Sun, Jul 20, 2003 - Page 19 News List

Clive James shows off his serious side

The author and TV pundit maintains a fine critical sensitivity and retains the fire that gives him an edge

By Michiko Kakutani  /  NY TIMES NEWS SERVICE

As of This Writing: The Essential Essays, 1968 to 2002<
By Clive James
619 pages
W.W.Norton and Co

In one of the rollicking essays in this collection, Clive James hails his countryman Robert Hughes as a representative of Australian expatriate writers at their most exuberant. His writing, James observes, is "the product of an innocent abroad who has consciously enjoyed every stage of his growing sophistication without allowing his original barbaric gusto to be diminished."

The Australian expat, he argues, "loots the world for cultural references," and "if he can write like Hughes, he may combine these into a macaronic, coruscating prose that would be as precious as a cento or an Anacreontic odelette if it were not so robust, vivid and clearly concerned with defining the subject, rather than just displaying his erudition."

The same of course might be said of James' own prose. At his best he combines the most potent attributes of what Philip Rahv called redskin and paleface writers, managing to be street smart and scholarly, swaggering and cerebral, all at the same time. Like John Updike he's adept at using his gift for metaphor and pictorial language to delineate the work of others. And like Martin Amis he's equally at home with the high and the low, a cultural magpie eloquent on the arcane and the vernacular, on the allusive poetry of Galway Kinnell and the sexual drivel of Judith Krantz.

In this volume James, who is perhaps best known in Britain these days as a television personality, emphasizes his serious side. As of This Writing, which bears the self-important subtitle The Essential Essays, does not contain the amusing television columns he once wrote for The Observer, nor does it contain his musings on the ice dancers Torvill and Dean or his much mocked piece on the death of Diana, Princess of Wales. Instead the book focuses on James' literary essays with a few forays into film criticism and some asides about dance and photography.

Although the reader wishes that James had used his copious talents as a critic to write about American novelists like Thomas Pynchon, Saul Bellow and Philip Roth and such British contemporaries as Ian McEwan and Graham Swift, this volume shows his gift for describing an artist's achievement (a writer's distinctive vision, sensibility, technique and tone) while at the same time conveying a wonderfully tactile sense of the artist's work.

"He was beyond words," James writes of James Agee. "Everything he wrote, and not just the scripts, was the work of a frustrated director: the page was a wrap-around screen with four-track stereophonic sound. Fundamentally anti-economical, it was the approach of a putter-in rather than a leaver-out, and all too frequently his prose had a coronary occlusion right there in front of you."

As for Raymond Chandler, James writes: "Flaubert liked tinsel better than silver because tinsel possessed all silver's attributes plus one in addition -- pathos. For whatever reason, Chandler was fascinated by the cheapness of LA. When he said that it had as much personality as a paper cup, he was saying what he liked about it. When he said that he could leave it without a pang, he was saying why he felt at home there."

James is keenly attuned to the shape of a writer's career, the fallout that the political or cultural spirit can have on a reputation, and the unexpected ways in which an artist's work can mature by accident or by choice.

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