Clive James and his critics.

Vanity Fair‘s excellent cultural critic James Wolcott, posted the following to his blog on the 1st of March. As it demonstrates just how highly Clive James is regarded by the American literary intelligentsia, I ‘ve decided to print it here here in its entirety. It seems to me that James is taken more seriously by our American friends than he is by the English press.

2007: Year of the Clive
If your bug antennae are tuned into the higher cultural frequencies, you can’t help but be aware that a heavy object has been hurtling toward us from across the Atlantic, its shadow spreading as it nears impact. I speak of Clive James’s spring offensive. Poet, critic, memoirist, novelist, talkshow host, travel-show presenter, documentarian (Fame in the 20th Century), eulogist of Princess Diana,
vlog interviewer, tango enthusiast, the Australian expatriate–a charter member of the Fab Four (the others being, of course, Robert Hughes, Germaine “Germs” Greer, and Barry “Dame Edna” Humphries”)–has beavering away to beat the band for decades, but over these last twelve-to-twenty four months he has really been aburst, a Renaissance man enjoying an autumnal renaissance. Year before last, he published his latest volume (volley) of criticism, The Meaning of Recognition, last year he brought out volume four of his memoirs, North Face of Soho, featuring floppy-haired swannings by those then-young charismatics Martin Amis and Christopher Hitchens, and now, the magnum opus mothership, Cultural Amnesia, of which a fine selection of meaty portions can be found on Slate under the shingle Clive’s Lives.
Apart from books, James has also been popping up in the more exclusive periodicals, perhaps his splashiest performance being his
must-read TLS review of Zachary Leader’s sprawling Kingsley Amis biography. He has also been doing a series of podcasts for BBC4, the most recent one I heard a hilarious analysis of the motifs and magical thinking of martial-arts movies, with killer oneliners about Richard Gere (“born with narrowed eyes”) and Jean-Claude Van Damme (“his face is a bodybuilder’s bicep in worried search of its original arm”).*  
I can’t help but be gladdened by James’s juggernaut resurgence. My interest is not impersonal. As a TV critic for the Village Voice, I stole judiciously from his TV column in the London Observer, the most witty, slashing, inspiring, infectious weekly performance since Kenneth Tynan was the chain-smoking king of drama critics.  
He and I share a deeper bond. In the Seventies we flew together in a commuter prop plane to visit Pauline Kael in Great Barrington, Massachusetts, hit major storm turbulence, the plane bouncing and rocking so hard in the air that teeth began to hurt, and, as we descended toward the air strip, we could see people sitting on a nearby hillside, as if picnicking. What do you think they’re doing? I asked, to which Clive replied, “Waiting to see if we crash.”
We didn’t, of course. We and the world were mercifully spared. Imagine the incalculable loss to criticism–to culture–to humanity–if we had perished in that plucky prop plane. I pale at the thought of it.  
I suspect Clive and I won’t have much time to reminisce at the book party being thrown for him later this month. He may not even remember his fellow passenger on that near-tragic sortie, the intervening years obscuring the patterns in the sand. Or he may recall that I panned his first memoir in the New York Review of Books and haul off and clobber me one. After all Norman Podhoretz was still huffy about Wilfrid Sheed’s review of Making It when their orbits intersected thirty years later; then again, Podhoretz has made a second career out of feeling huffy and inflating his huffiness into proud prophet sourpuss righteousness. Clive isn’t like that. He’s retained a liberal humanism that rejects the zealous pursuit of grievance and payback, and more importantly he’s retained his robust humor, humor being something of which Podhoretz was never notably endowed, even when he was young and frisky. It’s hard to enjoy yourself when the world refuses to let you set it aright.  
*To listen, click
here, scroll down under the letter “P” to “Point of View, A,” then click where it says, “Listen.” (For some reason, the website link for A Point of View doesn’t seem to be working.)

March 1, 2007, 7:58 PM | permalink



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