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"Clive James: By the Book" (New York Times Interview)
« : 11.04.13 at 20:28 »

Original url: http://www.nytimes.com/2013/04/14/books/review/clive-james-by-the-book.html?pagewanted=all&_r=0
Clive James: By the Book
Published: April 11, 2013  
Who are your favorite authors of all time?
After Shakespeare, my favorite poet is Dante. My favorite novelists are Proust and Tolstoy, closely followed by Scott Fitzgerald, and perhaps Hemingway when he isn’t beating his chest. But in all my life I never enjoyed anything more than the first pieces I read by S. J. Perelman.
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 rereader? What books do you find yourself returning to again and again?
I don’t do much rereading anymore because I’ve been ill and feel that I’m running out of time. But recently I did reread 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.
You’ve been a literary critic for decades. Of the many book reviews you’ve written, which have been your favorites?
My best bad review, as it were, was a takedown of “Princess Daisy,” an appalling best-selling novel by the once-famous Judith Krantz, who clearly believed every word she wrote about sex, glamour and the higher levels of shopping. But I was careful to pay her the compliment of saying that I had found her book unputdownable, although I might have said the same about a pot of glue. My best good reviews were mainly about Philip Larkin; it was a privilege to be in a position to call him a great poet. After he died and he started to be denigrated as a racist and misogynist, I took several opportunities to say that his prejudices were a private matter and that he had never even dreamed of expressing them in public, least of all in his poetry. Spraying cold water on a witch hunt is one of the duties that a critic should be ready to perform.
What, to your mind, makes a good book review?
A good book review should do an evocative job of pointing out quality. “Look at this! Isn’t it good?” should be the critic’s basic attitude. Occasionally, however, you have to say: “Look at this! Isn’t it awful?” In either case, it’s important to quote from the book. If more book reviewers had actually quoted from the mortal prose of “Fifty Shades of Grey,” hardly anyone would have thought it was wonderful, although they all would have read it anyway. Criticism has no real power, only influence.
Any reaction to the fact that Dan Brown’s next novel, coming out a month after your “Divine Comedy,” will be based on Dante and called “Inferno”?
Dan Brown’s forthcoming “Inferno,” of which Dante will be the central subject, has already got me trembling. Brown might have discovered that “The Divine Comedy” is an encrypted prediction of how the world will be taken over by the National Rifle Association. When the movie comes out, with Harrison Ford as Dante and Megan Fox as Beatrice, it will be all over for mere translators.
Which books might we be surprised to find on your shelves?
Both “The Da Vinci Code” and “Fifty Shades of Grey” were on my shelves very briefly, but now they are gone. Not that I ever look down on anyone who can write a best seller. In my time, at least one best seller — Nicholas Monsarrat’s “Cruel Sea,” published just after World War II — was a literary achievement of a high order. “From Here to Eternity” and “The Naked and the Dead” were pretty good too, and in more recent times there was a lot to be said for “Captain Corelli’s Mandolin.” A critic who believes that no popular book can be good is in the wrong profession. In Russia at the beginning of the 19th century, all the fine young ladies were mad about the poetry of Pushkin, and they were quite right.
What were your favorite books as a child? Do you have a favorite character or hero from those books?
In Australia 60 years ago, when I was an adolescent, nobody was reading the American author Booth Tarkington except me. His character Penrod Schofield — awkward, disobedient, adventurous — was the beginning of my love affair with America. Today, my friend P. J. O’Rourke is a big fan of Tarkington, but I wonder if anybody else is. Still, my real plan is to make P. J. a fan of Dante.
Disappointing, overrated, just not good: What book did you feel you were supposed to like, and didn’t? Do you remember the last book you put down without finishing?
Australia, which by now has a rich literary culture, was once cursed by a lack of homemade books that it could be genuinely proud of. As a consequence, there was a tendency to wishful thinking among scholars and critics. There was a supposedly humorous book called “Such Is Life,” by Joseph Furphy. I was asked to introduce it, so I read it. I soon saw why it had never been a hit with the public even at the time it was written. There wasn’t a laugh in it. Book reviewers should report honestly on their reactions and, if they are bored, say so.  
Of the books you’ve written, which is your favorite?
My forthcoming translation of Dante’s “Divine Comedy” is my best book, I think, but I’ve got a soft spot for “Cultural Amnesia,” my book about 20th-century culture and politics. My best book of shorter poems is “Opal Sunset,” a selection from my verse over a period of 50 years. Like “Cultural Amnesia,” it was published in both the U.S. and the U.K., and I’m very proud to have made the jump. And I wouldn’t want to leave out “Unreliable Memoirs,” the book about my childhood and upbringing that was first published more than 30 years ago and has gone on selling everywhere in the English-speaking world except in America. Why that last fact should be so I don’t quite know, but possibly I gave the book the wrong title. If you tell Americans that your narrative is unreliable, they don’t smile: they call the cops.
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