In an review of Clive James’s Revolt of the Pendulum for a recent issue of The Spectator the literary editor of The Telegraph and omnipresent columnist, Sam Leith, agues that James, “starting to hear the guy with the scythe and the persistent cough”, has become overly concerned with just how he’ll be remembered
Leith offers the suggestion that he’ll “be remembered as a pompous, brilliant old thing with a big, prickly ego” which the reader could “see in the temperament of the man that gauche, ambitious child so lacerating evoked in his first volume of memoirs.”
There is something in what Leith says. James has shown, over and over again, especially since he stepped away from television stardom, that he now is just as worried as some early admirers used to be that his entry into the world of televisionhis damaged his reputation as a serious man of letters. Much of what he has done in the last decade is designed to prove that he was still capable of work as good as, if not better than, that which he did in the early 70s when in the guise the “cosmopolitan critic” , and attempting to don the mantle great American critic, Edmund Wilson, he was offering something that was as good as – and certainly altogether more entertaining than – that which was being produced by the establishment or the men and women of letters who worked ii academia.
I’d argue that while the years devoted to a television career did not do irreparable his damage, it in the end probably did mean that as a critic he achievement will fall sorth Wilson’s.
At this stage, one feels that Leith is right saying that James is spending too much time – his own, and, more annoyingly, ours, worrying about all this. Readers must feel that the most appropriate response to all this obsessing about posterity, and its judgements, is so distracting as to be off-putting, especially to someone coming to James for the first time. Leith is rather good on where James’s strengths lie, where they have always lain.
James is a good hop and a skip ahead of most literary hacks in terms of stylistic verve and scholarship alike. If only he’d stop worrying about it and let other people say so……
He has a fantastic range and depth of know- ledge. He is, at times, miraculously funny. He writes knowledgeably and with passion about literature, and especially poetry. His opinions are his own — and he has cogent praise for Camille Paglia, John Bayley and Dennis Healey. His take-downs are decisive too. John Ashbery produces ‘an avalanche of verbal hamburger’. Elias Canetti is ‘a posturing snob’. Of Carl Sandburg: ‘His prose was bad poetry, like his poetry.’
He knows about classical music, show-tunes and pop. He knows about politics and history. He’s fierce in the defence of, and humble in his identification with, what he calls ‘the liberal democratic mentality’: ‘the ideas constituting that mentality were hard won by people who paid a higher price to hold them than I ever did’
What Leith does not say is that James has always had one damaging weakness, and that is a craving to be recognized as a star in whatever field he enters. His early literary efforts were, as Karl Miller once observed cabaret turns, as were his TV columns for The Observer, as again were most of his appearances on television, and what he he now wants is that his life work to be remembered as one big star turn. For him, in the end, it not just enough to be taken seriously, as he is; he has to be recognised as a star turns of seriousness.