Clive James began his Arts degree at the University of Sydney in 1958, where he was literary editor of Honi Soit and directed the annual Union Revue. Soon after graduating he left for England, where he established himself as a newspaper columnist, poet, comic, television personality and memoirist. In 2010, he was diagnosed with multiple terminal illnesses, but has continued to publish poetry and criticism. After penning an original poem for Honi, he talked with Luca Moretti about his life, mortality and the Barry Spurr scandal.
LM: In Unreliable Memoirs, you refer to your undeveloped taste at university, but also to days at Manning spent reading Ezra Pound. Is this account of your immaturity a fabrication?
CJ: It’s the truth, although it’s also true that I was insufferably bumptious, especially on literary matters: the less I knew, the more confident my pronouncements. Ezra Pound was certainly a forerunner there; but I was also constantly engaged with T.S. Eliot, who was much less given to shouting from the rooftops; and if anybody influenced my general stance on poetry, it was Eliot. I left him out of the Manning House scene in Unreliable Memoirs because he was less fun than Pound to write about. Even on a petty scale, history gets distorted by whoever narrates it.
LM: I got the impression from Unreliable Memoirs that you did not consider Sydney University to be world class. Is that a fair conclusion? And did it lead you to read off the course?
CJ: No, I thought at the time, and still think now, that the Arts faculty at Sydney University was responsible, comprehensive and impressive. I was just a bad student, and when I got to Cambridge I was a bad student again. There is something in me that ensures I will always read off the course. The only thing I can plead in mitigation is that I pursued my extracurricular reading with diligence. Unless the book was a set book, I knew all about it. In Cambridge I would sit in the coffee shops for hours reading Wittgenstein. Unfortunately the examination paper was full of questions about Jane Austen, and there is a limit to how much you can say about Pride and Prejudice just by quoting the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus.
LM: Following the Barry Spurr controversy, some have questioned his recommendation that the national curriculum should place a greater emphasis on the Western Canon. Do you agree?
CJ: I’m first of all concerned that someone can have his e-mails read against his wish. My second concern is that a man in a position of responsibility should be so dumb as not to realise it might happen. My third concern is that he inadvertently provided exactly the kind of ammunition that would help his opponents to blow holes in a good case. There should indeed be a greater emphasis on the Western Canon. Without that, there will be no ways and means to assert the importance of any other kind of canon. There is undoubtedly such a thing as an indigenous tradition of poetry, but there is no such thing as an indigenous tradition of literary criticism.
LM: In Poetry Notebook you write about ‘moments’ of delight in reading poetry that are crucial in both experiencing verse and understanding the forms of poems. What are those moments?
CJ: All I know about the conception of the poetic “moment” is that it might be closely allied to the urge to shout “Eureka!” after having realized something explanatory about the level of the bathwater. It’s as intuitive, as sudden, and finally as inexplicable, as that. But every poet lives for it, even the ones to whom it has never really happened. Usually the moment hits us in the form of a single phrase, which is probably the way that it hit the poet. I often get the picture of these particles wandering in space, streaking into the Earth’s atmosphere, and hitting some poor bastard right in the head. Dryden called the moment “the hit”. Inspiration is almost always described later as an impact, and not as an evolution. I could go on forever, but only if you promise to read my book again. Really, to the extent that I understand the question, the answer is in there.
LM: You have advocated for the role of intellectuals who are not academics. It has been said that it’s now nearly impossible to pursue a living as a freelance literary journalist; does the metropolitan critic have a future?
CJ: He never had one, really. Only the great Edmund Wilson managed to pursue the career of literary intellectual without holding down an academic post, and he ended up owing a fortune in taxes. I payed for my own career as a serious writer by going on television. My family flatter me by proclaiming their confidence that I would have made a living just from writing prose, but my own opinion is that we would all have ended up living in a lean-to instead of a house.
LM: You left Sydney for England in 1962. What is your relationship with Australia?
CJ: I never set out to curry favour with the land I left, but I suppose it was inevitable that my book Unreliable Memoirs should sound like a love letter. It was indeed written out of love, and I suppose the eventual effect of the book’s wide acceptance among ordinary Australians was to persuade even the intellectuals that I was still closely engaged with my homeland, even if from a distance. Nowadays I am engaged with it more closely than ever. Even though I won’t be going home, I follow every moment of the excitement on the web, and when Kevin Rudd and Julia Gillard write books attacking each other I am grateful that the Australian secondary school system exposed me to the battle between Sohrab and Rustum. Thus Matthew Arnold foresaw a clash of titans.
LM: During your illness you have been remarkably productive. What do you think about mortality? Has illness given your work greater significance?
CJ: I’m not sure my work has been given greater significance by my illness but it has certainly been given greater scope. For me, fading energy and fading light are a new subject: once, I could run a mile in the blazing sun, and now I can totter only a few feet at a time, and always towards the shadows. But while I can remember my strength, I could never have foretold my weakness; so really the reservoir has deepened of what I can write about. Next March, Picador in London will be publishing a collection of my recent poems, under the title of Sentenced to Life. I think it’s my best book; but then, all writers think that their latest is their best. Of this much I am sure, however: the book is full of things I couldn’t have written when I was young and strong. There is no young man’s version of what I am writing now. So really I am in the position of talking with the authority of someone who has been somewhere, like an astronaut who has been to the moon. Apart from bravery, fitness, a science degree and the ability to fly, the main difference between the astronaut and myself is that he got back. I won’t be getting back from this. But I am glad to have made the voyage.