Tuesday, August 11, 2009

The Revolt of the Pendulum
Clive James, Macmillan, NZ$49.99

Reviewed by Mark Broatch

The release of a collection of essays and criticism from Clive James is always a cause for celebration. It's impossible to keep up with the production of this autodidact polymath, who this year enters his eighth decade, so it's useful that a publisher every so often punctuates his whirring verbal assembly line with an attractive hardback.
James is interested in everything, but a few things in particular. Revolt of the Pendulum - the title comes from a quote from an Australian politician - is divided into sections on literature, culture and "homeland", and less easily categorisable ones, such as friends who have died and marginalia like racing car drivers. He has read every book worth reading and every film worth seeing, taking novels of notes as he goes.

The homeland section is typically strong. Although he is clearly a Oxbridge man now, he has not lost touch with Australian thinking, arts or politics. His review of Things I Didn't Know, by fellow expat Robert Hughes, explains why the book is not Hughes' best work but also why his second-best is better than most people's Sunday best.

James writes like a friend, an ageless generous friend who wears his knowledge lightly. He's a magpie of ideas, but also an obsessive, a fanboy, a pedant, a velvet-gloved witty curmudgeon. I say obsessive in that there is almost a pathology in his pursuit of the topics and writers that interest him. How many other cultural critics have got their heads around half a dozen languages just so they can read their favourite writers in the original? (That he does it as part of his undeniable desire to show off does occur to the reader, but that's quite some dedication to the uncertain glow of public and peer approbation.)

His prose is accessible, ranging through the academic to the lyrical and demotic as required. About Leni Riefenstahl, the visual biographer of the Nazi era, he writes: "Hitler had liked her [film] Blue Light, so when she once again said, 'I must meet that man,' her wish was easily answered. Coy for the rest of her endless life on the subject of whether she threw him one, she always wanted it to be thought that only his total dedication to the cause held him back."
His jokes are sometimes silly, sometimes erudite, and you may, as I did, have to look up the odd historical reference he takes for granted his audience will know. He reviews a book called Artists in Exile saying: "Imagine Balanchine watching a bunch of cheerleaders and you've got this book in a flash." Usually I couldn't care less about whether this country makes an appearance in such a book, but I did notice one mention. When referring to Karl Popper, a scholar who immigrated to these islands, James calls us "faraway New Zealand", when his NSW upbringing in Kogarah happened just a couple of hours away. But then he could be referring to cultural distance rather than geographical.

For those who could not face - or afford - his recent blockbuster Cultural Amnesia (he refers to their content as "as difference in scale"), this could be an easier entrée into his back catalogue.
Mark Broatch is Books Editor at the Sunday Star Times where this review first appeared on 9 August, 2009.

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