Poetry: Gate of Lilacs | clivejames.com
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Gate of Lilacs

A Verse Commentary on Proust

Picador, 2016
to Prue

Et si jamais ma pauvre âme amoureuse
Ne doit avoir de bien en vérité,
Faites au moins qu’elle en ait en mensonge.

Louise Labé


Among various friends upon whom I inflicted the manuscript of this poem as it took form, there were several who made specific remarks that I tried to take account of in the later stages of its composition. I should especially acknowledge the critical attention of Stephen Edgar, who combines his excellence as a lyric poet with a professional competence as an editor of texts: in the latter role he kindly agreed to take on the task of seeing my completed manuscript through the press. Deirdre Serjeantson and Adam Gopnik both made me think again about points that I had thought were smoothly covered already. My thanks also to P. J. O’Rourke, Prue Shaw and Tom Stoppard. Above all I must thank Don Paterson at Picador, who gave the project his approval after seeing only the first few sections in their scarcely settled form. He hadn’t been expecting to see anything quite like that, but perhaps he was touched by my assurances that I hadn’t either. The poem came out of the blue. But poems always do, when you’re in luck.

Jacket Blurb

Over a period of fifteen years Clive James learned French by almost no other method than reading A la recherche du temps perdu. Then he spent half a century trying to get up to speed with Proust’s great novel in two different languages. Gate of Lilacs is the unique product of James’s passionate engagement with Proust’s eternal masterpiece.

With A la recherche du temps perdu, Proust, in James’s words, ‘followed his creative instinct all the way until his breath gave out’, and now James has done the same. In Gate of Lilacs, James, a brilliant critical essayist and poet, has blended the two forms into one, and used his customary rigour, intelligence and wit to produce a charming, lyrical work of rare and thrilling originality.

I had always thought the critical essay and the poem were closely related forms ... If I wanted to talk about Proust’s poetry beyond the basic level of talking about his language — if I wanted to talk about the poetry of his thought — then the best way to do it might be to write a poem. There is nothing like a poem for transmitting a mental flavour. Instead of trying to describe it, you can evoke it.

If A la recherche du temps perdu is a book devoted almost entirely to its author’s gratitude for life, for love, and for art, this much smaller book is devoted to its author’s gratitude for Proust.

About the Author

Clive James is the author of more than forty books. As well as essays, he has published collections of literary and television criticism, travel writing, verse and novels, plus five volumes of autobiography, Unreliable Memoirs, Falling Towards England, May Week Was In June, North Face of Soho and The Blaze of Obscurity. As a television performer he appeared regularly for both the BBC and ITV, most notably as writer and presenter of the ‘Postcard’ series of travel documentaries. His translation of Dante’s The Divine Comedy and his 2015 collection Sentenced to Life were both Sunday Times top ten bestsellers. In 1992 he was made a Member of the Order of Australia and in 2003 he was awarded the Philip Hodgins Memorial Medal for literature. He holds honorary doctorates from Sydney University and the University of East Anglia. In 2012 he was appointed CBE and in 2013 an Officer of the Order of Australia.


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