Don Anderson reviews 'Reliable Essays: The best of Clive James' and 'Even As We Speak: New essays 1993–2001' by Clive James

Don Anderson reviews 'Reliable Essays: The best of Clive James' and 'Even As We Speak: New essays 1993–2001' by Clive James

Reliable Essays: The best of Clive James

by Clive James

Picador, $45 hb, 349 pp, 0330481290

Book Cover 2 Small

Even As We Speak: New essays 1993–2001

by Clive James

Picador, $26 pb, 381 pp, 0330481762

Clive James needs no introduction, though he asked Julian Barnes to provide one for Reliable Essays, a selection from three decades of James’s literary journalism made by his publisher, Peter Straus. The Kid from Kogarah is, as The New Yorker once famously observed, ‘a brilliant bunch of guys’: literary essayist (his ‘best work’, Barnes insists), television critic, poet, novelist, autobiographer, rock lyricist, documentary-maker, television host, famous person. Barnes implies that the ‘best’ of Clive James has regrettably been consigned to the ‘land of shadows’ by the ubiquitous ‘TV host, famous person’. In his concluding paragraph, Barnes welcomes the recent news that James is to stop being what the tabloids call ‘TV’s Clive’. Welcome back to Grub Street, ‘Literature’s Clive’, he perorates.

Unlike Martin Amis, whose The War against Cliché: Essays and reviews 1971–2000 features a cover illustration with pens and pencils, both of the volumes under review include a cover photograph – a topic on which James writes with authority in ‘Pictures in Silver’ in the ‘Best of …’ collection –of Clive James, among other luminaries. Doubtless ‘TV host, famous person’ generates this. Yet there is, surely, something missing from this familiar, droll yet stern visage, beneath that noble if thinly furnished cranium. It begs for a wig. A wig for a wag. Not the contemporary ‘rug’, but a noble, eighteenth-century job, nothing Cavalier, but a sensible wig, an august wig that bespeaks James’s Johnsonian, delighted concurrence with the common reader.

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Published in October 2001, no. 235

Don Anderson

Don Anderson is the author/editor of eight books, collections of essays and reviews, and anthologies of prose, largely of texts from the Americas, Australia, and Europe. For fourteen years in the 1980s and 1990s he was a regular literary columnist in the National Times and the Sydney Morning Herald. He was for thirty years a member of the English department at the University of Sydney, where he taught American, Irish, and Australian literature, and literary theory. He was for some years a member of the Advisory Panel of ABR.

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