Writing in today’ edition of The Observer about finds that at the heart of Clive James’s newly published collection of essays The Revolt of the Pendulum there is a “civil war between cultivation and blokeishness inside Clive James, the inner aesthete and the inner mocker.”
High and low are deployed ……in a piece about genre fiction called “The Guidebook Detectives”. It starts from the notion that, if you’ve spent a couple of years being unable to get past the opening chapter of a Henry James novel, say The Wings of the Dove, then the sheer enjoyability of crime thrillers is a powerful draw. Yes, they’re contrived, but so is The Wings of the Dove and genre novelists have to deliver in a way James doesn’t. (Clive) James surveys a dozen or so past and current practitioners of the detective novel, awarding points, noticing as he goes that a touristic location gives the writer a head start. He recommends a particular book by Andrea Camilleri, singles out Gene Kerrigan as possessing real literary talent and seems to have been converted by another writer – “There will be another Donna Leon out imminently, but meanwhile, in our house, everyone is lining up to read the last one.” Then he pulls the rug from under the reader by announcing that such books are “written to be forgotten”. It turns out that The Wings of the Dove wins the contest after all, since the real adventure (“less gripping but far more memorable”) is waiting to resume on page 14 and “the mysterious dead body that really matters will one day be ours”.
My own response to this observation is that if that civil war were not there – and had not been there from the outset – then James’s writing would probably never be as interesting as it is. It has occurred to me that James’s writing appears to readers who may be just inwardly conflicted as he is, people who, for example, enjoy reading crime fiction, while knowing full well that it is not as good for the soul are reading Henry James. But they, like James, may also know that reading crime fiction that is good is of the best is, when it comes down to it, better than reading tosh or not reading at all.