Clive James Watch #1

A couple of weeks back I started a "J.M. Coetzee Watch" segment as I seemed to be finding quite a number of references to that writer turing up on the web. The only other Australian writer at present that continually appears on a number of websites is Clive James. This is probably mainly due to this year's publication of Cultural Amnesia, which has given a lot of commentators lots of material. But he's also out and about on
his own.

James's major recent book review is of Philip Roth's latest novel, Exit Ghost, in "The New York Times". He finds the novel "is just too fascinating to leave alone. It was designed that way, like the Tar Baby. Actually -- leaving aside all questions about authorial identity for the moment -- this book is latter-day Roth at his intricately thoughtful best, and a vivid reminder of why a dystopian satirical fantasy like The Plot Against America was comparatively weak. Roth has no business making up the world. His business is making up his mind, in the sense that his true material for inventing a pattern is self-exploration, not social satire...Exit Ghost. Great title. The book of a great writer. A great book? Maybe it's just another piece of a puzzle. A great puzzle, and true to life in being so."

In the "Times Literary Supplement", James returns to his glory days with a review of "British Film Forever", a television program aired recently on the BBC. Reading it, you get the distinct impression that James has seen every British film ever made, and has an opinion on each and every one of them. Just what you want from a reviewer: knowledge, and the wit to know when and how to use it. "The most glaring self-deception was a persistent failure to follow the money. The director John Boorman once said that film turns money into light. In cinema, money might not be everything, but it is always the first thing...There never was then, and still isn't, a reservoir of finance within Britain to sustain a film industry without a pipeline to the American market. Korda's productive heyday lasted for a while, and Michael Balcon's for a while longer, but without one eye on America nobody can last indefinitely: the true wording of British Film Forever should have been "British Film Sporadically". This was the biggest theme demanding to be treated by a documentary survey of the history of British film. Its almost complete absence guaranteed that the commentary could not be serious; so we got sprightliness instead."

As the subject rather than the viewer, James is interviewed by Rob Blackhurst in "The Financial Times". It's down to the success of Cultural Amnesia in America of course: "At 68, James has finally reached the age that he has looked for the past 20 years. He's still heavy-set and paunchy but gone are the tight television suits that he used to be funnelled into like an overgrown schoolboy, or Alexei Sayle. These days, with his dark-rimmed specs and existentialist uniform of black shirt and trousers, he could pass for a professor of English literature. "Previous interviewers, expecting to meet a sun-drenched larrikin, have been disappointed to find James in a state of wintry pessimism. Today, perhaps, because he's fed up with being portrayed, in his words, as a 'self-questioning, paranoid sad-sack', he's doing a fine impersonation of a man who is giddily upbeat."

On the "Autopilot" weblog, Murph probably nails the real reason why Cultural Amnesia is so successful and accessible: "I don't have a lot of use for the café bound philosopher/writer, and I while I enjoyed what little philosophy I did study there's no way I would ever persevere to be a truly 'deep' thinker. Many of the people James discusses in this book were, and had all the vices and weaknesses common to their species. They did not have happy lives, were riddled with insecurities, and several even committed suicide. People like Anna Akhmatova, Egon Friedell, and Paul Celan. "Were I to meet any of these people, there would be instant and mutual distain. Somehow James manages to present these people in their element. He proudly shows you their moment of greatness -- no matter how brief -- or damns them for their failings, no matter their reputation. "Somehow, in James' hands, these people are always interesting."

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This page contains a single entry by Perry Middlemiss published on November 1, 2007 1:17 PM.

Australian Books to Film #30 - Puberty Blues was the previous entry in this blog.

Reviews of Australian Books #66 is the next entry in this blog.

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