Tuesday, October 08, 2019

'The Edsels of the World of Moveable Type'

Clive James has been dying for a long time, though it seems not to have gotten in the way of his work. On Monday he turned eighty. He was first diagnosed with cancer at least nine years ago. By my count he has since published nine books, including a translation of La Divina Commedia. I mean no disrespect. Cultural Amnesia (2007) is a favorite, and I frequently reread the chapter on Eugenio Montale. James' reading is omnivorous, his writing is industrious (it may be keeping him alive, à la Tristram Shandy) and his opinions are frequently contentious. An interview he gave the Guardian was published on Saturday. Asked to name the most underrated and overrated books he replies:

“There are paragraphs by Raymond Chandler that are underrated. But it’s an open question whether he wrote any underrated novels. The most overrated books almost all emerged simultaneously from a single genre: magic realism. I can’t stand it. I always found ordinary realism quite magic enough.”

Chandler is no longer underrated. I’ve been waiting decades for someone to admit what serious readers have always known: magic realism is a lazy, tedious, over-hyped con job. Garcia Marquez, Salman Rushdie, Toni Morrison and the rest – their books are often unreadable. Think of the young people who have been told these are “classics.” Please, don’t feel guilty when you find such books and writers boring. Significantly of the 105 essays in Cultural Amnesia, only thirteen are devoted to writers known primarily as novelists. James is comparably honest and direct when asked to name his “comfort read,” a category even more ridiculous than “comfort food”:

“That’s not a concept that I’m familiar with. If reading didn’t make me uncomfortable in one way or another, it would just send me to sleep. I get comfort in other ways. I once wrote a poem called ‘The Book of My Enemy Has Been Remaindered.’ I’m afraid I still get a big bang out of seeing the books of my rivals being utterly ignored.”

James is unafraid of Schadenfreude and invective, two of life’s sweetest pleasures:

“Knocked into the middle of next week
His brainchild now consorts with the bad buys
The sinker, clinkers, dogs and dregs,
The Edsels of the world of moveable type,
The bummers that no amount of hype could shift,
The unbudgeable turkeys.”

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