I have just completed this superb intellectual auto-biography by Clive James, and I am lost in admiration, not just for the breadth of his erudition, but for the depth of his wisdom and the clear sincerity of his humaniny. Along with this goes a prose style that performs the miracle of being, at the same time, absolutely limpid and superbly readable, whilst being unfailingly eloquent and possessed of a lapidary turn of phrase. Clive frequently extols the mastery of the prose styles of other expository writers, but I can actually think of no one else I would rather read on the topics he makes his subjects.
I consider myself a reasonably well read person, as I would guess does anyone that might have this book in prospect. Why is it though, that for all my reading, my view of the world only seems to become more confused, more filled with questions I don't know how to answer? James, on the other hand has managed to synthesise a world view from all his reading, that, while facing squarely all the worst that humans are capable of, levaes him with no doubt about the concreteness of value of all that is best.
The book is organised as a selection of essays, each of which takes as a starting point a particular individual, for the most part writers, but also including the odd politician, activist or media personality, who's life and work, and all the significant criticism on it, James has totally devoured at some point or other in his book devouring life. The essays are simply arranged in alphabetical order of the subject's surnames. Some of the authors or personalities will be known to all readers. Some will be known only to more specialist readers, the selection being truly global, and many not easily available in English. Few readers, I would guess, will be familiar with all, or even most of them. Some of the essays stay focussed on the subject, while others take off on an elliptical journey through associated personalities and events. All take some quote or choice aphorism of the subject as grist for the ensuing discussion.
There is a certain charming disingenuity about Clive's style in that he flatters the reader into believing that, he believes at least, that you are his intellectual equal. There is an implicit assumption that we're all cultivated people; that we all have devoted as much of our lives to books and the acquistion of learning and insight to the same degree as him, or at least we could have done so if we had wanted. We all could have picked up just enough of seven or so foreign languages to read all the most significant authors and cultural critics in each, or again, we could have done if we had not had more pressing things to do. We all do these things all of the time, whilst sipping coffee in the piazzas of Florence, perhaps after visiting its galleries, or in downtown Beunos Aires while waiting for our tango lesson. He is a man who truly knows how to get the absolute best out of a civilsed life, and while you are reading him, you are such a person too, for just a little while.
The essays in the book range very widely, but the two most recurrent themes are those of prose and politics. Politics is considered in the context of the disasterous ideologies of the 20th Century, and the possibilities afforded by a future of liberal democracy. His writing about writing is most illuminating, and I supect I shall be looking at other authors with a closer eye in the future. With respect to politics much of his analysis is about the way his subjects conducted themselves in relation to the ideological extremities of their day. This he does with a clear and critical, but also compassionate eye, being under no illusions about how such circumstances can cause even the most moral of people to behave.
I have long admired Clive for his wit and humour and was expecting some portion of that in this book. It is by no means absent; his observations on Richard Burton's hairstyle in Where Eagle's Dare are unforgetably funny. But for the most part the themes of the book are informative or serious, so wit takes a subsidiary place alongside charm, compassion, honesty, and sundry other literary virtues.
Advice on my future reading that I have picked up from Clive along the way is that I should give Proust at least one more go; that I should ignore Thomas Mann no longer; that I should finally steel myself to face the horrors of Jung Chang's Wild Swans, and that if I have given the time to reading Sartre's novels, which I have, then I should also give the time to Camus. What I've also got from him is that Walter Benjamin is too impenetrable, and too wrong about too many things to bother with, in a life where only a finite number of books can be read. Also, if Clive thinks that Sartre's major philosophical works are not just deliberatley obscure but ultimately meaningless humbug as well, then that's good enough for me, and I can finally forgive myself for bouncing off Being and Nothingness more times than I can count on one hand.
He's also altered my estimation of Hegel, though he has not instilled me with a desire to read him. In a book filled with excellent quotations the one he saved for the very last sentence of the book was from Hegel - "History is the story of liberty becoming conscious of itself". This so perfectly captures the essence of the journey on which the reader has been taken.