Clive James, the Australian memoirist, poet, translator, critic, and broadcaster, was diagnosed with terminal leukemia in 2010, but this collection of short literary essays, written under that death sentence, is full of life. As I read these pieces in the course of just a couple of hours, I felt as if I were in the same room with this convivial, erudite but never pretentious man as he talked about his favorite authors and books. Happily, I learned we shared many of the same enthusiasms. What a delight, for example, to hear him hold forth on Patrick O’Brian’s nautical adventure novels set during the Napoleonic wars. Much of what James had to say about English sea captain Jack Aubrey and his physician sidekick, Stephen Maturin, I agreed with, though at times I wish I could have asked him to elaborate or even questioned his judgment. Do you really think that C.S. Forester’s Hornblower books are in the same league as O’Brian’s series?
Most gratifying was to discover that James recognizes the genius of Anthony Powell’s twelve-volume novel cycle, A Dance to the Music of Time, which by chance I myself was rereading for maybe the third or fourth time. Again, I found myself intimately engaged with the author as he expressed his opinions on this masterpiece focusing on British society from the end of World War I to the 1960s. Well, yes, it does have some dull stretches, but come on, that comic country-house scene is all the more effective because Powell extends it over several pages.
I had never read Clive James before, but you can be sure I’ll be eagerly seeking out his other work.