Even at his second-best, Clive James amazes

Gavin McLean reviews The Revolt of the Pendulum.

Clive James
Picador, $49.99, hbk

After his masterpiece Cultural Amnesia, Clive James offers another collection of essays, quirkily named after a defeated Australian politician's slip of the tongue.

It's an eclectic mix of book reviews, obituaries, essays for literary magazines and handbills, puff pieces for his stage shows.

Obituaries for old mates like Kingsley Amis and Alan Coren suggest that James knows that the hooded old fellow with the scythe is on his way.

"In Australia, one of the penalties for having survived long enough as some kind of literary figure," he jokes, "is to be asked, in one's senior years, to write a chapter in the latest distinguished volume devoted to the history of Australian literature."

And to want to preserve your own work.

Although James knows that most books won't survive, his decision to reprint these pieces with fresh postscripts suggests a desire to lengthen the odds.

The second Cultural Amnesia he says is on the stocks might have been a better investment of his time, but most of these pieces do merit reprinting for a broader audience.

Even at second-best, at his most ephemeral, James still excites envy; his wit, breadth of knowledge and his language amaze.

He is seldom absent from his work, whether he is discussing old mates, art, poetry or Formula 1 drivers.

He's clearly vexed about how the world will view his legacy, complaining about literary editors' reluctance to take a prime time TV performer seriously as a poet.

At times Clive James the intellectual and Clive James the blokey social commentator find it difficult to inhabit an ego as big as his.

James the bloke criticises society "for providing the academic world with a haven for tenured mediocrity".

He is not always comfortable with intellectuals.

"Almost anybody with a university degree in Australia was, and is, ready to call the common people a bunch of racists for electing John Howard.

The contempt of the commentariat for a good half of the electorate is one of the modern wonders of Australia."

His essays with the best survival chances are his longer ones on cultural identity and particularly on the role of expatriates such as Robert Hughes and himself.

"If Australia's too-much-talked-about National Identity - that metaphysical abstraction which for so long has been longed for, and longed for so pointlessly because it was always there - means anything at all," he replies to Aussie critics of their fellows who live in London or New York, "it means something that comes with you wherever you go, applies equally well to New Zealand.

Kiwi novelists no longer have to set everything in Auckland or Oamaru and are the better for it.

"National compartmentalization is a marketable fad in the minds of commentators who draw a salary for shuffling cliches," he adds.

"There were Chinese lacquer boxes on sale in the markets of Imperial Rome.

Art travels faster now, but it has always travelled."

If you can forgive the egotism and the moans about being under appreciated, you will find The Revolt of the Pendulum rewarding company as he darts from people you have never read to old bugbears.

Who, after struggling with the page-long paragraphs of Henry James, for example, won't smile at James' assessment of "The Master's prose: he honestly believed that the style he chose was a babbling brook, even though it strikes us as an invitation to suck up a sand dune through a straw."

- Gavin McLean is a Wellington historian and reviewer.

Add a Comment