I’ve been drafting the script for a podcast episode about Harold Bloom, the literary critic who died back in October at age 89 (he was a formative figure in my early reading), and it got me thinking about the new Susan Sontag biography I recently read, and about my friend Steve Donoghue who’s read everything on Earth and about David Remnick, editor of The New Yorker and one of my chief role models—it got me thinking about polymaths, basically, people who live a devout kind of flag-waving life of the mind, defenders of the world of letters and its traditions, but who are also known for being funny, well-traveled, versed in high culture and low.
Christopher Hitchens is another popular example. Stephen Fry, the same.
Then yesterday, outta the blue, I remembered the Australian writer Clive James, who’s got a similar reputation: funny, literary, as versed in western philosophy as he is in Japanese game shows. So I Googled him to see if he was up to anything new and I learned that, fuck me!, he died last week! Age 80.
I was thinking, “Shit, if Clive James died without my hearing anything about it I must not be paying as much attention to the book world as I thought.”
But then, during a 90-minute drive to visit my mom in the afternoon, I did some bingeing of his interviews with the BBC, dating as far back as almost twenty years, and I realized that James, having been seized by a collection of serious illnesses back in like 2013, basically had a bunch of obituaries and remembrances published six years ago. He participated in a series of what seemed like deathbed interviews. (Christopher Hitchens, pale and slim and hairless from a vicious chemo treatment, did a few of the same.) Critics wrote think pieces about James’s career, and how he’d influenced world culture by marrying the highbrow with the low-; he won awards and his praise was sung far and wide so that he could enjoy the spotlight once more in these final hours. He wrote a beautiful poem about the dying of the light, called “Japanese Maple”, that went viral and put an even brighter light on him
Except…he didn’t die. Or not very quickly, at least.The whole world seemed to be standing at the shore, waiting to watch his raft drift off into the abyss, but then he just…stuck around. Ankle-deep in the waters of mortality, the whole scene slowly turning awkward.
“The end is nigh,” he reportedly said, “but not that nigh.”
So it seems like people dispersed from the shore as he went on to live for another six years and then finally, when he died last week, I’m guessing it was presumed, by editors around the world, that readers still had a faint recollection of Clive James remembrances just like these. So there wasn’t a ton of comment or notice.
But it’s not a wasteland. There are some very nice remembrances to read, the most beautiful, by a longshot, being Adam Gopnik’s piece in The New Yorker, which features this:
But, then, James was never unknown to controversy. His elegy to Princess Diana, published in this magazine shortly after her death, was widely seen as embarrassing in its breathlessness, and in its description of a friendship clearly more one-sided (he loved her; she used him) than his pride could quite admit. But exactly what separates real writers from mere critics and journalists is the unmediated quality of their obsessions, a willingness, or a readiness, to look ridiculous in pursuit of a passion….Writers who are not romantic about the wrong things will never be romantic about the right ones, either.Adam Gopnik, “Clive James Got it Right”
Anyway. I’ve added his books of essays to my Amazon Wish List and plan on getting to it nigh. But not that nigh.