Flann O'Brien's letters make for

Clive James: What I'm reading, from Flann O'Brien to The Odyssey

The legendary critic on what’s been keeping him entertained
March 7, 2019

Thrumming discreetly in the deep regions of Addenbrooke’s Hospital here in Cambridge, the X-ray projectors continue to chase a dodgy little cancer from one of my facial cavities to the next, so I am still catching up with Christmas. One of my presents was The Collected Letters of Flann O’Brien, edited by Maebh Long, who must have wondered, towards the end of her task, what kind of nut-bag she had taken on. Justifiably regarded as an adornment to Irish literature, O’Brien was a funny novelist who was even funnier as a columnist, but there is nothing funny about hearing a grown mind fooling around with the word “nigger.” In his later years O’Brien, in his correspondence, did so habitually, although we perhaps need to see his bad habit in the oblique light cast by the further fact that he never gave up on the idea that St Augustine might have been black.

O’Brien knew a lot about St Augustine, whom he read in the original Latin and admired greatly, just as Philip Larkin, supposedly prejudiced against all blacks, greatly admired Sidney Bechet. Doesn’t O’Brien’s admiration temper the apparent disparagement of saddling St Augustine with the “n” word? One would like to think so, but only because one prefers a sane O’Brien to a festering racist, however talented. Not that he ever went public with his quirk. Like HL Mencken, who was anti-semitic but never said so in print, O’Brien had the sense to realise that his prejudice, if revealed, would poison the water supply. Or that, anyway, is what I prefer to think, while leaving room to be told that At Swim-Two-Birds is really a coded hosanna to Jim Crow.

Warring over words

Another of my Christmas presents was Emily Wilson’s recent translation of The Odyssey, as published by WW Norton in the US. The same firm publishes my own books over there so I must be careful about praising hers, lest Private Eye run a paragraph next Christmas pointing out that the last thing I did before dropping off the twig was to roll a log.

No kidding, though: her translation is terrific. Mainly populated by bunches of hirsute heavies sitting around eating fat meat with their fingers while they lust after Penelope, the story sweeps along in immaculate iambic pentameter. In only one small aspect is the immaculateness maculate. Unfortunately the solitary blemish happens, and keeps on happening, smack in the central strand of the narrative thread. Any time Odysseus’s name is used in the possessive, the printed word ends at the apostrophe, thereby depriving the line, when said aloud, of a vital syllable, which usually means that a beat goes missing. Take this line as an example: “Odysseus’ son instructed them…”

And that, minus the final dots, is the whole line. My bet is that the author, before consenting to put in a line a beat short, had to be brow-beaten until her ears rang. She has been the victim, I fear, of what the Americans call “house style”: which all too often is the style of the madhouse. I don’t doubt she put up a fight, but finally, to stave off the threat of being crassly tidied up, an author must have the wherewithal to threaten a junior editor with armed force. If a senior editor refuses to back-pedal from such dogmatism then the author has come to the wrong house anyway.

Which gets us to another subject, and indeed to another war. Vietnam was the wrong place for the Americans to fight, a cruel fact that the CIA tried to tell JFK, but he didn’t listen. My son-in-law has been studying a stack of books that came out of that sad conflict and in recent weeks I have ploughed through Matterhorn by Karl Marlantes (published in 2010) and A Rumour of War by Philip Caputo, which dates all the way back to 1977. The newer novel is the more contemplative but the older book, a memoir, has the immediacy. Indeed it puts the reader slap in the mud, with leeches attaching themselves as if looking for a ride out. But there is no way out except defeat.

White men found it easier than black men to dodge the draft but a surprising number of white men who went wrote books afterwards. Some of them were natural writers, and at least one of them was brilliant. Caputo’s book, indeed, has shaken me up like nothing since The Naked and the Dead: and Norman Mailer was on kitchen duty, he wasn’t up to his neck in the filth. Another reminder that I’ve had it lucky: in a lifetime I’ve never had to fight anybody except a sub-editor fooling with my apostrophes. The tricky thing about conking out is to keep things in perspective.

Music that breathes

Speaking of which, my wife came back from Covent Garden raving discreetly about the production of The Queen of Spades. It’s the second time she has seen it, and as sometimes happens, familiarity with the music has deepened her appreciation. This time she was less fazed by the presence on stage of multiple clones of Tchaikovksy, whereas the music came out and grabbed her. To hear her tell it, the conductor was close enough in front of her to do the same. Antonio Pappano has got the zing to pull the women and I have to admit that he does the same for me. It’s the way he breathes the music. Mind you, it has to be music that breathes, and Tchaikovsky’s does. (Has there even been anything more beautiful than the letter scene in Eugene Onegin?) I remember how Stravinsky, late in his life, finally admitted that Tchaikovsky was the goods. Why hadn’t he done so earlier? You guessed it. He was jealous.

My friend Bruce Beresford, who is almost my age though he can still paddle a kayak on Sydney Harbour when he’s at home, makes a thing of directing operas in his downtime from directing movies. It used to be a standard tactic among film directors: when I arrived in London in the early 1960s, the Don Carlo at Covent Garden was directed by Visconti, and it was full of cinematic coups, including a pair of shuttlecock players within the inner courtyard who looked as if they were in perspective (you guessed it: they were tiny).

So stunning an effect did something to offset Boris Christoff’s high heels, particularly evident as he stood there front of curtain ruthlessly signalling for more applause. Alas, he was vain, as even the greatest singers sometimes are. Carlo Bergonzi wore lifts like Mickey Rooney’s. I remember Bergonzi teetering upwards to kiss Mimi’s collarbone. But Plácido Domingo was never vain. In the recent Covent Garden production of La traviata he is quite content to sing the role of Alfredo’s aging father. As my wife insists on reminding me, Domingo is 78, and I’m only a year older than that.

I think she’s telling me to cut the crap, get up and sing. I hasten to obey, but must pause to say that if you’re still looking for an operatic tenor with a physical presence to match his pipes, you should try Mario del Monaco singing the title role of Andrea Chénier on YouTube. He’s miming to playback, but at least it’s his own voice. Sometimes he pops his eyes, as if astonished by the beauty of the music. He was right.

Mightier than the glove

Shortage of vanity is my friend Beresford’s main handicap, in my view. Directors are encouraged by their guild to preface a film with the rubric “A film by so-and-so” but he has always refused to do it. Had he claimed that right for directing Driving Miss Daisy he might have got the Oscar, and his perfect movie Black Robe deserved a shelf of Oscars. As things turned out, he has had to scrabble for finance, often reaching into his own pocket after the original backers of the movie do a runner. It took him years to get the scratch together for Ladies in Black, his enchanting movie of the novel by Madeleine St John. Unfolding the story of how the post-war European migrants helped to civilise their new nation, the movie has had ecstatic reviews in Australia but it probably won’t get a commercial screening out here in the real world because it’s got nobody in it. Julia Ormond, who is radiantly intelligent in the centre of a story about European sophistication coming ashore in Sydney, used to be a bankable headliner but time has marched.

It marches for everyone but I can’t help wishing that it would slow down for me. Superficially, it might appear to have done so: when one of my media contemporaries hits the deck, the impact reverberates for a weekend at least. I admired Hugh McIlvanney, the great sports reporter who checked out in January. He was generously interested in what I wrote when I joined the Observer. Since even my favourite sub-editor, a tactfully unemphatic soul, referred to McIlvanny as “McIlviolence” I suppose I was lucky not to cross him. He could write vividly about boxing, but I had a deep suspicion about whether the spectacle of two men whacking each other in the head was a sport at all, and now, when my own head is a velodrome for Madison teams of good and bad molecules, I am certain that I chose wisely in writing about, say, the poetry of WH Auden. I should add, though, that McIlvanney’s sports reports, like all truly vivid stretches of prose, were poems in all but name.

Read Clive James's piece from last month's issue