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Clive James’ Late Reading: From academic putdowns to Richard III

The legendary critic on what’s been keeping him entertained—from French lovers to warring dons...

By Clive James   March 2019


I’m already well along with writing my latest volume of autobiography, but just in case this one proves to be my last it might be wise to get a few paragraphs finished now with which to clinch the story.

For the last two weeks at Addenbrooke’s Hospital I’ve been undergoing a daily course of radiotherapy by which Madame Curie’s magic waves were dealing with possible residues of a deepish skin cancer beside the socket of my single fully functioning eye. The prognosis was good, but as one lay there supine under the beam of silence it was hard not to be assailed by suspicions that the relevant side of one’s face was being transformed into a replica of the A-bomb test site at White Sands, New Mexico in 1945. A nuclear strike so close to one’s line of sight is hard to laugh off.

When read through a built-in sneer, Gillian Beer’s book on Charles Darwin, entitled Darwin’s Plots, has a daunting combination of conceptual sweep and scientific detail, but let’s not leave out the literary scholarship, which is not just the icing on the cake but the heart of the action. Our author is especially good at quoting George Eliot. With her prescient grasp of the modern scientific adventure, the great novelist set the pace for a new world in which the aforesaid Madame Curie could be awarded the Nobel prize twice.



Odd couples


Speaking of which, even so enlightened a critic as Edmund Wilson couldn’t bring himself to read Middlemarch. He felt he didn’t need to, but he never explained how he reached that conclusion. Wilson felt no such reluctance to admire Edna St Vincent Millay, but the admiration might have had something to do with the fact that he knew a lot about poetry, whereas he knew little about science. (Not that even Curie knew a whole lot more: thinking that the glow of radium was benign, she would carry test tubes of hot stuff around in her pocket.)

The Wilson-Millay romance continues to fascinate all fans of either of them: he so brainily lumbering, and she such a fleet-footed vamp. One imagines a great romantic movie, even though Philip Seymour Hoffman, the ideal actor to play Wilson, has unfortunately gone missing. (For the divine if mischief-making Edna, my pick continues to be Krysten Ritter, sole dominatrix of the only 10 minutes in which the television series Breaking Bad came all the way alive.)

Only the French, however, will be doing the casting for the epic romantic movie that could conceivably be based on the recently published Correspondance 1944-1959 (NRF) of Albert Camus and Maria Casarès. Curse my faiblesse, but the complete book is a housebrick and after several months I’m still barely halfway through it, so I haven’t yet reached the moment when Casarès had to face the awkward fact that she wasn’t Camus’s only current love, she was one of about half a dozen, all of whom he held in play until the fatal moment when his Facel Vega crashed into a tree.

My pick to play Maria would have to be Julie Gayet (otherwise the main squeeze of that unlikely lothario François Hollande), although she might have to throttle back on the radiant effervescence. To play Camus, the one and only candidate is long gone. He was Yves Montand, who spoke prose the way he sang, with the magic overtones conferred by a hundred thousand cigarettes.

As I continue to struggle forward through hundreds of pages of Euro-passion, I notice that at least one reviewer has found Camus to have been less forthcoming than Casarès in declaring his love. Perhaps so, but the explanation might be simple. In that last decade of his life, the great writer was often busy writing actual books: among them was L’Homme révolté, a book that changed the world by putting the lethal equivalence of the two wings of totalitarianism beyond question. Casarès, by contrast, had nothing to do after the show except hit the sack, usually after writing once again to smooge him a hundred times. “Je sens! Je sens! Je sens! Je vis par toi, rien que par toi! J’existe avec une intensité totale…” She could say that again, and she did.



Fallen stars


Christopher Ricks must be on a high at the moment, after his deserved triumph with the TS Eliot edition, so I won’t mention the sentence on page 262 of his Allusion to the Poets (“But verse can be perverse”) that led me to shy the book at my granddaughter’s dog. Is it possible to be a proper scholar and also a star performer? Perhaps Ricks is the test case. More than 50 years ago, when I arrived in Cambridge as an undergraduate, the first lecture I went to was by Hugh Sykes Davies, famous at the time. He called his fellow critic Helen Gardner “the hag.” I was delighted: this, surely, was the heart of the action! But then I realised that I disapproved.

It’s almost 60 years now since I heard Jean Renoir taking questions from the audience at the National Film Theatre in London. A notoriously gaga local film buff started asking him an elaborately detailed question about one of the tracking shots in Le Crime de Monsieur Lange. Renoir interrupted him and said that he invented the shot purely to solve a narrative problem and forgot how he did it as soon as he had done it. As the ashen film buff was led back to the asylum, I was already reflecting that there was a difference between being interested in how art gets done and being too interested.

Caroline Alexander’s The War that Killed Achilles is an edifying example of what proper scholarship can do. She makes you want to learn Homeric Greek, whereas Brad Pitt in the movie Troy only makes you want to lift weights. (Actually mere exercise will never get you a pair of thighs like those: it takes digital enhancement.) That being said, the scholars who can actually read the original stuff had better have judgment. Mere enthusiasm is likely to put them in the position of Pat Barker, whose novel The Silence of the Girls, centring on Briseis, the abductee concubine of Achilles, makes you wonder fruitfully about the heroine’s powers of endurance in the roughhouse ambience of the Greek invaders parked like a swarm of bikers on the beach, but less fruitfully about her precocious access to a library or bookshop well enough stocked to provide her with a collection of Yeats’s poems, from which she quotes while all credibility flees.



Noble minds

Now that I finally have time to read them in depth, I can’t help noticing that nearly all the English-language megadons have a quirk in them somewhere. Even my favourite of the breed, John Carey, has never given up on his certitude that the British Establishment is a conspiracy to suppress the people. He continued to maintain this theme even as he was elevated to the positions of Professor Emeritus in Oxford, lead reviewer for the Sunday Times, and (this might be only a rumour) secret head of MI7(b), the intelligence branch that Beachcomber thought he had invented until he found out it was reading his post.

But not even Carey can change the world by diktat, and in the brilliant critical apparatus of his new, short version of Paradise Lost I find that he can give only the briefest and gruffest answer to the most nagging question the great poem asks: why so little about Christ? For me, a lapsed Christian, Christ’s mercy is the component that I never lapsed from, and as oblivion looms I still remember his revolutionary bravery when he defied the maniacs who were getting set to stone the woman taken in adultery. Screw them, and God bless her.

Based in Cambridge, the late Eric Griffiths should have been on my radar years ago but I was too busy writing instead of reading. Now that I have to squint even to read, I can’t take my eye off him. He glows and fizzes, like a noisier atomic isotope. In his coyly entitled book If Not Critical he includes a sizzling disquisition on how Hamlet, when he tells Rosencrantz and Guildenstern that he has lost all his mirth, is faking his melancholy, and thereby telling the audience that he has plans to get these two creeps before they get him. In his Hamlet movie, what did Olivier say with the rest of his face while he mouthed those formulae about his vanished merriment? I’ll have to check.

And watch his Richard III again. What a movie it is, and what an impact it made on me back when my idea of a filmed speech was something delivered by James Cagney through a gritted face. No sooner is Anne (Claire Bloom) speaking in colloquy with Richard than she has to deliver that mighty but puzzling line about her dead husband, “Poor key-cold figure of a holy king!” What does she mean, exactly? The compound adjective “key-cold” only sounds specific: in fact it is floating free like a sea-anchor.

But the rhythm of the line tells you that Anne might be sensitive to language well used; and the perfidious Richard can use it like a cobra spitting star-dust. By the time Anne is calling him a “hedgehog” he is already halfway there with his transparent aim to “talk it in,” as the grand ladies of London used to say. And anyway, “hedgehog” is a soft term. Richard is a rat.

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