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An easy intelligence

As of This Writing: The Essential Essays, 1968-2002, Clive James, W.W. Norton: 620 pp., $35

June 22, 2003|Lee Siegel | Lee Siegel is a contributing writer to Book Review.

"Some subjects have no market value. They only have value. Literary journalism is one of them. The demand for it will never increase. No one who practices it will get rich.... Literary journalism is a branch of humanism, and humanism is not utilitarian: it must be pursued for its own sake." Thus the literary journalist Clive James, whose fineness of judgment seems to have its origin in his exact apprehension of his place in the world.

James is essential for American readers; unfortunately he is unknown to many of them. A resident of London, he writes mostly for the New Yorker and sometimes for the New York Review of Books. He has the limpid common sense of British literary journalists, as well as their gift for striking the vivid, offbeat phrase out of the original insight. But perhaps because he is Australian by birth and given to twisting the nose of authority, James has none of the posturing of some British writers who publish in America, no anxious position-taking; he has none of the defensive snobbery of certain British commentators, who cannot write about the Oxford-educated elites who ran the British Empire without signaling that they themselves derive from such rarefied ranks, and are therefore -- please call! -- possessed of a cachet indispensable to talk show, editorial page or dinner party.

Then, again, James has nothing to be anxious or defensive about, which becomes clear in "As of This Writing," a far-flung collection of his works. So acute is his aesthetic and intellectual accuracy that even when you feel his opinions are "wrong," you feel that his sensibility is right. James himself, in "postscripts" to many of these essays, adjusts and sometimes reverses his earlier judgments with such nuance and poise that these later reappraisals merely confirm the integrity of his judgments. Though this latest generous collection of essays spans poetry, fiction and literature, general cultural criticism and film -- from W.H. Auden to Raymond Chandler to Vladimir Nabokov to Judith Krantz to Daniel Jonah Goldhagen to Federico Fellini -- it doesn't begin to do justice to the range of James' subjects (which also include some of the sharpest writing on television around).

So elastic seems his sensibility that it vibrates in just the right way to everything worth writing about that crosses his path. James is someone, to borrow Henry James' famous advice to a young writer, on whom nothing is lost.

Or rather, James is a critic for whom nothing is taken for granted. Considering, in 1999, the publication of George Orwell's collected journalism, James reflects on the strange fate of the adjective "Orwellian," which has been almost wholly detached from the author and applied to the condition of totalitarianism that he despised. "It is as if George Orwell had conceived the nightmare instead of analyzed it, helped to create it instead of helping to dispel its euphemistic thrall." In other words, the term "Orwellian" itself has now recast around the phenomenon of totalitarianism the sort of "euphemistic thrall" -- gorgeous phrase -- it once helped to sweep away.

Such an original, restorative perception serves the purpose not just of pleasure but of shaping a cultivated mind. Probably the best test of a literary journalist is whether his or her essays are sufficient to educate the intelligence and train the sensibility.

Kenneth Burke once said that the measure of a literary work's success was the "fullness of response" it created in the reader. The measure of a literary critic's success is the extent to which reading him or her creates in the reader effects that undo and replace the effects of a university education.

James describes how, as a young man, he devoured the critical writing of James Gibbons Huneker and James Agee and Dwight Macdonald, "modern American critical journalists whose colloquial verve gave me support for writing about serious art in a conversational manner, and about unserious art as if it counted." And in a splendid essay on Gore Vidal (on Vidal the Hollywood screenwriter: "Vidal rarely set out to write rubbish; he just got mixed up with a few pretentious projects that went sour"), James asserts that Vidal is "the natural heir of Edmund Wilson" because both men set out to "rescue literature from its institutionalized interpreters." The lifeboats in that rescue effort are essayists such as Wilson, Vidal and James himself.

No university English department ever offered the appropriate soil for the growth of literary sensibility. Teaching literature along the lines of either humanism or revolution has nothing to do with such a deficiency. The prime catalyst behind a literary mind is the synthesizing "colloquial verve" of another literary mind. As James mischievously puts it: "as the armies of folie raisonnante closed in on the universities, Grub Street, I felt, was the last ditch."

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