I have to confess that when I picked up Latest Readings, I knew very little about Clive James’ life and work. And, indeed, when I put it down I wasn’t much the wiser – but I knew a lot more about his reading tastes. That was why I bought the book: I will run towards books about reading, and was not disappointed in this thoughtful and engaging collection of musings.
The opening line gives you context for James’ reading project (if ‘project’ is the correct word):
When I emerged from hospital in early 2010 with a certificate to say that I had a case of leukemia to go with my wrecked lungs, I could hear the clock ticking, and I wondered whether it was worth reading anything both new and substantial, or even rereading something substantial that I knew about.
Well, as he quickly determined, ‘if you don’t know the exact moment when the lights will go out, you might as well read until they do’. Thankfully, James chose to document the books he decided to read in what he knew would be the last years of his life – though, five years later, he is still very much alive. This book is a very literary memoir, in that he writes almost nothing about living with his illness or his thoughts on death: instead, he writes his experiences entirely through books.
What Latest Readings is not is a ‘101 Books To Read Before You Die’ collection. James hasn’t picked the works he considers most important or the best; instead, it turns out, when you do have to pick the books to read before you die, you continue along the same sort of meandering, serendipitous reading journeys as you probably always have done.
So he revisits Hemingway (and writes interestingly of his divided character) and revisits Conrad (Nostromo is ‘one of the greatest books I have ever read’), but also explores new territory – being delighted with General Sir David Fraser’s biography Alanbrooke. Whenever he discusses a book or author, he gives a brief overview of his history of reading (or somehow not reading) them, then details about the work in question, brief opinions, the occasional anecdote, and onto the next. The anecdotes offer fun moments of personality that no other critic could provide – who else would place Alanbroke in the context of being unable to persuade Mel Gibson to give impersonations? – and the opinions are perhaps more entertaining for being brief and relatively unscholarly. By which I mean that, while insightful, this is not an attempt at literary criticism: it is a real reader’s real reading experience.
The short chapters are not devoted solely to individual works or writers. He looks at the history of novel sequences (giving his highest praise to Olivia Manning’s and Anthony Powell’s), Presidential biographies, ways of writing about Hitler, and more. Sometimes this brevity feels a bit like we’re getting short shrift. Is, for instance, two and a half pages enough to discuss the knotty and complex problem of an author’s moral character vs. their books? (The Shiny New Books Editors clearly had quite a lot to say about it!) But somehow the quick snapshots of difference questions and topics was also charming; it feels like a fast-paced conversation.
My favourite thing about the selection of authors was how unexpected it was. Which run-down of great literature would remember to include a paean to the delightful cartoonist and satirist Osbert Lancaster, for example? (Incidentally, I must procure my copy of Draynefete Revealed before James’ praise of it renders it unaffordable.) Who else would devote a few pages to the different editions of Philip Larkin’s poetry? Would Lucy Hughes-Hallett’s biography of Gabriele d’Annunzio (no, me neither) get a nod in any other book of this kind? This individuality is what makes Latest Readings such a treasure – in line with other wonderful books of this ilk, such as Susan Hill’s Howards End is on the Landing and Sheila Kaye-Smith’s All the Books of My Life. It is also this individuality that more or less makes me forgive the homogeneity of James’ selection. I think Olivia Manning might be the only female fiction writer who gets a look-in, and indeed white men account for a sizeable majority of authors mention. Not only that, but uber-masculine white men, of the Hemingway variety. But it is James’ reading, and even if weren’t choosing books towards the end of his life, he is entirely allowed to read what he wants to read, and write about it.
If you know a lot about James, then I suspect Latest Readings will be even more wonderful – but I can vouch for those to whom he is only a vaguely-known name: this is a great read. It’s essentially for anybody who loves books and reading – and, of course, that is all of us.
Simon is one of the Shiny New Books editors.
Clive James, Latest Readings (Yale University Press: London, 2015), 978-0300213195,180pp., hardback.
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