Title: Clive in the New York Times: "A Writer With Wit"
Post by Revelator on Today at 20:14
Yesterday's edition of The New York Times featured an interview with Clive, who discussed his surprising new project. I've copied the article in full, since the Times requires registration:
|A Writer With Wit and Bite Proves He’s Not Dead Yet|
By SARAH LYALL, October 7, 2012
CAMBRIDGE, England — A few months ago the writer and broadcaster Clive James read with some alarm that he was about to die.
He wasn’t. While it is true that Mr. James suffers from several grave ailments, it is also true that the most serious of them, leukemia, is in remission. The confusion came when a BBC program about him was cherry-picked for alarming quotes, which then appeared in a British newspaper and quickly toured the world electronically.
While reports of Mr. James’s imminent demise were dispiriting to him, they also gave him a rare opportunity that many dream of but few get to enjoy: the chance to read his own eulogies.
And what eulogies they were. Admiring articles, blog posts and tweets poured out, celebrating the elegance and wit of Mr. James’s cultural criticism, the restless, erudite breadth of his interests and ideas, and his uncanny knack for funny, deadly descriptions, such as the time he thrillingly compared Arnold Schwarzenegger in “Pumping Iron” to “a brown condom full of walnuts.”
Somewhat reluctantly, then, Mr. James put an end to all the praise by issuing a death-denying statement. And being not-dead in a recent interview, Mr. James could sit on a sofa in his house here, sip his coffee and talk about his latest work: a translation of Dante’s “Divine Comedy,” which will be published by Liveright (a W. W. Norton imprint) next spring.
Mr. James, who turned 73 on Sunday, has written more than 30 other books: novels, books of poetry — the latest, “Nefertiti in the Flak Tower,” has just been published — books of essays, books that chronicle his life from Australian ne’er-do-well to member of the English literary establishment. His highly amusing autobiography of sorts, “Unreliable Memoirs,” has five volumes in it.
But Dante is a different project altogether.
“In a way, I’ve spent my whole life training for it,” Mr. James said. He first fell in love with “The Divine Comedy” in Florence in the 1960s, when the scholar Prue Shaw, who was then his girlfriend and is now his wife, read romantic passages aloud to him from Canto 5 of the “Inferno” in the original Italian.
(The translation is dedicated to Ms. Shaw, but the two have been living apart since a woman with whom Mr. James once had an affair went to the newspapers. “It’s complicated,” he said of his living arrangements.)
“Dante is very compact, and there’s so much going on in a tight space that you’d swear you were reading a modern poet,” Mr. James continued. “The temptation for any Italian poet is just outright lyricism, because the language is so beautiful. But Dante is never beautiful for its own sake, and every sentence, every line, is loaded with incident and meaning and wordplay.”
Dressed in black jeans that almost certainly once fit much more snugly, Mr. James was clearly not operating at 100 percent, though he is sparklier at three-quarter speed than most people are at full throttle. As well as the leukemia, he has emphysema — no surprise for someone who started smoking at age 9 — and a nasty chest infection.
“I’ve got everything, by the way,” Mr. James said cheerfully at one point. He made a few mordant end-of-the-road jokes, of the sort that got him in trouble in the BBC interview, and then continued. “I really haven’t got an immune system,” he said. “I’m also slightly deaf.”
Then it was back to Dante. “You’ve got to be both accurate and inventive and not let the inventiveness destroy the accuracy,” he said. “You don’t want to sound too oldy-worldy, but on the other hand it mustn’t sound too new-worldy. And you don’t want any Hollywood slang creeping in.”
Mr. James is far more celebrated in Britain, where it is accepted that people can do many things well, than he is in the United States, which tends to murmur “dilettante” when confronted with someone who defies easy characterization.
Here he is beloved indeed.
“There can’t be many writers of my generation who haven’t been heavily influenced by Clive James,” the critic Charlie Brooker wrote in The Guardian. Mr. Brooker continued: “He has a way of gliding through sentences, effortlessly ironing a series of complex points in a single easily navigable line, illuminating here and cogitating there, before leading you face-first into an unexpected punch line that makes your brain yelp with delight.”
In a telephone interview the playwright Tom Stoppard said, “What I like about him is that he turns his hand — a very expert and sometimes inspired hand — to all manner of things.” He added: “I’m not in the least surprised to hear that he’s going to publish a translation of Dante. But I’m faintly surprised that he’s not trying to translate something from the Chinese or the Hungarian.”
Mr. James really made his name here in the 1970s when he began writing about television for The Observer of London — pieces that were serious, playful and howlingly witty, often in the space of a single paragraph. (“Perry Como gave his usual impersonation of a man who has simultaneously been told to say ‘Cheese’ and shot in the back by a poisoned arrow,” he once wrote.)
Lately he has taken up television criticism again, for The Telegraph, filing some pieces from the hospital.
“As I breathe the heady, steaming fumes of the nebulizer through a transparent plastic mask,” he wrote after a visit to the emergency room, “my first task is to deny that I was brought to this condition by the opening episode of ‘The Kennedys.’ ”
He is also, he said, rereading all of Evelyn Waugh for a piece in The Atlantic, and considering whether to start in on Volume 6 of his memoirs, a book he would call “The Seeds of My Destruction.” But he said, too, that he hoped very much to live long enough to see his Dante translation published.
Toward the end of the interview, Mr. James mentioned that later that day he would find out whether his leukemia was still in remission. It was, but he did not know that yet.
“If it isn’t in remission, I’ll be ringing you up and saying, ‘Listen, I’ve got a story for you,’ ” he said. He let out a long laugh and continued the thought, turning to the photographer: “This can be my last interview. Make those pictures good.”