Modern Masters

Frank Kermode

  • Where I fell to Earth: A Life in Four Places by Peter Conrad
    Chatto, 252 pp, £16.00, February 1990, ISBN 0 7011 3490 9
  • May Week was in June by Clive James
    Cape, 249 pp, £12.95, June 1990, ISBN 0 224 02787 5

The qualities these Australian writers have in common, apart from their nationality, are exotic industry, autobiographical fluency and, to adapt what somebody once said about Ford Madox Ford, a desire to write well so strong that it shows.

According to his own listing, this is James’s 24th book. So at 50, despite his relatively inauspicious start and his obvious determination to obey the master’s injunction and live all he can, he is only about seventeen titles behind his namesake at that age. And Henry, after all, was never president of the Footlights, avoided the distraction of television, and, if he lived all he could, did so in what seems to have been an altogether more sedentary fashion. Conrad, who lists only nine previous books, is nevertheless a long way ahead of his somewhat late-developing Polish namesake, but then going to sea is among the few aids to introspection he seems not yet to have tried.

Manifestly well though this James and this Conrad write, they do so in entirely different styles. James, in an equivocal and not necessarily disparaging sense of the word, is a conceited writer, the Cleveland of modern English prose, every line propelled by a firecracker witticism. His memories emerge as an endless series of pointes, some telegraphed and some not, some making you giggle, some not. The language is always fizzing, sometimes spontaneously, at worst like tonic water shaken to restore a semblance of lost vitality.

Peter Conrad goes in more for weight. You could say of him what the earlier James extravagantly observed of the earlier Conrad, that he offers a prolonged hovering flight of the subjective over the outstretched ground of the case exposed. In other words, he describes things and places and his own meditations well, but often a little too thoroughly; he moralises his landscapes and his life so patiently that his book, in spite of some unexpectedly fizzy passages, seems very long, far longer than James’s, which is actually much the same length. It is as if one were being tempted to make a vulgar suggestion: although the proposition – that this is an exceptionally odd and interesting fellow – is sustainable, the proof might have been expressed more economically. He is one of those who is always insisting on his weight, as James inveterately insists on his wit.

May Week was in June, the third of James’s ‘Unreliable Memoirs’, has on its front cover a photograph in which the author, a somewhat weathered undergraduate, has the look of a confident college footballer, and on the back a more recent portrait in which he has the air of a harassed tycoon. In the pages between there is an account of his Cambridge years. Cambridge was where, in the honoured Footlights tradition, he did little work, allowing himself to be seduced by its other delights, especially movies, drink and girls. And there were girls at least equally absorbing in Florence. ‘One of them, called Adriana, was so witty she literally took away your breath: you were scared to respire in case you missed a wisecrack.’ This sentence, in describing a temporary apnoea, validates the adverb ‘literally’, without actually specifying the wit that caused the fit. Still, here was a kindred spirit or double, and in a city that was, to James, an even livelier university than Cambridge, though he needed to be in Cambridge much of the time in order to write revue sketches and ‘develop his propensities’.

Many of the young people he met at Cambridge are now almost as famous as he is. Some, like Eric Idle, are here called by their real names, and the identity of some who aren’t – the flamboyant ‘Romaine Rand’, for instance – can often be confidently conjectured. Senior members of the college and university are all represented as mad or gay or otherwise absurd. There can be no general objection to this kind of fun, but occasionally people one knew or knows are somewhat peremptorily caricatured. Meredith Dewey, for instance, a clergyman not well known to fame, makes a fairly prolonged and risible appearance as a risible clergyman reclining in a room full of risible stones: but Dewey, though perhaps he might have struck an undergraduate as slightly odd, was an interesting man, among other things a perfectly sane and bold gardener. Graham Hough, who won his pupil’s respect while trying to supervise a non-existent graduate thesis, is bafflingly and offensively described as ‘saintly’. But James wasn’t much interested in dons except in so far as they were legitimate subjects for caricature.

Only once does the comic mask slip right off, and that is when he is attacking Leavis, whose over-the-top assaults on colleagues and other critics James describes as ‘clerical treason in its pure form, dogma distilled into a pathogen’. The doctor’s conduct was finally self-destructive: ‘If he had been asked to give his opinion of Hitler or Himmler, he would not have been able to summon up any terms of disapprobation that he had not already lavished on Houghaway or Hollohough’ (Leavis, according to James’s not altogether reliable report, had satirically treated his colleagues Hough and Holloway, two exceedingly different and mutually rather unsympathetic figures, as indistinguishable from each other, Tweedledum and Tweedledee).

A lot of the book is about being a bit of a rake in London and Italy, getting into ridiculous films, reading great books with remarkable rapidity and undonnish acumen, and absorbing art. ‘In the Arena chapel I stood stunned as the drama unfolded all around me ... Oscar Wilde had once stood in the same chapel. He, too, had been impressed.’ Still, Cambridge continued to have its points.

At the Mill I stood communicating with the ducks. The river was already closed down for the winter. Raindrops prickled on the dark water just above where it filled with cold light as it curved out to leap through the sluice. It was the kind of thing Leonardo da Vinci liked to draw. Leonardo hadn’t been here, of course, but nearly everybody else had. Not only Rupert Brooke had been down at the Mill. Rutherford had sat here on the wall and watched the atoms pursue their unbroken curve. John Maynard Keynes had looked into that clear declension and seen the economic consequences of the Versailles Treaty. Wittgenstein had seen the silence of what cannot be expressed, Alan Turing the soul of a machine. Apparently there was now some crippled young man at King’s who was working on a unified field theory that would explain absolutely everything. Surrounded by these exemplars of mental effort, I couldn’t even be sure that I would do the work I had cut out for myself.

The only truly baffling moments in James are these, when you don’t know how the Perelmanic overtones are meant to be taken. He is never, or hardly ever, wholly serious, but you have to have sketched a fairly grand self-image to feel that self-piss-taking on this scale is justified.

It was while reviewing films for the Cambridge Review, he tells us, that James ‘learned how to make the writing sound not like writing’. This is an unreliable remark. The book ends with an account of Clive getting married to somebody with a different name from the woman he actually got married to, she looking stunning at the ceremony, and he, of course, stunned. A sort of appendix explains some of the respects in which the book is unreliable. It’s a funny book – if not what James, with his habit of self-indulgent self-irony, would call a million laughs, then several dozen giggles.

Volume Two of James’s autobiographical trilogy was called Falling towards England, and here we have Peter Conrad falling more globally to earth, where he finds, as his subtitle suggests, ‘A Life in Four Places’. These are Oxford, London, Lisbon and New York. Unlike James, Conrad is a don, but that doesn’t mean he thinks any better of dons than his compatriot. Christ Church gave him an enormous set of rooms to be alone in; what he does in return is to tease it, and spend as much time as possible in the other three places.

His book hasn’t got the free rhapsodic form of James’s; as James I said a little grudgingly of Conrad I, Conrad II is ‘a votary of the way to do a thing that shall make it undergo the most doing’. So he writes neither a consecutive account of his experiences nor yet four pieces about his four places. Instead he uses them as verticals around which he weaves the horizontals of his meditation: in other words, you are taken round and round and round these cities as if weaving a basket.

The first page gives a foretaste of what the trip will be like, beginning with a resounding proposition it might seem too early to argue about – ‘Every morning starts with a moment of truth, an instant of terror’ – and ending, a little too splendidly: ‘Above, in the colourless oblong which is my allotment of sky, a plane screams and snarls through fuzzy limbo.’ That’s London. The other places come in with equally appropriate figurations – New York police cars ‘sketching loopy, alarming parabolas of visible sound’, and so forth. The method is bold, and it often succeeds, even when Conrad is most evidently enjoying his solitary meditations. Whereas James’s book is full of close friends and lovers, Conrad almost always represents himself as a lone observer, looking, asking, prying, collecting, then going home, wherever that may be, to hone his prose.

On a trip around the United States some boring fellow travellers – a Welsh conceptual artist on a fellowship, with his tiresome wife – boringly fill a bottle with Pacific water to remind them for ever that in the course of their ‘trip of a lifetime’ they gazed on that ocean. On the way back Conrad furtively empties their bottle and pisses into it, topping it up ‘from a rusty tap’. ‘I often imagine that bottle in pride of place on a Welsh dresser. It is only very recently that I have begun to feel guilty about the substitution.’ Here we are no doubt to admire a Rousseau-like confessional candour, and the guilt is purged by the telling. James, as it happens, supplies an appropriate epigraph from the Confessions: ‘I realise very well that the reader has no great need to know all this; but I need to tell him.’

Sometimes generous, often patronising, occasionally candid, deliberately odd, he is equally himself and at home in the sordid splendours of New York, in his secluded London pad, in the drolly exotic society of his Portuguese friends. Portugal, it seems, is the place where he would have liked to fall to earth. But New York best satisfies his taste for the bizarre. The weird physical shape of a fanatical Village body-builder prompts him to remark that this ‘was a strange spectacle to one who, like me, regarded the body as at best a convenience (the thing the head is attached to, which keeps it off the ground), at worst an inconvenience ...’

Without having attended the ceremony he gives a well-written account of his Portuguese friends slaughtering a pig (‘it had no time to learn acquiescence, or console itself by rapidly inventing religion’). He will spend pages describing his knick-knacks, or a tortoise he kept in Oxford, or a savage pet rabbit (strangely, in this allusive book, no allusion here to Women in Love). He writes a jocund essay on fictional houses before describing the fictive houses of the New York homeless. The book ends with an epiphany, a garden experience ‘of non-existence, and of pure happiness’. If books can be compared to houses, this is one for a single occupant who likes often to be elsewhere. It doesn’t resemble the humble house in Tasmania where the author spent his childhood, and it is certainly unlike the House. It contains many freakishly chosen objects. It accommodates a man beadily interested in his own idiosyncrasies and in the act of writing about them. One admires it as one is meant to, rather coldly.

These writers fell to earth at the Antipodes; and they remain antipodean in respect of each other, one seeking affection by interfering with our respiration, the other by a candid and solitary self-regard represented as something to be respected for its indifference to opinion. Pursuing such ends, each demonstrates conclusively that he can write – even if it shows.