Clive James: ‘I fancied the chance to show off’
As a critic Clive James changed the way we think about TV, then, as a presenter, kick-started its obession with low-rent celebrity. One of the most under-rated writers of the past 50 years, he has also published poetry, essays and, now, a translation of Dante’s Divine Comedy
Why did you start to write your memoirs? And why is it important that they’re “unreliable”?
In the late 1970s I was taking lunch every week with a bunch of literati, and I grew accustomed to providing my share of the entertainment by telling tall tales of my childhood. Eventually it occurred to me that the tales might make a book. I used the word “unreliable” to head off any accusation that the stories might be improbable. The precaution worked everywhere in the English-speaking world except the United States, where the book has been launched twice but sank each time.
Your strongly anti-totalitarian liberal values are all over Cultural Amnesia. Why did you write that (amazing) book?
Insofar as one knows one’s own motives for writing anything, I wrote Cultural Amnesia for exactly that reason: I thought that anti-totalitarian values still needed protecting. I was born and grew up at a time when two of the main totalitarian systems just happened to be on opposite sides in a world war, but in fact they were united in their lethal contempt for democracy. After the collapse of Nazi Germany, Naziism was scarcely heard from again, but communism lived on, and it still does live on, even after the demolition of the Berlin Wall. For most of my writing life, the impatience of the progressive intelligentsia with the democratic process has been a constant worry to me. Really I’d rather not talk about it, but one has to.
Why did you decide to translate Dante? Did you have to immerse yourself in the Dantean world view or did you project your own more modern values on Dante?
For more than 40 years I wanted to translate Dante. I just didn’t know how to do it. Then I finally figured out how to convey his impetus, which is his great secret, even greater than his lyric invention. Dante really knows how to make verse move forward. The whole of the Divine Comedy goes like The Charge of the Light Brigade. As for the “Dantean world”, it was right there in the house: my wife is a Dante scholar of great eminence. Her own book about Dante will be out in the US next February, and I think it’s brilliant.
Why should people read poetry?
I get the impression that people are still thrilled by poetry, but it has to sneak up on them. Look at what happened to Auden’s sales figures after Four Weddings and a Funeral.
Does celebrity impinge on your work as a critic, poet and writer?
I try to make sure it doesn’t, but it does, and sometimes it even helps. For example, it helps you at the awkward moment when you suggest to your publishers that you might like to spend a few years translating Dante.
What do you imagine life would have been like for you if you’d stayed in Australia?
I think I would perhaps have done all right, and might even have had a multiple career in radio, television and literature, but there would have been an awful lot about the world that I didn’t know.
Clive James will be talking by video link about translating Dante at the Happy Days Enniskillen International Beckett Festival at 6pm today