Reliable Essays: The Best of Clive James
(Introduction by Julian Barnes)
London: Picador, 2001. (349 p.)
ISBN 0-330-48129-0 (£14.99)
I first discovered Clive James’s writing while sifting through the back pages of some Observer issues published in the early eighties. His insightful television reviews published during this time helped make his name known to the larger public in England during the 1980s, as had his regular television appearances for the BBC and ITV. James, being Australian, is renowned in that country, as well, having been made a Member of the Order of Australia in 1992. In America, however, James’s work remains vastly and sadly under-appreciated. Most likely, much of the problem stems from American’s self-focused interests (not many receive the London Times, let alone the Observer), particularly during the eighties. The continued absence of British television programming in the U.S. doesn’t help, either. What’s so special about Clive James, after all?
One of my favorite Clive James works is the now little-known, but once vastly praised epic poem Peregrine Prykke’s Pilgrimage through the London Literary World first published in 1974 and revised with illustrations by Russell Davies in 1976. James’s poem is a treatise on the literary scene and the politics involved in publishing. Prykke is a truly classic work that depicts caricatures of famous (and infamous) literary giants and up-and-coming stars, such as Kingsley Amis, Philip Larkin, Martin Amis, and Seamus Heaney to name a few. One of the best portrayals is of Ian Hamilton, the important editor of The Review and The New Review, biographer, poet, and literary critic and the bar in which he held court: The Pillars of Hercules.
With Reliable Essays, James puts his best foot forward to present a collection of his finest essays and criticisms. In the personalized introduction to the collection, Julian Barnes tells James, “your literary essays are your best work” (xv) and, with the examples presented here, few can argue differently. With subjects ranging from Philip Larkin, Nabokov, Seamus Heaney, and Raymond Chandler to Germaine Greer and Margaret Thatcher, James is never offbeat.
-- Ryan Roberts, June 2001