In 2010, poet and critic Clive James was diagnosed with terminal leukaemia. Thinking he didn’t have much time left, he retained the urge to read while he still could: “If you don’t know the exact moment when the lights will go out, you might as well read until they do.”
He coped with the physical symptoms of his various ailments by displaying the long-dormant symptoms of another disease – bibliomania. Despite not having the space, or perhaps time, for new books, he still bought books from the charity shops in Cambridge or the famous ‘Hugh’s bookstall’ in the market, when he could limp into town.
Yale University Press having asked him for a little book on his current reading, James set out to document his impressions of the books he was bringing into the house (at a rate of one plastic shopping bag a week).
The result is a delightful read, full of vignettes on books and publishing, and the great authors who have made an impression on him. There are chapters on key influences in his literary life such as Conrad, Hemingway and Larkin, but also relatively unknown authors. The invitation is always to try things out, to go a bit further.
Writing about the Second World War poet Keith Douglas, who is still not as well-known as he deserves, James has this to say:
“He was a superbly gifted poet who would have changed the state of the art had he lived […] He could point at [his poems] and say: if I’d had the chance, I would have done a lot more than that.
Now we must do the pointing for him. My idea of criticism’s duty is somewhere in that obligation. The critic should write to say, not ‘look how much I’ve read’, but ‘look at this, it’s wonderful.’”
Late Readings does this memorably, always encouraging the reader to try something new, like Patrick Leigh Fermor or A Dance to the Music of Time.
As it turned out, Clive James lived another nine years after his initial diagnosis, and was productive almost to the end, but there is still a regret that the music couldn’t last longer.