Latest Readings will be the second book this year from the writer who was diagnosed with terminal leukemia in 2010
Clive James at his home in Cambridge in March. Photograph: Phil Fisk for the Observer
Friday 10 April 2015 07.30 BST Last modified on Friday 10 April 2015 08.44 BST
Just weeks after his most recent poetry collection hit the shops, Clive James’s publishers have announced that he will publish a second book this year, a collection of literary reflections, Latest Readings, due out this summer.
James, who was diagnosed with terminal leukemia in 2010, will use the book to tackle subjects ranging from American Power to Women and Hollywood and “Naipaul’s Nastiness”.
The collection of short essays, dedicated to “my doctors and nurses at Addenbrooke’s Hospital, Cambridge, UK”, will mark a return from the melancholy of his late poems to the witty erudition of his earlier years as critic and commentator.
A spell in hospital suffering from pneumonia sent him back to Joseph Conrad’s Lord Jim which he had detested at university, he reveals. “I suppose I had a plan to stave off one kind of boredom with another, as a kind of inoculation. On the strength of this long-delayed second reading, the book struck me as no more exciting than it had once seemed, but a lot more interesting.”
Conrad crops up in several essays, but James has room for lighter authors too, writing of how he was raised off his deathbed by his daughter’s introduction to Patrick O’Brian’s Jack Aubrey novels.
“She was like a drug dealer handing out a free sample. Within a few days I was back for the next one … and in the course of remarkably little time – the excitement of reading stopped me reminding myself that it was time I didn’t really have – I had read all 20 volumes.”
He concedes that O’Brian “doesn’t really know what to do with an interesting female character”. “The only woman on a par with the leading men gets killed off in a coach accident. No, these are boys’ books, and the lesser for it. I try to remember that most of the fans of O’Brian that I have met are women, but I suspect that they want a holiday from feminism, just as his male fans want a holiday from inertia.”
Two of the essays are about Hemingway, “I have spent a good part of my adult life reading books about Ernest Hemingway,” he writes, arguing that “he’s too much of a problem to leave unsolved”. After tackling the writer’s troubled masculinity, his shaky relationship with the truth, his addictions to alcohol and dangerous sports, James concludes of the author of A Farewell to Arms and The Old Man and the Sea: “The height of his tragedy was that he could not write about his own finale, which, lasting so long, could have been his great theme.”
Latest Readings will be published by Yale on 25 August.
I managed to get an early review copy of Latest Readings. Despite the occasional valedictory note, it is more generally marked by a lightness of touch and a sparkling enthusiasm for the world of books. James revisits such modern masters as Conrad and Hemingway, discovers new enthusiasms - such as Olivia Manning - or acknowledges his first literary love, poetry, in short pieces about Larkin, Kipling and Richard Wilbur. There is also much about the movies and the Second World War. But the book is also about the bibliophile's addiction; how books do not only furnish a room, but several homes too. James is forever coming clean about his addiction, shuttling back and forth from his favourite Cambridge bookstalls with towering piles of volumes his home cannot practically accommodate. In a moving coda, James wonders if all he has written is as significant as the kindness shown by a single night nurse when she came to his rescue one night in hospital. He also reveals the words he would like about himself on any future memorial plaque. But although touched by an acute sense of his own mortality, Latest Readings is more generally a bright, uplifting and highly readable set of literary portraits, a hymn to a lifelong love affair with books.
Clive James’ Latest Readings provide a source of inspiration, wit, and lessons about life and art..
It’s either an ironic tragedy, or a bit of lucky fortune, to discover a great new writer just at the end of his life. This isn’t an epitaph; Clive James is not dead yet – “Near to death, but thankful for life” as a BBC documentary put it in March of this year. But in his latest volume of essays, James is quite forthright about how surprised he is that despite the veritable national convention of fatal illnesses that have congregated in his body, he’s somehow managed to do enough reading to produce a new book of literary criticism while battling them all. .....
Clive James, poet, essayist, critic and author. W.W. Norton via Bloomberg News
By neatly deploying several of his many talents, Clive James has managed to treat his imminent death in a way that’s at least mildly amusing and characteristically charming. In 75 years of life, most of them spent in Britain, James has been a poet, a TV broadcaster, a critic and the best-selling author of memoirs. He’s done all of these things exceptionally well, so no one should be surprised that he’s now dying in an exuberant and altogether literary manner.
In 2010 he was diagnosed with both leukemia and emphysema, the latter related to the 80 cigarettes a day he consumed at the height of his nicotine addiction. Immediately upon hearing the bad news, which seemed a death sentence, he began writing his last words.
But as time passed the last words kept lasting……..
Terminally ill essayist Clive James takes an elegiac wander around cherished works
James Kidd Thursday 06 August 2015
'Latest Readings' comprises 30 essays written, as the title suggests, in the saddest of circumstances. Diagnosed with terminal leukemia in 2010, Clive James does not seem to be raging against the dying of the light so much as reading until it finally goes out. Late, later, latest: these are almost last readings, undertaken with an affection fit for James' fantasised blue plaque: "I would like it to say: 'He loved the written word, and told the young'." As literary bucket lists go, James' choice of reading is pleasingly scattershot. Heavyweight novelists (Proust, Powell, Conrad, two helpings of Hemingway) mingle with poets (Kipling, Larkin, Stephen Edgar, Richard Wilbur), who rub shoulders with odd sods like Hollywood, Villa America, John Howard and German flying saucers. There is not much recent writing, though Lucy Hughes-Hallett's biography of Gabriele D'Annunzio is one. But if I were in James' position right now, I might not have the time for Go Tell a Watchman either.....
In 2010, Clive James tells us, he could “hear the clock ticking”. He already had “wrecked lungs”, and now he had been diagnosed with leukemia. So the bookish James asked himself a desperate question: in his state, did he have enough time for long books? For anybody who reads, it’s a hellish question. Anyway, the answer was a Churchillian yes. James took on Boswell’s Life of Johnson and decided to keep on going. “If you don’t know the exact moment when the lights go out,” he tells us, “you might as well read until they do.”
You could see this as a book of essays about the reading habits of a man as he approaches the end. Or you could see it as a superbly compressed memoir. It made me think of the feeling you get when you’re cramming for an exam: you’re in control of the material and time is short, and you’re finally aware that if you had all the time in the world you’d enjoy this stuff so much more. But then again, if you had all the time in the world you’d never have come to this exact realisation.
With a watchmaker’s skill, James dramatises the inner workings of the act of sitting down and reading. “Being book crazy,” he writes, “is an aspect of love, and therefore scarcely rational at all.” For James, books are rapacious; they chase him down, they fill up his house. Soon, he knows, he won’t have any more space on his shelves. But he too is ruthless....
All writers begin as readers, and the majority, the ones worth reading, continue life as more prolific readers than writers—especially, it seems, as they age. “In my seventh decade I feel a new haste,” Larry McMurtry wrote in Walter Benjamin at the Dairy Queen (1999), “not to write, but to read.” As Clive James writes in his introduction here, in a line that evokes the child hiding under the covers with a flashlight and book as much as it does the grizzled bibliophile: “If you don’t know the exact moment when the lights will go out, you might as well read until they do.”
The author's most recent essays and poems are haunted by death - yet radiate life.
Review by Jason Cowley
Photograph: Phil Fisk/Camera Press Clive James at his home in Cambridge, England, earlier this year.
No literary artist, Martin Amis once wrote, ages more slowly than a poet, "some of whom (Yeats for instance) just keep on singing, and louder sing for every tatter in their mortal dress". He could have been discussing the late-career flourishing of his old friend Clive James who keeps on singing even as his mortal dress is shredded by leukaemia, bouts of pneumonia and chronic emphysema.
We all live with the knowledge of mortality, with the sound of the clock ticking. But for five years now the clock has been threatening to stop ticking altogether for James: he has in effect been living under a death sentence that miraculously keeps being extended, like some death-row inmate whose lawyer keeps winning him a last-minute reprieve from the executioner's needle.
Clive James displays all his artistry and swagger in these moving reflections on books he has long loved – and those he has at last begun
Clive James at home in Cambridge: ‘His old brillliance for epithet is to the fore’. Photograph: Phil Fisk for the Observer
Tim Adams Sunday 16 August 2015 08.00 BST
Clive James was diagnosed with the leukaemia that will sooner or later be the death of him in 2010. Given his talents, his gift of the gab, it is fitting and fabulous that his goodbye is still going strong. So far James’s refusal to go gently into that long Saturday night has produced two volumes of verse, a fine translation of The Divine Comedy, a book of notes on his favourite poets, and this new volume of short essays. He’s written more in the shadow of death than many writers manage in a procrastinating lifetime.
This book, he says, by way of introduction, came from a simple invitation from the editors at Yale: write about the books you are reading (perhaps, the invitation went without saying, the last ones you will read). When he first got his diagnosis James was at a loss to know if he would open a book at all. Boswell’s Life of Johnson cured him of that lack of purpose. The question of what to read was obvious: he should reread all the books he’d loved, and read all the ones he thought he might love but had never got round to, with as much Johnsonian urgency as he could muster.
A move from his London flat back to the proximity of family in Cambridge necessitated the culling of half of his library. He has spent much of the time since building it all back up again, trawling the tables of Hugh’s bookstall in the university city’s market square for bargains. ...................
Curiosity Alberto Manguel Yale University Press, 392pp, £18.99
Where Have You Been? Selected Essays Michael Hofmann Faber & Faber, 304pp, £30
The Nearest Thing to Life James Wood Jonathan Cape, 144pp, £12.99
Latest Readings Clive James Yale University Press, 192pp, £12.99
Over the past few weeks I have been reading four enormously enjoyable books about the pleasure of reading. The richest of them is Curiosity by Alberto Manguel, a Canadian writer, editor, translator and critic who “would rather define himself as a reader”. The other three are collections of essays, by the poet and translator Michael Hofmann; James Wood, resident literary critic at the New Yorker; and Clive James, the “memoirist, poet, translator, critic and broadcaster”. It is striking that none of them has made it their profession to teach literature at a university (though Hofmann and Wood supplement their earnings with visiting faculty positions). It is even more striking that the kinds of things they say would never (well, hardly ever) be said by a professor in a department of English: “art is the nearest thing to life” (Wood, quoting George Eliot); “This transmigration of souls is literature’s modest miracle” (Manguel on how “if we recognise ourselves in Cordelia today, we may call Goneril our sister tomorrow, and end up, in days to come, kindred spirits with Lear, a foolish, fond old man”); “Ted Hughes is at least arguably the greatest English poet since Shakespeare” (Hofmann); “Finally you get to the age when a book’s power to make you think becomes the first thing you notice about it” (James, on reading and rereading in the knowledge that he is in the endgame of a life of reading).
These are books about how books help us to be thoughtful, feeling human beings. They are works of empathy even as the spirit of criticism shines through them, provokingly in Hofmann, very subtly in Wood, sometimes flashily but always sincerely in James. …..
Conversation is the key: the problem with “academic” literary analysis is that too often it sounds like talking at the reader or, worse, talking down to him or her. And the style is all too frequently that of the monologue. But the experience of reading the classics is a genuine dialogue with the dead. For Manguel, Dante and Montaigne are living presences. As is Conrad for Clive James (he made me think: “Yes, I must go back to Conrad, haven’t read him for years and years”). When James is dead he will live on through his books.
Latest Readings Clive James Yale, pp.192, £12.99, ISBN: 9780300213195
In the preface to his great collection of essays The Dyer’s Hand, W.H. Auden claimed: ‘I prefer a critic’s notebooks to his treatises.’ Auden’s criticism is like that: a passage of insights instead of a single sustained argument, and the same is true of Samuel Johnson, whose works are a pleasure to read for the feeling of the pressure of a great mind at play. Clive James belongs in this company.
His new book Latest Readings is a kind of reading diary: a collection of short essays, each prompted by one book or a handful he happens to be reading. They are not in any logical order or sequence, but are given unity by two things: one biographical, the other stylistic. James is — as has been widely publicised over the past two years — now dying, of leukaemia and emphysema, and while he only briefly mentions it here, this whole book is marked by a sense of medical struggle and imminent extinction. Olivia Manning’s cycle of novels, he writes, ‘makes now more bearable’. So the title contains a very Jamesian pun: it means both most recent and, implicitly, last. He will not be reading these books again. ......................
Clive James, who had leukaemia diagnosed in 2010, would like his epitaph to be: “He loved the written word, and told the young” Richard Cannon/The Times
Philip Collins Published at 12:09AM, August 22 2015
When I interviewed Clive James recently he kept using the word “eventually”. For a man who, in September 2014, published in The New Yorker a poem called Japanese Maple that announced his imminent demise, sticking around is getting embarrassing. His illness, first diagnosed in 2011, has coincided with an improvement in the drugs available to treat his leukaemia.
There are other volumes planned to follow Sentenced to Life, a collection of recent poems, and Latest Readings, literary vignettes with a characteristically wide sweep, the centrepieces of which are Conrad, Hemingway and Johnson. It is possible to think that this might.......
Finding Clive James at an impressionable age gave me permission to love the range of the arts and not be forced, through snobbery, to narrow down. He showed that, just because you were funny, it didn't mean you weren't being serious............
Read an extract from Latest Readings in Times2 next week
Australian poet, cultural critic and novelist Clive James, who in 2010 announced he had been diagnosed with leukaemia and was “on limited time”, said a new drug has helped to keep his cancer at bay and allowed him to continue to read and write.
In an interview with the ABC’s Mark Colvin about his new book, Latest Readings, James, 75, described himself as “unreasonably well” despite his diagnosis, which last year he told interviewers had left him fearful of soon losing his eyesight and ability to work.
Colvin commented that James sounded more bright and energetic than back then, to which James replied: “People keep telling me that with an undercurrent of suspicion, as if I’ve been faking the whole thing, and I suppose they’ve got a point.
”People keep telling me that with an undercurrent of suspicion, as if I’ve been faking the whole thing, and I suppose they’ve got a point.
“I’m unreasonably well-looking for where I’m at,” he continued. “Really what’s happened is my leukaemia came out of remission. Quite seriously, everything was taking a dive. But a new drug came online which is holding the leukaemia in check, but we have to rebalance the antibiotics.
“So there’s been a sort of fluctuating period when I’ve been up and down but now everything’s smoothed out again and here I am waiting for the next technological advance which I hope will enable...................
Diagnosed with terminal leukemia in 2010, Clive James has made of death a different kind of inspiration than the perennial dark muse it is for most writers. Rather than dwell on his stance squarely in the crosshairs of oblivion, James, the Australian-born writer who is one of the U.K.'s most eminent and famous literary personalities, has doubled down on his writing practice, or perhaps simply kept up his prolific pace. In just the past five years, he's published retrospective and new collections of poems, a landmark translation of all three books of Dante's Divine Comedy, a career-spanning selection of essays, a volume of reflections on poetry, and now Latest Readings, a collection of short essays, most only a couple of pages, on his own list of essential books.
For the literature-obsessed, this slim volume is a delectable gift, a reminder of why one reads at all, especially when the mortal countdown timer is ticking loudly. And it proves that James is the rare literary critic who can speak deeply to a general audience, with a sense of humor and levity that suggests that high art can indeed be for everyone.
These essays are not earth-shattering re-evaluations of the classics. Instead they are personal encounters with books that have shaped one very great and capacious mind. Particularly moving are two pieces on Ernest Hemingway, about whom James feels a powerful ambivalence.At first, he calls The Sun Also Rises "the perfect expression of a young writer getting into his stride." Yet, "reading it once again, and at the end of my own career, I am less envious — clearly Hemingway's own personality had always scared him into suicidal excess — but still enchanted by a prose style that gave us such a vivid semblance of simplicity."
He also rereads, during a prolonged hospital stay, Joseph Conrad's Lord Jim, which he had last read as a university student; then, he found it "a boring book." Now, with a lifetime of deep reading in history, politics and literature under his belt, it paints "an international historical picture," though it is "no more exciting than it had once seemed, but a lot more interesting."
It is these utterly precise, yet lighthearted cleavings that make James one of the most useful and enjoyable literary critics around. "The critic," he writes, "should write to say, not 'look how much I've read,' but 'look at this, it's wonderful.' " That said, he never goes easy on books or their authors, though even his most withering assessments are cast in buoyant prose, inviting us, his imagined readers, to agree with or condemn his opinions, with his blessing and encouragement. He praises the American poet Richard Wilbur's long-treasured (and long out of print) book of prose about poetry for "laying out his knowledge in an easy-seeming sweep of conversational English." But he gently condemns the fate of literature in the academy: "How did literary theory get started? Because the theorists couldn't write.".........
Clive James at his home in London Richard Cannon/Times Newspapers
Clive James Published at 12:01AM, August 27 2015
In an extract from his latest collection of essays, the critic and presenter discusses two of his favourite authors
I last read The Sun Also Rises long enough ago to have forgotten all but the odd detail. But the sharpness of the details I remembered — the chestnut trees of Paris, the running of the bulls in Pamplona — was a sufficient reminder that the book had always struck me as fresh and vivid, the perfect expression of a young writer getting into his proper stride. When I first read it I was a young writer myself, and scarcely into my stride at all.
Reading it once again and at the end of my own career ................
The prolific writer, who was diagnosed with leukaemia five years ago, says the idea of death inspires him, especially not knowing exactly when it will happen
On my way to Clive James’s house, I pass a poster for the Cambridge News. “Moment Armed Police Swooped on My Brolly.” It is the sort of quintessentially British headline that I imagine James would notice with pleasure on his careful amble into town.
Peering through the clear window of his front door, James is visible in a room at the back, typing on his laptop: “the author at work”. It’s a shame to disturb his concentration, yet he shows no sign of irritation as he affably greets the photographer and me in his thick black socks. He only wears loose black ones these days as his feet are swollen, he tells me. “The drugs have ruined my sartorial standards. I never was one for sartorial standards. Some writers are.”
He leads us through a cavern of books into the main room with a small kitchenette and a vast desk under skylights. On it are piles of New Yorkers, doctors’ notes, and a red and black notebook. A sticker on it reads: “Clive”, with his address. On his laptop, a long poem-in-progress is being transcribed from a handwritten book, with scribbles and a stanza crossed out.
A straw hat is on his desk, a prop ready for his portrait. “I don’t want to look too funereal,” he jokes. “It’s a bit cool but it will look like summer if I am sitting outside, wearing my hat.” It may also be a jaunty means to cover his head, which is covered in sores, including a circular gouge on his forehead above his white-trimmed sideburns. “My head’s a mess, I’m afraid. But that’s OK. It looks interesting.”
James, 75, has endured many “last” interviews, since being diagnosed with leukaemia in 2010. Mordant headlines have included: “The art of dying”, “A long goodbye” and “In death as in verse”. The trigger for our meeting is his new book Latest Readings (it is dedicated to the doctors and nurses at Addenbrooke’s, his local hospital in Cambridge). “I was going to call it Last Greetings ......
Sitting in his garden at his Cambridge home beneath the Japanese maple immortalised in one of his poems.
Consolation and life in literature: Nicely written, very readable, with many great insights, some essays are substantial, some a bit throw-away
Éilís Ní Dhuibhne
Sat, Aug 29, 2015, 00:13
Clive James has written more than 30 books, including novels, literary criticism and poetry. In 2010 he was diagnosed with terminal leukaemia. The news made him wonder “whether it was worth reading anything new and substantial, or even re-reading anything substantial that I already knew about”.
But James, whose career as a writer has been overshadowed by his time as the high-profile presenter, in the 1980s and early 1990s, of Clive James on Television and other series, quickly decided that “if you don’t know when the lights will go out, you might as well read until they do”. The essays in his collection prove that this was a wise and life-enhancing strategy.
The consolation of literature for those coming face to face with serious illness and death has been recently described by the great Swedish writer of detective novels, Henning Mankell, in a collection of essays documenting his experience of lung cancer, and the books he has been reading during a year of treatment.............