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.

I am not saying that Clive James is all bad. My first instinct was to treat him with the geniality he normally reserves for his subjects. Geniality and ordinariness have always been his great gift to British television: chat, bland and expert, from the man who was ordinary-looking like Parkinson and just as good a listener. It would be churlish to deny that at its best the interview programme was enthralling because it promoted good talk, talk that was intelligent and not sycophantic. Part of the trouble for Australia is that James’s fame came to us late, as a slightly faded import – rather like some fine merino wool which had been turned into a daggy British jumper. He once described Australian television, no doubt accurately enough, as the worst in the world, and a few years ago he cut his cloth to produce in Australia a programme that tallied with his own estimate: it worked, of course. (As I write he is here again as a travelling celebrity, doing his bit for the Bicentenary ballyhoo.) The Australian Clive James show exhibited to us the familiar landmarks of our Australian heritage (ex-Prime Minister Gough Whitlam, Les Murray himself) defamiliarised by his own innocent view of the Australian subject or perhaps simply by the deficiencies of his Australian team of researchers. Whatever the case, the Australian-made James show was easy to resist because it made such a determined effort to be easy to take. All that affability and negative capability become merely innocuous when the supposed innocent is at home and looking like an innocent abroad. This was not the man who reduced Hepburn to ice when he asked about Spencer Tracy, or had Polanski fidgeting with his soufflé over the jeunes filles en fleurs. But I suppose it’s true that the London interviewer begot the Australian chat-show host.

The seeds of non-being were always there. Stardom and grossness are interchangeable faces. Shakespeare’s Hal said to that gross man Falstaff that the grave gaped three times wider for him, and it gapes three times wider for the star journalist who in the end is just a journalist. The more he clings to his success, the more he will be forced to revert to the mediocrity and ordinariness he once did so much to eliminate or transmute. The lust for ultimate success may be the final triumph of vulgarity over distinction, a fitting end for the faint of heart. Walter Benjamin spoke of the vulgarisation of art in the age of mechanical reproduction: maybe the same fate waits inevitably on the man or woman of talent who consigns personality or persona to a small bright box. Clive James provided a clue to his own enduring charm when he said of Malcolm Muggeridge that he was like an old boiler which had come to be loved, not because it could heat the water, but because it went boink boink in the night.

It was not ever thus. Clive James the TV star was preceded by Clive James the TV critic, a wonderfully waspish chap who played the game of British journalism with a contemptuous maverick’s skill. His Observer column was consistently literate and funny, executing its maypole dance around the most fundamental and the most despised of popular media, at once flattering the taste of his audience and reinforcing its feeling of superiority. There is no need to be overly solemn about this: a metropolitan culture produces pop forms of highbrowism as a cat produces fleas, and any decent column must be readable in itself, quite apart from whether the reader has seen the show. James’s body of television criticism, written between 1972 and 1982, seems to me one of the finest overviews of any form of entertainment to have been written in modern times, comparable in its passion and panache to Kenneth Tynan’s theatre reviews in the post-war period, but without the golly-goshery that mars Tynan’s work. It seems likely to last as long as anyone cares about words rising to the challenge of such images. One of the central tenets of James’s TV criticism, which was always the work of an impassioned enthusiast, not of a mere jokester, was that the best television is produced by people who have been educated by something other than television. The belief underlies his veneration for the great ‘talking heads’ like Lord Clark and Robert Hughes, as in a more general way it underlies his love affair with British TV ‘culture’ when it is not merely mausoleum-like. Clearly James’s feeling for British culture is that of the outsider who can dissimulate an insider’s manner, but who will never entirely lose the bedazzlement of the kid from Kogarah.

I remember Robert Hughes saying: ‘Clive expected so much more from England than I did. He expected it to transform him morally – and indeed it did.’ The remark was made without bitchiness or any attempt at wit. Clive James came to Britain in his early twenties and spent some time pursuing a doctorate at Cambridge on Shelley and Plato. When Germaine Greer appeared with him on the Australian version of Parkinson, she said in that professionally challenging manner of hers: ‘What I want to know, Clive, is do you ever think any more about Plato and Shelley?’

No doubt he does. A large part of the man’s glory is to marshal his high culture in the service of the belly laugh. His recent verse foray in the pages of the London Review, ‘Bring me the sweat of Gabriela Sabatini’, is a sparkling enough example, though nothing beats ‘The book of my enemy has been remaindered’, the opening piece in his Poems 1958-85:

The book of my enemy has been remaindered
                          and I am pleased.
In vast quantities it has been remaindered.
Like a van-load of counterfeit that has been seized
And sits in piles in a police warehouse,
My enemy’s much-praised effort sits in piles
In the kind of bookshop where remaindering occurs.

Of course there are sage heads (Peter Porter’s, for instance) who will defend James’s serious verse-making as poised and Larkinesque.

He is also (when he confines himself to what he knows) a fine literary critic. As a critic, James not only has his charm, he burns very bright. Admittedly, he can sometimes look too much like a moth confronting the flame of his own verbal self-indulgence. Sometimes he recalls A. Alvarez’s crack that Kenneth Tynan, with his endless name-dropping glitter, was much brighter than Edmund Wilson. Sometimes, though, he achieves that level tone which is unshowy (and, yes, metropolitan). Not unlike Edmund Wilson himself.

My preamble has been so long because I want to indicate that James is a figure of some complexity, is not easily caught in the net of how we rate any one of his cultural products. His new novel The Remake is about the two faces of some charming and repellent Australian deity whom we can only intuit in all his alienating vulgarity and intimidating culture from the fact that the Unknowable Author (the idiot semiologists would have us believe he was dead) has chosen to split himself up into Joel Court, the very intelligent Cambridge astronomer who becomes a TV expert but doesn’t hit on the Discovery, and Chance Jerolan, novelist, film producer and millionaire. The Remake, which is in the most blatant (and therefore incredible) way an investigation of alternative selves, is at the same time an exercise in star-fucking with the self as subject. James’s previous novel Brilliant Creatures was about the literary world, but The Remake is an animated dialogue of self and soul in which the academic loser Joel (a part we could imagine played by Clive James at his most homely) is kicked out of home by his attractive American wife so that he has to seek refuge with the success story, Chance, who resembles Clive James the star, combining (as if that were possible) the wit of the literary chap with the indefinable magnetism of the fellow who is a household name. And he’s also a bit like Clive James as played by one of his more glittering Australian contemporaries, perhaps by someone like Robert Hughes. And just to complete the trinity, there is the recurrent Figure of someone called Clive James who goes jogging around parks and is a total no-hoper. This Hitchcockian apparition is dubbed the Widmerpool of Woolloomoolloo.

Do I make The Remake sound more wanking than it is? It would be hard. The novella has a throwaway charm while almost completely lacking substance. It testifies to Clive James’s wit and to his capacity to lavish it on the ephemera of self-reflection. Still, the action, although remorselessly light, is amusing enough. While staying with his superstar mate, Joel Court becomes enamoured of the mate’s bisexual girlfriend, who is winningly called the Mole. The clearest indication of the humour is that she is named Antonia Blunt – it all works like a TV joke with as much chance of durability as yesterday’s newspaper. The Mole is a beautiful, dim-witted both-ways girl. Court’s response to her charms adds a touch of sadness to James’s narrative, just the kind of lacrimae rerum that can be seen in his eyes as he listens considerately to yet another vapid starlet on the box. Occasionally the jokes are downright wet and often they are corny. The language of the novel is by turns elegant and hackneyed, though it’s always clearly the invention of a practised and dashing wordsmith. Occasionally, too, the ghosts of an older literary calling float through the novel like a set of spectral teases. It’s a bit like seeing Richard Burton use the technique he learnt for Henry V to play some Alistair Maclean paratrooper.

Intermittently, the nonsense assumes a human shape and pressure, the dialogue, when it is not too blatantly James versus James, sounds like something a human being could speak, and the minor characters are vicious in a pleasing way. If Clive James is your vice, then The Remake is not such a bad poison to choose.

The same cannot be said of Howard Jacobson. By unhappy chance, he, too, was commissioned by the Times Literary Supplement, at the same time as James: he was to survey Australian fiction, and the performance makes James on Australian poetry look like Dr Johnson on a good day. Jacobson’s preferences tend to the middlebrow and his tone hovers between spite and whimsy. Certain moments in Helen Garner, one of Australia’s finer prose writers, are described as ‘Mills and Boon for Bohemians’. ‘Put two women together in a Helen Garner story and their eyes will meet in a confederacy of loathing the minute a man opens his mouth.’ Garner may have her mannerisms and her moments of excessive tender-mindedness, but intersexual loathing is not one of her things. A critic who gets his elementary thematics so wrong is not likely to cotton on to much in the way of formal distinction. Gerald Murnane writes a prose shaped by Proust’s and his Landscape with Landscape is a modulated suite of stories. For Jacobson, it is ‘six fetid and obsessive parts woven into one fetid and obsessive whole’. But any reader should get the picture: Jacobson is the kind of critic who has recourse to the ‘loathsome’ and the ‘fetid’ in surveying other people’s fiction, with Arnoldian tushery and world-weary languor to trick himself out.

Jacobson seems to think he is a very stylish example of the kind of Englishman Australians love to hate. He may well be right, but in his new book, In the Land of Oz, he is the kind of writer most readers will be indifferent to. James went from Sydney to Cambridge, while Jacobson did the reverse journey and seems to have been living off the experience ever since. His previous books (apart from a volume of essays which he wrote on Shakespeare with Wilbur Sanders) have been jocose fiction of the Bradbury-Lodge variety. In the most recent, Redback (named after the venomous Australian spider), Jacobson indulges in pen portraits of the various individuals who helped or hindered his academic career during the period when Australia enjoyed full employment and could afford to further the fortunes of bright young men from Manchester. He was ill-advised to write a travel book. In the Land of Oz, for much of its numbingly excessive length, finds the self-obsessed Mr Jacobson in north-western and central Australia – in the great Australian desert which has haunted the imagination of the country’s writers and which Jacobson touches on only by some principle of metaphoric equivalence. It may be a poor joke to say that this is an arid book, but for much of the time our author has precious little to offer but the banalities he endured. It would be ungracious to doubt that Jacobson can really have met so many aborigine-hating idiots in his travels, so many gullible vulgarians, so many moronic bloody Australians. The wonder is not that such people should exist, but that a novelist should have nothing else to focus on and so little of interest to say about the objects of his disgust.

In the Land of Oz records the travels of a man who is not especially good at looking or listening. Jacobson isn’t bad at the ventriloquies of Australian speech, but he hasn’t the skill to get very many Australians to say much to him of interest. Perhaps they had little to say, but with such an interlocutor they can hardly be blamed for their guarded platitudes. Moreover, it is irritating to sit at one’s desk, fat on paté and pasta, and read some English hooray saying that the only take-away food in Australia is tinned beetroot sandwiches, just as it is irritating to read a man with such an overblown prose style talk about the Australian vice of overemphasis. Jacobson has the habit of sententious generalisation without the requisite concentration of mind. Now and then In the Land of Oz leaps into life when he and his wife Ros hit a city he likes, or a valley or a seaside town; he shows some sympathy with the lushness of tropical Queensland.

After groaning through In the Land of Oz I picked up Clive James’s Unreliable Memoirs. Here was no overwriting, no denying life’s sweat and dirt in the name of sophistication. Just a very funny book about the horrors and glories of an Australian childhood presented with such stillness and sobriety that it sounds like heaven. It would be nonsense to say that this is the real voice of Australia, but it is certainly the voice of a real writer. What needs to be borne in mind is that James is not a significant literary figure for any Australian audience, whatever significance he may have as a personality who sometimes writes. Clive James, ambiguously, and Howard Jacobson, execrably, belong to a British pantheon that is as remote from Australian consideration as the moon. They’re a latterday Carry on comedy which has seen fit to embrace a fictive construct that insinuates its identity with that old colony Orstralia. They belong to the British sense of the carnivalesque – a cartoon perspective which desperately needs an Australian element for purposes of mythology.