Saturday, 24 March 2007

The meaning of recognition by Clive James

The meaning of recognition by Clive James

Clive James writes articles and essays, and earns money. He tours the country giving talks about life and promoting his books (as I attended in Brighton last October), and earns money. Then he publishes his essays in a book, and earns money again. What a lucky man!

But what a brilliant, erudite, judicious and witty man too! It is positively frightening to read his essay ‘No way, Madame Bovary’, in which he does a critique of a) Madame Bovary by Flaubert, b) a new translation into English by Margaret Mauldon and c) a the introduction to that translation by Professor Malcolm Bowie. What is frightening is the detailed and precise knowledge James has of the original French. So he is able to discourse on Flaubert’s style and intentions and to nit-pick errors in the nuances of the English translation and to stab the Professor in the back for being too much of a careless cheerleader.

Clive James is a show-off. But you cannot deny that he has a lot in his brain to show off. He has evidently learnt French and Italian to a high literary degree (both modern and medieval). He claims to have learnt Russian and Japanese as well, and I would not like to challenge him on those claims. He has a fantastic memory (or a skilled method for retrieving information). He has read virtually everything and the range of subjects he covers would outshine a whole season of Mastermind contestants. He churns out aphorisms and conundrums in every sentence, if he is so inclined. He perceptions are laser-like and convincing, whether he is writing on Formula One, Australian poetry, British Politics, Terrorism or whatever.

He shows off in such an endearing way, such as his boast about how many books he has in his private library: “My apartment is on the sixth floor of a warehouse conversion in the Butler’s Wharf area south of Tower Bridge, and I have already been advised by the mortgage surveyors that if I add many more books to my library the day will inevitably come when the beams under the floor will give way and my whole apartment will collapse into the apartment below, which will in turn collapse into the apartment below that, and so on until about fifty people are wedged into the underground car-park with plenty to read while they await rescue.”

I am so far behind the wide-ranging Mr James that there are several chapters about which I know nothing of the subject matter, so reading his review of that novelist/ poet/playwright/artist/film would be futile. So I skipped several chapters. Perhaps I will come back and read them in a decade when I have mugged up of the subjects.

There is a Borges-like vertiginous feeling that comes over me here. The layers of words are overwhelming, suggesting a metaphorical collapse of meaning and purpose akin to Clive James’ book-laden apartment. He had written an essay about a someone else’s review of a film, which is based on a book, and here I am writing my own review of his review, and inviting you to send your opinions and responses back. Amusing and glittering though it is, I find myself in a self-referential artistic world much of the time with James. But there are still examples of very direct contact with the real world, such as his searing essay on the Bali bombing. James’ only weapon is words, but maybe those are ultimately the most powerful weapons.

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