Clive James was a recurring presence in last weekend’s literary press. There was, I regret to say, a valedictory feel to the coverage. Robert McCrum, of the Guardian, was not so much suggestive as openly morbid: ‘If word of his death has been exaggerated, there’s no question, on meeting him, that he’s into injury time, with a nagging cough that punctuates our conversation.’ If those words and others like them made little impact on the reader, then the photograph of James that illustrates McCrum’s interview might. Old age looks no fun; serious illness even less so.
But, James’ spirit does not seem to have been shaken by the indignities visited upon his flesh. His latest TV column in the Telegraph bristles with verve and cheek:
‘I read somewhere that before the appearance of the Rolling Stones at Glastonbury (BBC Two), Mick Jagger, between a 10-hour session on the treadmill and a ballet class, had been dipped upside down in a giant pot of caviar, thus to preserve the fresh bloom of his skin.
He was indeed in the first blush of eternal youth, if eternal youth is the version of youth in which the head remains large but the body returns to being tiny. He is so fit that he has shrunk. Yet the voice is cavernous, not just when singing but when speaking. He was constantly speaking to the vast live audience as if it were a many-headed child. “Everybody sing OW!”
The vast live audience duly sang “OW!” as instructed. I suppose most of the millions of us at home did too. I know I did. Indeed I am singing “OW!” now, even as I write this, scarcely able to believe that I have been watching this immortal teenager prancing about for half a century. But although I can see the merits of a rock star’s punishing regime to stay young forever, I still can’t help feeling that it is better to accept age as Charlie Watts has done, who looks as if he first played drums at the court of the Ptolemys. Such a noble head, as from a bas-relief eroded by the winds of time.
And yet I suppose that Charlie, too, must train to stay in shape for whacking and thwacking away for hour after hour, his impassive gaze directed towards some faraway bank vault in which his money is stacked in bars of gold. The truth about the Stones is that they are a highly successful corporation whose methods, like those of Google or Microsoft, are not really open for comment unless you have legal representation. All you can do is sing “OW!” when you are told.’
What I most admire about Clive James is that his satire is so sleek you do not immediately recognise its savagery. Engrossed in the image of noble Charlie Watts bonging away for Ptolemy, I almost missed what follows. That, as Sam Leith said of James’s writing in another context not so long ago, is ‘very, very slick’.
Finally, there is the small matter of James having translated The Divine Comedy. The translation is, by most accounts, excellent — notwithstanding a tendency to tinker with the original text, which may infuriate purists. His motivations for undertaking this immense task are varied. James ‘laughs seriously’ (in the style of Mennipus of Gadara, Lucian and the rest of that crowd), so Dante’s playfulness and sense of purpose suit him. James is a polymath who defies mindless goons who hold that a TV critic is not ‘serious’ by definition. And, I suppose, there may be a streak of cussedness in him. Why translate Dante? Well, why the hell not!
And yet the grand endeavour has the ring of a serenade to his estranged wife, the Dante scholar Prue Shaw. James wrote in the Telegraph a couple of days ago:
‘For more than 50 years, my wife’s scholarship, her tenacity and seriousness of purpose, have been there to remind me of what it means to be dedicated to Dante and to help pass on the body of knowledge associated with his name. Her work culminated first with her gold-medal-winning edition of Dante’s “Monarchia” for the Società Dantesca Italiana, the only national edition of any work of Dante edited by a non-Italian, and a labour of love that took her 30 years. It culminated all over again with the completion of her digital edition of The Divine Comedy’s manuscript tradition, a tool for all Dante scholars, and a thing of extraordinary beauty and utility. I hope she will forgive me for straying onto her territory, but really there is no contest.
Beside her lucid and scrupulous scholarship, a translation counts for very little. But I have done my best with it, always encouraged by the memory of how, in Florence, she first gave me an idea of what it meant to be in the service of her great poet.’
Would that all of us could woo this way. And, to adapt the lyrics of James’s immortal teenager, I very much hope that time is on his side.