Clive James (1939-2019) R. I. P.

The critic and poet Clive James has died at the age of 80, after a long fight with cancer. He was born in Australia and moved to England in the early 1960s where he finished his education at Cambridge University. James began his journalism career in the late 1960s and soon found his niche as a TV reviewer for the Observer in the 1970s. He also reviewed books throughout his career and appeared as a TV presenter in the 1980-90s. As noted in the Daily Telegraph obituary by Michael Deacon, for Clive James

…a review should never just be a review. It should be a form of entertainment: one to rival, or surpass, the form of entertainment it was judging. As I later confirmed, by reading his reviews of programs that I had actually seen, Clive James was funnier than the comedies he wrote about,  and more illuminating than the documentaries he wrote about. Almost always, his reviews gave me more pleasure than their subjects had.

James wrote at least two essays devoted to Waugh. The more notable is his 1980 review of Waugh’s collected letters. This is entitled “Waugh’s Last Stand” and appeared in the New York Review of Books (reprinted in As of this Writing). The review is more a consideration of Waugh’s career than it is an analysis of his letter writing. James opens with a discussion of Waugh’s anti-semitism, which he considers to have been largely misunderstood by his critics. He then writes this:

Behaving as if recent history wasn’t actually happening was one of Waugh’s abiding characteristics. It is the main reason why his books always seem so fresh. Since he never fell for any transient political belief, he never dates. In the 1930s, far from not having been a communist, he wasn’t even a democrat. He believed in a stratified social order and a universal Church, the one nourishing the other. The stratified social order was already crumbling before he was born and the universal Church had disappeared during the reign of Henry VIII. His ideal was largely a fantasy. But it was a rich fantasy, traditionally based. Sustained by it, he could see modern life not just sharply but in perspective. When people say that Waugh was more than just a satirist, they really mean that his satire was coherent. It takes detachment to be so comprehensive.

James concludes his essay with this paragraph in which he foresees the restoration of Waugh’s reputation a few years in advance of its actual occurrence:

While academic studies have gone on being preoccupied with the relative and absolute merits of Joyce and Lawrence, Waugh’s characters have inexorably established themselves among the enduring fictions to which his countrymen traditionally refer as if they were living beings. In this respect Waugh is in a dircct line with Shakespeare and Dickens. Since he was public property from the beginning, a critical consensus, when it arrives, can only endorse popular opinion. The consensus has been delayed because many critics were rightly proud of the Welfare State and regarded Waugh’s hatred of it as mean-minded. He was paid out for his rancour by is own unhappiness. For the happiness he can still give us it is difficult to know how to reward him, beyond saying that he has helped to make tolerable the modern worlds that he abominated.

After this article was written, James’s predictions were fulfilled. The successful 1981 TV adaptation of Brideshead Revisited revived Waugh’s popularity. That series set the cultural tone for the Thatcher Years in which Waugh’s views no longer told against him.

One comment on the 1980 article appears in the Herald Sun newspaper published in Melbourne. James Campbell in the paper’s obituary notice makes reference to James’s flirtation with social climbing:

…he penned a toe-curlingly embarrassing “comic” poem — Charles Charming’s Challenges On The Pathway To The Throne — in what some suspected was an attempt to get himself invited to Charles’s 1981 wedding to Diana. It was unsuccessful.“Such a blunder helps to demonstrate that if he calculated, he did not calculate very well,” he once observed of Evelyn Waugh’s failure to accept a proffered honour, though he might have been speaking of himself, going on to add a possibly hard-won piece of wisdom: “In this he differed from the true climber, whose whole ability is never to put a foot wrong.”

If he had stayed home [in Australia], would he have had such an obsession with climbing the greasy pole and that boastful insecurity that marks the outsider? Probably not. Would he have achieved what he did? Obviously not.

The other essay was included among several published as Cultural Amnesia in 2007. The book is subtitiled “Necessary Memories from History and the Arts” and described as: “Forty years in the making, a new cultural canon that celebrates truth over hypocrisy, literature over totalitarianism.” James begins the essay on Waugh by describing him as “the supreme writer of English prose in the twentieth century, even though so many of the wrong people said so.” But once Waugh’s reputation as a master prose stylist is secured, James launches into a detailed discussion of  a sentence in Waugh’s autobiography, A Little Learning, that contains a grammatical error: “A little later, very hard up and seeking a commission to write a book, it was Tony [Powell] who introduced me to my first publisher.” This involves a dangled participle which James immensely enjoys deconstructing over several paragraphs.

James mentioned Waugh in several other contexts and was obviously an admirer of his work and promoter of his reputation.

UPDATE (29 November 2019): A reference to the obituary of Clive James appearing in the Melbourne Herald Sun newspaper has been added.

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