In her review of The Revolt of the Pendulum for today’s Telegraph Lynn Barberwonders “why the distinguished polyglot Clive James blows his own trumpet so incessantly”
Non altogether unexpectedly, this is just another version of a question that has been raising it’s head since the book was published.
Why isn’t he more famous? Why isn’t he more adored? Why isn’t he still on television? Why doesn’t his website make any money? Why is he so neglected as a poet? (Why isn’t he Oxford Professor of Poetry?) Why aren’t his books displayed in the window of Sonia Rykiel’s shop in Paris the way Bernard-Henri Lévy’s are? These are just a few of the burning questions Clive James addresses in his latest book of essays. You would think, to hear him tell it, he was starving in a garret somewhere, still struggling to get his first slim volume published – the fact that this is his 30th book is testimony, if nothing else, to the rich rewards of logorrhoea.
Barber notices something about James’ craving for attention which, because I have been reading him so long, had escaped my attention.
He needs you to know that he is a polymath and a polyglot, because “we ought to expect from any critic a reading knowledge of the standard European languages”. And James can speak Japanese as well. He is truly a citizen of the world. When in Paris, he heads for a café in the rue de l’université to read Witold Gombrowicz. When in Buenos Aires to practise his tango, he likes to sit in a café in the Avenida Corrientes reading Sabato, Bioy Casares and Cortázar. (Me neither.) What he gets from these authors remains a mystery because he never tells us: it is enough that we should know that he has read them, and shake our pretty little heads. But what is the point of criticism that neither explains nor illuminates? It is name-dropping tout court.
It may look like “name-dropping tout court” now, but in the early days, when both James and his audience were a lot younger and had more time left to look forward to, it stood a challenge. The point then of “criticism that neither explains nor illuminates” was simply to get readers to imitate. To some extent, the reader who saw James’s reasons for liking the poetry of Yeats, Larkin, Auden, Heaney and all those poets James wrote well about in early essays did not have to be given reasons for his liking for Verlaine or any of the many tout court names he dropped then. The reader took it on trust that if James, with his track record, found someone interesting enough to read, then that someone had written something worth reading.
What rankles with Barber nowadays – and it rankles with a lot of us of a certain age – is that we simply have not got the time left to read everything James has read and therefore, like Barber need to see on the page ” what he gets from” reading Sabato, Bioy Casares or Cortázar. Otherwise mentioning them can indeed seem like name-dropping tout court.
What James needs is a firm editor who will tell him he is not allowed to write more than 2,000 words a week and even then he should think twice before publishing.