Clive James, reader

Having returned from beyond the grave, the author of the indispensable “Cultural Amnesia”  sounds as sharp as ever in a Q&A with the New York Times:

Have you read any good poets lately?

I’ve been editing the manuscript of my forthcoming translation of “The Divine Comedy,” so I’ve been reading great poetry every day. But among modern poets, Keith Douglas has struck me all over again as the most promising British poet of the World War II period. His early death was a cultural disaster. Had he lived, he would almost certainly have dominated the postwar English-speaking poetic world with a presence that would have left even Robert Lowell looking tentative. If I had students, I would tell them to Google Douglas’s poem “Canoe” and see how majestically beautiful it is: tragedy in the language of high romance.

Are you a re-reader? What books do you find yourself returning to again and again?

I don’t do much re-reading any more because I’ve been ill and feel that I’m running out of time. But recently I did re-read all of Evelyn Waugh’s novels, and was pleased to find that he was almost as thoughtful as, say, Olivia Manning, although his snobbery sometimes grates. Also, I enjoyed “Lucky Jim,” by Kingsley Amis, all over again: the funniest novel I have ever read. Is there some Bulgarian equivalent, languishing untranslated? Probably not.

“Almost as thoughtful as Olivia Manning…” That’s very high praise. I’m assuming he’s talking about the two “Fortunes of War” trilogies, which really are masterpieces. Deirdre David’s new biography of Manning, while sympathetic, portrays her as bitter and somewhat petty (one friend nicknamed her “Olivia Moaning”) but when you consider the bizarre fact that she “never received a solo review in the Sunday Times” you begin to understand why she felt undervalued by the literary establishment.

I’m very glad I took James’s advice and Googled “Canoe”.  And I wish I could get the hang of “Lucky Jim”. I’ve tried reading it three times, but I’ve never been able to reach the end. Yet I never get bored of “That Uncertain Feeling“, Amis’s second novel. What am I missing? Is it just that I’m allergic to campus fiction?

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Chief theatre critic for The Times. Twitter: CliveDavisUK Facebook: Instagram: clivephotos
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