The republic of letters is no different from any other republic, and thrives best on the separation of powers. The House of Grub Street is currently more under threat than the House of Academe. The pay is poor, the freelance life as precarious as in Gissing’s day, and academe contains some grim-eyed abolitionists. A character in a novel some years ago described academics as merely ‘reviewers delivering their copy a hundred years late’. This is no longer the case: nowadays they’re jostling the freelancers out of the weekly literary pages.

You’ve always been a key player in our team, not least because your own jostle is pretty muscular. In the late 1970s I worked on the New Statesman books pages, to which you were a regular and valued contributor. Normally, the week’s lead review would be more or less decided at the point of commissioning: the big book went to the top reviewer with the most generous wordage. One week, the editorial team made a last-minute switch and decided to promote your article to the lead slot. You happened to call by shortly afterwards. On being told the news you did not, as some self-effacing Englishman might, reply, ‘Gosh, what a surprise, are you sure?’ You said, ‘What happened? The other guy didn’t make the weight?’

But then you are, as may not need pointing out, Australian. This fact, oddly, seems to cause more problems in your country than in mine. Every eighteen months or so some patriotic, home-based Australian academic takes it upon himself to analyse — i.e. denounce — the careers of successful artistic expatriates. The culprits ritually include yourself, Germaine Greer, Barry Humphries and Robert Hughes; sometimes Peter Porter gets the executioner’s nod as well. Such books would normally pass unnoticed in Britain, except for the fact that you and Peter always seem to review them (allowing literary editors to reach brightly for that original headline ‘The Wizards of Oz’). According to the Ocker Acker, you stand charged with ambition, lack of a proper insularity or cringefulness, and with displaying certain degenerate or cosmopolitan tendencies. You are accused of not being sufficiently Australian, and at the same time of being a ‘professional Australian’. You would be sentenced to transportation back to the Old Country if you had not got in first and done that yourself.

Over here, your presence in the literary community is as uncontested as anyone else’s. The Australian counter-invasion is seen as benign and catalytic. We don’t think of you as a professional Australian but as a professional writer. An occasional grouch murmurs ‘Autodidact’, imagining it a slur while failing to understand that what writers teach themselves is the richest part of their entire education. But most of us soap-dodgers associate your Australianness with your literary virtues: energy, appetite, boldness, demotic attack, a revisionist attitude to the canon, a Europhilia which doesn’t entail Eurocentricity. It was in an essay of yours that I first came across the word ‘panoptic’, and it is still the adjective I tacitly apply to you. Panopticism implies generosity, cultural liberalism and a staunchless curiosity. You are, happily, well capable of being both robust and dismissive, of giving the full shoulder-charge to phoney and know-nothing; but you are essentially an enthusiast. Most people enjoy a destructive review (not least because it lets us off reading the book), but few are improved as readers by it. And that is the point of a literary essay: to help us read better — more deeply, more keenly, more widely. To make us, in short, better autodidacts. If you sometimes like putting on the dog (as our friend Terence Kilmartin used to phrase it), then few have more right to such dog than you. If you make us disagree and argue back, so much the better.

At the close of the last millennium, I watched a TV show you presented which had probably taken up several months of your writing time. From a vast stage, you introduced numerous celebrities to an unflaggingly enthusiastic audience. After a while — the case of the dog that barked all the time — a suspicion began to develop into a question. Why weren’t there any shots of the audience? Perhaps because its density did not quite match its seemingly thunderous output? Perhaps because in fact it did not exist in the first place? I was told recently of a well-known TV host — let’s call him, for the sake of argument, Bob Monkhouse — who can sustain a whole show this way, nudging, teasing and cajoling an increasingly orgasmic audience which is entirely the construct of a back-stage knob-twiddler. With a slide of the thumb and a flick of the switch the technician creates the rippling appreciation, the sudden hysteria, and even that studio standby (and gift to the host) The Guy Who Gets The Joke After Everybody Else. This seems to me to epitomize the difference between the worlds of television and literature, which over the past twenty years have competed for your attention. In television everyone applauds but there’s no one really there. In literature your latest article on that underrated Slovenian satirist may draw only a green-ink letter from Haywards Heath referring to convict ancestry and a polite aerogram from Professor Dryasdustovic addressing the question of folk influence on the satirist’s style. But these will be true responses. Oh yes, you’ll probably get a third one, from me. ‘You know, Clive,’ I’ll say irritatingly, ‘I really do think your literary essays are your best work.’

So the recent news that you are to stop being what the tabloids call ‘TV’s Clive’ has brought joy to the Grub Street team. We need your fully concentrated jostle. A laugh that bursts from a reader nose-down in the TLS is worth the acclaim of a hundred warmed-up studio audiences. It was time to give up the day-job. Welcome back, ‘Literature’s Clive’.

Julian Barnes, 2001

Jacket/cover notes

‘When I come across a Clive James essay in a periodical, I save it for last, knowing it will be a treat ... [his writing] adjusts a frequency in the reader’s head, and finds thereby new thoughts, new possibilities of feeling’
Michael Schmidt, Independent

‘Clive James’s brilliance shines on everything from Torvill and Dean to Seamus Heaney ... he has widened the “tonal range” of criticism, permitting it to be both sober and skittish, learned and lewd, rhetorically rambunctious and epigrammatically concise ... an intellectual as well as a joker, a wise man as well as a wit ... James’s critical journalism ... extends and honours the tradition established by Johnson, Hazlitt and Virginia Woolf. And what makes it valuable is the way it testifies to a passion for literature, and a desire to proselytise for it, that are nowadays rare, precious, probably anachronistic motives ... James’s own lucid, witty, metaphorically vivid style is his grateful yet keenly competitive tribute to all those better makers whose work he analyses here ... I finished this book wishing that I knew as much as James does, and that I wrote as well.’
Peter Conrad, Observer

Reliable Essays is full of good things ... The essays are brilliant ... James’s literary essays, along with the first volume of Unreliable Memoirs, are his best work’
John Lanchester, Daily Telegraph

‘He is one of the most lively, shrewd and resourceful essayists currently writing ... his own writing is impeccably witty, flexible and urbane ... Parodies, jokes and slang sit comfortably with moral and political arguments, lightly-worn erudition and scrupulous close readings of poetry and prose ... Reliable Essays is an instructive (and, for a reviewer, fairly intimidating) book, but it’s also immensely enjoyable to read. It’s a pleasure to see the metropolitan critic back in action’’
Christopher Tayler, Sunday Telegraph

‘He can both get to the heart of a subject and raise a laugh’
Nicholas Lezard, Sunday Times

‘Wit dances about over almost everything he writes like a Mexican jumpingbean’

‘The smartest cultural commentator on the Commonwealth block ... James is good in any mode, but he is really good at being funny’
Irish Times

‘Superb, world-class essays ... At his best he is up there with Gore Vidal’
Birmingham Post

‘His writing ... positively gusts off the page with muscular energy and elegance. James is one of the finest living essayists; engaging, humorous (naturally) and capable of structuring fresh arguments with depth’
Nottingham Evening Post

‘He writes with energy, clarity and brio on a range of subjects: literature, biography, film, pop culture; he agitates your mind and makes you smile as it’s moving ... He writes to give us access to the world. He’s an essayist with the lot’
Weekend Australian

Clive James is the author of more than twenty books. As well as three volumes of autobiography, Unreliable Memoirs, Falling Towards England and May Week Was in June, he has published collections of literary criticism, television criticism, verse and travel writing. His most recent novel is The Silver Castle. As a television performer he has appeared regularly for both the BBC and ITV, most notably as writer and presenter of the Postcard series of travel documentaries. He helped to found the independent television company Watchmaker, and is currently chairman of the Internet enterprise Welcome Stranger: he webcasts in video and audio on In 1992 he was made a member of the Order of Australia, and in 1999 an honorary Doctor of Letters of Sydney University.