Clive James, the Australian man of letters who became a Londoner, a prodigious collector and reader of books, a memoirist, poet, translator, critic, and broadcaster, a grand literary mind that dignifies “dilettante,” a writer J. M. Coetze describes as one who “offers a crash course in civilization–and the assault on civilization,” has recently suffered leukemia and, quite possibly dying in Cambridge in his house filled with books, has steadfastly and courageously just written Latest Readings, a slender and small Yale University Press volume of some thirty brief essays turning on his rereading some of the books most dear to him as well as exploring new discoveries.
Latest Readings is a magnificent quick retrospective of the twentieth century haunted by the Grand Theme: “The assault on civilization.” Reviewing it you sometimes throw up your hands and simply let James speak of James, he is so wonderful in his the-end-of-it-all-for-James Brevity Beautiful. Here he is on the great novelist Olivia Manning, great because she is prevailing as a new time in its backlooking (and who better to look back than the Great Reader James) separates the visionaries from the little (often clever) minds (e.g., Durrell) who will disappear from The Record of those times. Discussing Manning’s novels set in the time of the arrival of World War Two, James writes:
...the two sequences by Olivia Manning, the Balkan Trilogy and the Levant Trilogy. Back in 1987 there was a BBC television adaptation, called Fortunes of War, that squeezed the two sequences into a single series, and was so good I somehow decided afterward that I knew all I needed to know about the books it was based on. The portrayal of the two lead characters was perfect: Kenneth Branagh as Guy Pringle looked just the type to be so enslaved by his haversack full of books that he would always get the actual world wrong, and Emma Thompson as his wife, Harriet, embodied the unused qualities of sensitivity and practicality that continually underlined just why she shouldn’t be married to Guy. But married they were: he a case of useless intelligence, she a case of wasted love. How could the actual novels be as vivid as that?
Well, lately I have read (the Balkan Trilogy and the Levant Trilogy), and they are as vivid as that: even more so. …Most remarkable of all (Manning’s) qualities as a writer…is her historical grasp. …Few women, and indeed few men, had written fiction that took in the sweep of modern history. Olivia Manning did it. This, we feel, is how it must have been: the troubled territories with which we are now doomed to cope are all there in her clear river of prose. Recognizing the world that Harriet puts together in her mind as she persuades the hopelessly optimistic Guy, in one collapsing country after another, to get out while there is time, the reader can draw solace. Doom feels a little better.
…in Manning’s case it was a perception of how Europe’s mission civilisatrice in the countries to the south and east was bound to fail, partly because Europe itself was less civilized than it liked to believe.
James, remembering twentieth century direness powerfully and brilliantly as he fails in Cambridge amidst his beloved books, writes briefly and with massive profundity about other novelists and memoirists who showed a historical grasp of the “assault on civilization” in the Gathering Storm and then the storm itself in those desperate twentieth century years. I have not encountered, and find hard to believe that I might, anyone close to James as professor of Coetze’s “crash course” on how novels and memoirs were one way–a most vivid and memorable one–to capture the demise of the old world and the coming of a brave new one. He analyzes all of Manning’s peers just as brilliantly as he explicates her grand dramas: Joseph Conrad (Lord Jim, Under Western Eyes, Nostromo, Victory); Anthony Powell (A Dance to the Music of Time); Ford Maddox Ford (Tietjens tetralogy); Evelyn Waugh (Sword of Honor trilogy); and Paul Scott (Raj Quartet).
James gives us much more in Latest Readings. There are amusing and diverting diamond-like little pieces on Hollywood, Patrick O’Brian (Master and Commander), Hemingway young and old, Shakespeare and Samuel Johnson, Albert Speer in Spandau, and American Power. Here’s a delicious sample. Writing about David Halberstam’s The Powers That Be, Watergate, Katherine Graham and The Washington Post, James gives us this unforgettable observation:
Kay Graham and Adlai Stevenson used to see a lot of each other. Their conversation must have been fascinating. Unfortunately, there are no tape recordings of it. We only have tapes of Nixon.
You don’t want to miss this book.