Friday, November 29, 2019

'The Seasoning without the Roast'

I never thought it would be possible to admire a man who earlier in his career hosted a television show, but then Clive James – dead at age eighty -- lived to upend many snobberies. As an American reader I came to him late, perhaps twenty years ago, and thought of him strictly as a writer, first as a reviewer and essayist, later as a poet. So prolific a polymath, of course, is always suspect. One is tempted to diagnose Joyce Carol Oates Syndrome, but James remained essentially a journalist, with a journalist’s readiness to take on any subject and turn it quickly into readable column inches. He was the sort of critic I like because I seldom thought of him as a critic. He was an essayist. He was amusing, learned, a bit of a raconteur, often more entertaining than the book or movie he was writing about. Critics, after all, usually can't write and tend to take themselves too seriously. James didn't, though he took the job seriously. His gift was fluency coupled with a formidable memory.

At least one of his books, Cultural Amnesia (2007), will endure. In it, James assembles digressive portraits of more than a hundred figures, heroes and villains, from Hitler to Louis Armstrong. He turns his entry on Eugenio Montale into a meditation on memory and reading. The former, James stresses, is always unreliable. And that is James’ point:

“Without the capacity to forget, we would not be able to go back to something we love with the delicious twin certainties that it will yield a familiar quality, and still be new all over again.”

He might have Cultural Memory in mind. At his best, James was an enthusiast who enjoyed sharing his enthusiasms, without the pretentiousness we associate with so much contemporary writing. Later in the Montale essay he writes:

“In any kind of bad art, it is when the gift is gone that the experiment really does take over – the eternally cold experiment that promises to make gold out of lead, and bricks without straw. Leaving coldness aside (and we should leave it aside, because barren artistic experimentation can also be done in a white-hot frenzy), it might be useful to mention that Montale, in another essay, came up with the perfect term for a work of art that had no other subject except its own technique. He called it the seasoning without the roast.”

No comments: