Carnival Time

Peter Craven

  • The Remake by Clive James
    Cape, 223 pp, £10.95, October 1987, ISBN 0 224 02515 5
  • In the Land of Oz by Howard Jacobson
    Hamish Hamilton, 380 pp, £12.95, September 1987, ISBN 0 241 12110 8

The more Britain affects a déclassé manner while Thatcherism increases the gulf between rich and poor, the more it comes, superficially, to resemble Australia. Linguists speculate that the Australian accent at its purest and broadest is simply an intact version of late 18th and early 19th-century London English. Who knows? I don’t want to overdetermine to the point of absurdity, but it seems fairly obvious that what Clive James represents is a kind of stylised distortion of what Britain sees itself as: a kind of self-possessed jokey coarseness, very smart and very educated, a sort of sharp-talking deified moron – who then has to be defined (surprise, surprise) as Australian.

He is a difficult character to get into perspective. Most Australians who might be in a position to appreciate Clive James’s gifts as a journalist and humourist get put off – first by the mediocrity of his television appearances here (they’re especially mediocre just for us), and then by the way the literary journalism overreaches itself when it touches home base. It’s a pity that James, who can talk with such trenchancy and sense about everything from Mandelstam to Martin Amis, makes such a fool of himself (and of us) when he touches on the literature of his birthplace. His recent overview of Australian poetry in the Times Literary Supplement shows him at his worst – uninformed and wallowing. Even when he affects to assert the independence of Australian writing from the British literary world his imagery gives him away: ‘Now that Australia has acquired, if it has, a literature of its own as a going concern, the lingering desire to have the mother country sniff its nappy must perforce be given up.’ The trouble with this is not its vulgarity (so droll and so Australian) but that it demeans its subject. The tacit image of the incontinent infant works to characterise nobody but Clive James.

It would matter less if he were less ignorant. He describes Alan Wearne’s verse novel The Nightmarkets as ‘so solidly or anyway heavily involved in the tradition of Pound, Williams, Zukofsky and the yellow pages of the telephone directory’. Here, in neat reversal, only the joke is right. Wearne does have a telephone directory’s worth of circumstantial detail, but he is not remotely in the tradition of Pound, Williams etc. (Let alone MacDiarmid, who also gets into the act.) I don’t mind Clive James not being able to come at Wearne – it is a position he shares with a number of overseas critics, who find Wearne’s vernacular and his erratic rhythms difficult to negotiate. My objection is to the amateurism posing as expertise. James knows that Scripsi, the literary journal which backed Wearne (and which I happen to co-edit), has an interest in the writers he mentions, if only because Ian Hamilton said so in the pages of the London Review. He forgets (he is not very careful about these matters) that it was in the letters pages of this journal that The Night-markets was described as having nothing ‘remotely Poundian or Objectivist’ about it. Of course he may say that this is simply a matter of opinion but he should bear in mind that the extensive and expert Australian reviews of The Nightmarkets, hyperconscious one might think of the context in which such things are valued, saw no such parallels, no such influences. Everyone saw them in Laurie Duggan’s verse documentary The Ash Range, but Clive James is not sufficiently interested in Australian writing to notice the other notable long poem in its recent history.

He has more sympathy and less nonsense to offer on the subject of Les Murray, though again he cannot resist a facile categorisation whereby Murray is ‘prelapsarian’ and in touch with an ‘outside world’ which vindicates his nationalism – a quality which is apparently denied to younger poets like Wearne. It’s also worth pointing out that Les Murray is not only sui generis, so that any outside world, even the legitimate one of literary influences, does look a little irrelevant, but he is also one of the most original poets anywhere. To mention the Martians as though they had paved the way for Murray is ridiculous: in this context Craig Raine looks like Cowley alongside Milton.

The full text of this book review is only available to subscribers of the London Review of Books.

You are not logged in