All writers begin as readers, and the majority, the ones worth reading, continue life as more prolific readers than writers—especially, it seems, as they age. “In my seventh decade I feel a new haste,” Larry McMurtry wrote in Walter Benjamin at the Dairy Queen (1999), “not to write, but to read.” As Clive James writes in his introduction here, in a line that evokes the child hiding under the covers with a flashlight and book as much as it does the grizzled bibliophile: “If you don’t know the exact moment when the lights will go out, you might as well read until they do.”
James, in his eighth decade but with a diagnosis of terminal leukemia, combines his need to read with—happily for us—a desire to write about what he’s reading. Earlier this year he published Poetry Notebook: Reflections on the Intensity of Language, a learned and entertaining look at “the form of writing,” he wrote, “that has always mattered to me most.” Latest Readings, as the title suggests, is more of a grab bag, reflecting the predictable interests of an omnivore critic, poet, essayist, memoirist, novelist, translator, travel writer, war buff, and erstwhile television host. Freed from the single-subject focus of his poetry book, James bounces (may we all be so mentally agile as our bodies fail) from Hemingway to Conrad, Kipling to Speer, Naipaul to Jake Eberts and Terry Ilott, whose cowritten and exquisitely titled My Indecision Is Final (1990) James considers one of the finest books ever written about show business.
This book has no theme other than the inexhaustible and inextinguishable pleasure of the written word. Even in his weakened condition, James prefers the act of reading to that of listening to a text, noting that actors performing on audio books often get carried away with their own voices and ignore things, such as punctuation, that mean a great deal to writers with ears. Authors make much better readers of their own words, but James still prefers moving his eye (because of cataract operations, he can now use only one) back and forth across a page.
Much of the time, that eye is passing over familiar terrain, as James is a voracious rereader. And he is dauntless in the face of bulk and borrowed time, revisiting not only Evelyn Waugh’s Sword of Honour trilogy (1952-61) but Anthony Powell’s A Dance to the Music of Time series (1951-75), a work that even people with ample time ahead of them, and two good eyes, often feel they don’t have time for. But thanks to James’s bookish recklessness, we get to hear that Powell is “good on the significance of the passing moment, his key message being that it doesn’t really pass, but is incorporated into the texture of your reflections just as thoroughly as the ecstasies and disasters, and perhaps even more so.” And he points out a flaw in this magisterial achievement, which is that Powell completely ignored “the shift of power in the direction of the Americans.”
He doesn’t mean literary power. Except for Ernest Hemingway, whose measure is taken both at the beginning and at the end of the book, the American authors who interest him here are mostly journalists and people in show business (not unwisely, perhaps, since our pop culture, as James suggests, has had greater global influence than any of our Pulitzer Prize winners). When the former write about the latter, at least in the case of Bob Woodward, James is not charmed: “[His] book about John Belushi, Wired, was so misleading—he treated the crack-up of a comedian as if it were
the fall of a president—that it made me suspect the emotional veracity (not the veracity: he checks his facts until they weep with boredom) . . .”
In his pantheon of books about the film industry, he places, along with My Indecision Is Final, Steven Bach’s Final Cut (1985)—about the Heaven’s Gate debacle—and Julia Phillips’s You’ll Never Eat Lunch in This Town Again (1991). Before closing the “Women in Hollywood” chapter, he introduces us to one of his favorite blogs about movies: Self-Styled Siren by Farran Nehme.
Such are the rewards of reading the preternaturally well-read and, in this case, jack-of-all-genres. James appears to be at home everywhere. He is as knowledgeable about World War II aircraft as he is about Shakespeare, whose complete works he used to take with him on planes. He writes as easily and approvingly of Philip Larkin as he does of Alan Brooke, chief of the imperial general staff during World War II and the man, according to James, who deserves the credit for D-Day (and, in large part, for keeping Eisenhower and Montgomery on speaking terms). He extols Olivia Manning, whose Balkan and Levant trilogies gave him the rare pleasure of a late-life discovery.