Last year, the critic Peter Conrad wrote what many of us considered an unnecessarily catty review of Clive James’ book Cultural Amnesia. Many who read the Conrad piece felt that while it was perfectly acceptable find flaws with the book or disagree with what James had to say on the many subjects he deals with in it, it was altogether another thing write as though the critic were settling of some old scores with the book’s author. As far as I know, nobody has said so out loud until now.
Now the Australian writer and blogger David Free has posted a piece to his online diary, In Defence of Clive James, in which Conrad is taken to task for some of the things he wrote.
Monday, August 25, 2008
In defence of Clive James
One day soon I’ll publish a long-projected post arguing that Clive James ought to win the Nobel Prize. He never will, but he ought to. I mean this quite seriously. I think he’s an outrageously underrated man: a great critic who is also a great writer, with the rare ability to be deeply serious and deeply funny at the same time. Rare – and also problematic, in that it permits cretins to conclude that he isn’t serious at all.
Anyway, a lot of Clive’s vast output is available for free on his exemplary website. His most recent book, Cultural Amnesia, you’ll have to buy, although generous extracts from it are available online at Slate. On the whole I thought the book deserved not just much better reviews, but much better reviewers. Peter Conrad, in The Monthly, wrote a reprehensible attack on it that really got under my skin. Here’s how it kicks off:
Let me begin with a digressive excursion into the fast-retreating past. It concerns memory, which is not only the ligature that holds civilisation together, as Clive James contends in Cultural Amnesia (Picador, 900pp; $49.95), but also the medium in which we conduct our personal moral reckonings.
Thirty years ago, shortly after meeting James for the first time, I reviewed a volume of his matey doggerel, Fan-mail – verse letters addressed to friends, one of whom was Martin Amis who, as literary editor of the New Statesman, commissioned the review. “I don’t like a lot of what Clive writes,” Amis muttered as he handed the book over, “but of course he’s a friend and I can’t say so myself.” I took the point, and signed on as a hired killer.
As long as he was conducting a personal moral reckoning, couldn’t Conrad have weighed the ethics of repeating what Martin Amis said, about a friend, in a private conversation thirty years ago? It strikes me as a pretty shabby move, and a good indicator of how shamelessly hostile the whole review is going to be.
I won’t bore you or myself by going into the thing in any more detail. But I can’t finish without querying, very strenuously, Conrad’s credentials as an arbiter of wit. At one point he complains about
how studied James’s … witticisms are: his description of the bags under Duke Ellington’s eyes as “sets of matched luggage” sounds prepared, as packaged as the sagging suitcases.
Doesn’t sound so bad to me. A bit better, in fact, than that would-be coup about the sagging suitcases. But what is Conrad’s idea of the authentic, the unprepared witticism? Well – here, from the same review, is his own attempt at a gag:
James, whose smallest room is an annex of his library, advises that “all four volumes [of de Gaulle’s memoirs] can be kept easily on the bathroom shelf in the neat little Pocket Presse boxed set from Plon”. I’m grateful for the tip, but worry that the neat little boxed set might constipate me. Sooner a comforting plop than the company of Plon.
Man that’s off.
This is not necessarily the best defence in the world, but it does serve to show just how just bad-mannered ever a good critic like Conrad can be when he forgets that it’s a book rather than an author he is dealing with. It also goes to show that the bad manners does not go unnoticed
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