Recyclings

Christopher Ricks

  • From the Land of Shadows by Clive James
    Cape, 294 pp, £7.95, April 1982, ISBN 0 224 02021 8

‘He is stuck on himself. It isn’t all that easy to see why. He is, after all, only a literary journalist.’ Clive James hardily dispatches someone who is a television celebrity as well as a journalist, Malcolm Muggeridge.

These book reviews, some of which appeared in this journal, don’t amount to much, and there would be no point in lavishing a corrugated attention upon them as if they constituted a portent. Sprightly and portly, they muster the famous willed vivacity, but the adroitness of book-making doesn’t make them a book. They are sometimes striking, pre-emptively. ‘Reviewers often scold writers for publishing collections of pieces. Usually the reviewer is peeved because nobody has asked him to do the same.’ So anyone who has reprinted his reviews is in no position to deprecate our reprinter, and the same is true of anyone who hasn’t, since he is envious. But reviewers exist who think that even good reviews are mostly ephemeral, honourably so.

Ephemeral carelessness matters more when it is rendered durable. It was no less trivially wrong of Mr James to say in a review that for Auden ‘the end came at Christ Church College, Oxford’ than it is to re-say it now in a book, but a book of this kind doesn’t have haste to plead. A popular reviewer has to wear his learning lightly, as Mr James naturally does, but a book ought the more to care about distinguishing such lightness from airiness:

  Edward Young’s Night Thoughts were hugely successful at the time but are forgotten now, although occasionally there is some academic attempt to revive interest in them by placing them in their context, etc. The selection here provided is enough to show that Young was as flat as he was perfect.

  Some go to church, proud humbly to repent

  And come back much more guilty than they went.

Possibly Clive James believes that Night Thoughts is a satire in heroic couplets and that it figures in the anthology of satirical verse he is reviewing. Perhaps he even has a deep psychic refusal to confront the title of the poem he was inadvertently quoting, as given in Grigson’s anthology: Love of Fame, The Universal Passion. Certainly his paragraph shows the hard-pressed reviewer’s hand, there in the calmatively knowledgeable (and wrong) excursus into literary history, as well as in the coasting swipe at academics. No doubt Mr James knows Prussian Nights better than Night Thoughts. ‘There are aspects of this poem which are clear only in the light of its author’s prose. When reviewers miss those aspects, you start to wonder if they are as familiar with Solzhenitsyn as they make out.’

What passed, or more than passed, as the weeks went by, shows a fatigued predictability once it is booked. You start to notice, for instance, how difficult it is for Mr James really to get going in a review except by going on about reviews. He draws attention to the folly of those who have reviewed him adversely (though without actually drawing attention to where and when they said what he doesn’t actually quote). ‘In a glossy magazine one of my books of television criticism was accused of frivolity because it had nothing more to offer than common sense.’ Ah. He practises the usual self-compiler’s device of using his introduction to review his book: ‘I hope that the truly serious reader will be able to detect, in even the least grave of the following essays, a certain disinclination to make cheap jokes, or at any rate a determination to make only expensive ones if I can.’ He finds that the reviews of two biographies (of Auden and of Day-Lewis) ‘have been nearly as interesting as the books themselves’.

He misses no tricks, though it seems to me that he wins fewer than he used to. He strives: ‘To be witty does not necessarily mean to crack wise.’ He insists on being burly, reassuringly low-faluting: ‘everybody’s favourite Dante pin-ups’, or ‘It is hard to see why V. Nazarenko should have got his highly orthodox knickers in such a twist.’ He tilts at dons, with all the rounded audacity that names no names: ‘coldly able young academics who behave as if the arts, like their salaries, came out of a machine’.

He declines to argue, aware that argument is relatively unimportant in book-reviews, not only because it takes space but also because most of your readers haven’t read the book in question. Yet it has been bad for Mr James, this dispensation from arguing. Very argumentative, he can’t resist making assertions which purport to be compacted arguments. So his counter-argument to those who think it’s a mistake to publish a collection of pieces is this: ‘Some writers work best in short forms.’ Doubtless, but that wouldn’t necessarily mean that the short form which is an article or a book-review deserved to be reprinted, unchanged, in a book. Whenever Mr James is moved to crush an argument into a one-sided insistence, he bestows upon his readers a bold blinkered stare. ‘People don’t get their morality from their reading matter: they bring their morality to it.’ ‘Since Greene’s ideals are not of this earth, he is free to see realities.’

Something happens to his recommendation to be terse when it surfaces over and over again. Even if every bit and piece in this book were terse, that wouldn’t be bound to make a terse book. ‘If he had met her earlier he might have lasted longer.’ ‘If he had been less clever he might have lasted longer.’ If he had been even more clever, he might not have let both of those remarks last this long.

‘A successful artist, unlike a critic or an academic, is a celebrity.’ Even if this were true, it would not follow that a celebrity is an artist, and it is not clear why, if you are a celebrity, you are exonerated from the obligation to attempt (by editing and by continence) the terseness you repeatedly recommend. It isn’t as if he is really choosing to say things twice: he is simply re-faggotting his notions.

He [Zinoviev] is perhaps even more serious than Solzhenitsyn, who wants the Soviet Union discredited, and Sakharov, who still so generously thinks, after having his life made misery by official persecution of the most disgusting brand, that technological necessity might bring liberal reforms.

Solzhenitsyn, understandably, wants the Soviet government discredited entirely. Sakharov, even though his own scientific career has by now been ruined by the Soviet authorities, persists in thinking that the Soviet Union might be forced to rejoin the civilised world if it could be persuaded that only a measure of liberalisation will enable it to keep up as a first-rate productive country.

This is the strain in Sakharov’s thought which Solzhenitsyn has always objected to. Solzhenitsyn wants the regime discredited, not reformed. But there is at least a chance that Sakharov is being tactically sound when he goes on suggesting, in the teeth of his own latterday intransigence, that the material disparities between the Soviet Union and the West could be decisive in resolving the moral ones.

Sakharov, who has been through all the same degrading experiences as Zinoviev, has never lost sight of the possibility that the Soviet leaders, while deaf to moral arguments, might well be obliged to allow a measure of liberalism when it becomes clear that without it the Soviet Union will no longer be able to maintain itself as a first-rate power.

Mr James deprecates Bernard Levin: ‘The things he says are mainly his, not somebody else’s. But he says them over and over.’

If this were truly a book, and its author truly terse, there would not be these recyclings within recyclings. But Mr James, though he writes with pride and with punch and in short sentences, is not terse. He is repetitious not only from one review to another, but within a short review. ‘In the last analysis even England is a foreign country.’ ‘You feel that he is seeing it as a foreign country.’ ‘Daintry, like his creator, seems to be experiencing England as a strange land.’ ‘An England treated not as home but as a far country’. Such is The Human Factor.