The legendary critic on what’s been keeping him entertained—from French lovers to warring dons...by Clive James / January 28, 2019 / Leave a comment
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.
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…