Clive James, a Tireless Polymath Who Led With His Wit

Clive James, who died on Sunday at 80, mined such a rich vein of wit in his writing — poems, memoirs, translations, novels, song lyrics, intellectual journalism and a deep body of criticism — that he was, to his admirers, almost endlessly quotable.

“A sense of humor is just common sense, dancing,” he wrote. “Those who lack humor are without judgment and should be trusted with nothing.”

He said of George W. Bush that he “should not be delivering a State of the Union address. He should be delivering pizza.” He compared Arnold Schwarzenegger’s torso to a “condom full of walnuts.” He made fun of his own looks, comparing himself to a bank robber who forgot to take the stocking off his head.

He told an editor, “Listen, if I wrote like that, I’d be you.” Reviewing a memoir by Leonid Brezhnev, he declared: “Here is a book so dull that a whirling dervish could read himself to sleep with it. If you were to recite even a single page in the open air, birds would fall out of the sky and dogs drop dead.”

He wrote that Perry Como — this is for older readers — resembled “a man who has simultaneously been told to say ‘Cheese’ and shot in the back by a poisoned arrow.” James smuggled his wit into nearly everything he wrote. His best-known poem begins:

The book of my enemy has been remaindered
And I am pleased.
In vast quantities it has been remaindered
Like a van-load of counterfeit that has been seized

Behind his wit lurked a polymath. He spoke multiple languages and was a translator of Dante. He was passionate and learned about unexpected things, like the tango and Formula One racing.

[ Read The Times’s obituary of Clive James. ]

He attended Cambridge University but wrote on his own wildcat autodidact frequency. He wasn’t the sort of critic who arrives like a crossing guard wearing an orange sash. “This is where I come to think, cafes all over the world,” he wrote. “A cafe table stacked with books has been my university now for 40 years.” His combinatory intelligence radiated in multiple directions.

James was born in Australia in 1939 — his father survived being taken as a prisoner of war by the Japanese, only to die when his flight home crashed — but moved to England in 1962 and spent the rest of his life there.

It’s hard to explain the many levels of James’s fame in England in American terms. He was an erudite man who was also the host of many popular television programs (one was called “Saturday Night Clive”) and documentaries, and was a guest on many others. His memoirs were best sellers. It was like watching Johnny Carson, Russell Baker and Edmund Wilson struggle to enter a door at the same time.

I knew James a bit, and visited him in 2018 in Cambridge. He was winded. He’d been battling leukemia and emphysema since 2010. He had a sense of humor about the fact that he’d been dying in public for nearly a decade. “I’ll be gone soon, and before long it will be 10 years since I started saying that. My credibility is sinking to zero.”

On a previous visit, James told me that his friend Tom Stoppard had said of the attention James’s declining health brought: “This is marvelous! Don’t deny it, just go on enjoying it.” James had been a serious smoker. In one of his memoirs, “North Face of Soho,” he wrote: “I smoked so much that I needed the hubcap of a Bedford van as an ashtray.” About smoking pot, he wrote in the same book: “I not only Bogarted that joint, I Lee Marvined it.”

James’s kitchen table, toward the end of his life, was his war room. It’s where he wrote, held court with visitors and sometimes watched movies on his laptop and listened to classical music. He’d been rereading the novelist Olivia Manning’s “Balkan Trilogy,” he told me. He’d rewatched the movie “Shooter,” and said he would watch the actress Kate Mara in anything.

As he wrote in “Latest Readings,” one of his final books, “The childish urge to understand everything doesn’t necessarily fade when the time approaches for you to do the most adult thing of all: vanish.”

About listening again to Alfred Brendel play Beethoven, he told me: “I love Brendel. I never could understand why he hated Rachmaninoff. Imagine being a piano player who boycotts a composer.” He was a gifted mimic who wrote that the way to imitate the soprano Elisabeth Schwarzkopf was to pretend to try to kiss the behind of a hummingbird in flight.

To ask James a question could be to trigger an avalanche. You left his company with your mind aflame. You nearly always left his writing feeling the same way.

“People don’t get their morality from their reading matter; they bring their morality to it,” he wrote. A moral quality infused his own writing. His career was dedicated to that most important purpose of all: bullshit reduction.

He was a gifted poet — his late book-length poem “The River in the Sky” is a dark masterpiece — who also wrote with vigor and sensitivity about poetry. He practiced “kitchen criticism,” a phrase he explained:

“It was the term that the Elizabethans once used for the analysis of poetic technique: when to invert the foot, how to get a spondee by dropping a trochee into an iamb’s slot, and things like that. Kitchen criticism is a term that should be revived, because its unlovely first word might have the merit of persuading the fastidious to make themselves scarce until they can accept that there is an initial level of manufacture at which the potatoes have to be peeled.”

He wrote that his own “prescription for making poetry popular in the schools would be to ban it — with possession treated as a serious misdemeanor, and dealing as a felony.”

James lived well into the age of Amazon. In “Latest Readings,” he wrote that purchasing books via his laptop made him wonder about “what life will be like when you will merely have to think of something you want and it will arrive instantly, still crackling with the ozone of the time-space continuum.”

He wrote multiple books in his final years; he burned out rather than faded away.

“If the young feel compelled to come and see your tomb, there should be something good written on it,” he wrote in “Latest Readings.” “Here in Cambridge, in Trinity College Chapel, there is a plaque dedicated to Ludwig Wittgenstein. It says, in Latin, that he released thought from its bonds in language. If I ever had a plaque, I would like it to say: He loved the written word, and told the young.”

In that same book, he wrote: “If you don’t know the exact moment when the lights will go out, you might as well read until they do.”

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