Reliable Essays: The Best of Clive James

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9780330481304: Reliable Essays: The Best of Clive James
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Including his most memorable pieces – his ‘Postcard from Rome’, his observations on Margaret Thatcher, his insights into Heaney, Larkin and Orwell – this book also contains brilliantly funny examinations of characters like Barry Humphries, as well as showcasing James’s more thoughtful, analytical side.

From Germaine Greer to Marilyn Monroe, from the nature of celebrity to German culpability for the Holocaust, Reliable Essays is an unmissable collection from one of the best writers of our time.

‘He has widened the “tonal range” of criticism, permitting it to be both sober and skittish, learned and lewd, rhetorically rambunctious and epigrammatically concise . . . an intellectual as well as a joker, a wise man as well as a wit’ Peter Conrad, Observer

‘His writing is impeccably witty, flexible and urbane . . . immensely enjoyable to read. It’s a pleasure to see the metropolitan critic back in action’ Christopher Taylor, Sunday Telegraph

‘He can both get to the heart of a subject and raise a laugh’ Nicholas Lezard, Sunday Times

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Review:

Depending on your generation, Reliable Essays: the Best of Clive James either introduces or re-introduces a seriously entertaining literary talent. Collections of James' essays seem to appear perennially, but in the days before he swapped the TLS for TV, James wrote regular book reviews, a clutch of which are reproduced here. His appraisal of George Orwell, that peerless appraiser of other writers, is worthy of its subject, and the four pieces, in reverse chronology, celebrating Philip Larkin, re-affirm the singular English beauty of his poetry, and the considerable assets of his two novels, Jill and A Girl in Winter. James omits his later review of the Andrew Motion biography, Philip Larkin, which perhaps would have finished, or rather begun, the sequence, but the four pieces stand on their own. One enduring theme in his writing is to judge the artist rather than the man or woman, exemplified in his predilection for writers such as Kingsley Amis and Evelyn Waugh, and the entangled personae of the dauntingly talented--and equally learned--Barry Humphries. Though he mugs Malcolm Muggeridge, and enjoyably mocks the Sherlockologists, his jibes, though never cheap, are always of good value.

James is a polymath, yet as Julian Barnes points out in his pithy, affectionate introduction, perhaps the poetry, novels, television columns, television presenting, documentary-making and all-round celebrity detract from what is a considerable intellectual gift. James defends his more populist activities, yet this one-man "brilliant bunch of guys", as the New Yorker put it, shows with extended pieces on Primo Levi's The Drowned and the Saved, and Daniel Jonah Goldhagen's Hitler's Willing Executioners that he can punch his weight with the best of them, displaying erudition, compassion, depth of reading, and a commitment to language both vigilant and generous. With a new postscript following each piece, the tonal unity remains remarkable, considering the 30-year span of cultural inquiry that shows little sign of abating. Even As We Speak, another recent collection, covers the final decade of the 20th century, and includes his notorious requiem for the late Princess of Wales (it doesn't make the cut here, curiously), but Reliable Essays perhaps best captures his extraordinary breadth of vision, and intellectual agility. Television's loss will be literature's regain.--David Vincent

Review:

Since arriving from Australia in the 1960s, Clive James has trod a tricky path between popular and high culture. In one field, he finds no joke too vulgar (think back to the 1980s, when his regular TV shows usually included a gleeful relay of clips from sadistic Japanese game shows); in the other, no text is too highbrow. Few, however, remember his lyrical contributions to the records of Pete Atkin, which resulted in some of the most literate and delightful popular music of the 1970s. His versatility has often rebounded on him - to some, he is viewed as a great wit, to others, he is unbearably smug. In recent times, however, James has decided to turn his back on the TV and reclaim the high ground as a serious writer and critic. Unsurprisingly for one who was for many years the Observer's TV critic, there are musings about the gogglebox, but for the most part, this collection consists of essays on Evelyn Waugh, Nabokov, Seamus Heaney and a four-part work on the poet Philip Larkin. And jolly fine essays they are, too - the serious analysis often being leavened by James' humour. Many of the pieces have appeared elsewhere before, but this represents both a handy anthology for the converted and a primer for the new reader.

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