Book review: The Blaze of Obscurity

The Blaze of Obscurity by Clive James.
My rating: 4 of 5 stars.

Well, here we are. This is the final volume in Clive James’s Unreliable Memoirs series. It’s the fifth book wherein the éminence grise (or should that be éminence chauve?) describes his continued ascent through the land of the crystal bucket. With The Blaze of Obscurity, the Australian writer moves from being about the box to being mostly on it. It’s where shows began to be prefaced with his name, not just his image.

From now on, in this book, I will try to leave my name out of the title of the shows, thus to circumvent the twin fears of wasting space and sounding more than necessarily like a self-glorifying pantaloon.

It’s certainly the part of his career I knew most fulsomely. Beginning in 1982, it takes in James’s collection of Postcards shows, as well as the assorted clip shows (with or without Margarita Pracatan, who is rightly venerated here as an unstoppable force) and NYE celebrations that were a staple in our house when I was becoming old enough to get some of the jokes.

(All right, I might not have been quite cognisant of why the idea of Leonid Brezhnev kept upright by a foot pump was funny, but I could tell it was, so that’s something.)

Famous people abound in this book. I don’t know that I’ve read a more delightful portrait of Pavarotti than appears in here, and James’s description of Princess Diana – a woman he knew a little, and loved a lot – is particularly trenchant. There’s silliness and sadness in his encounters with fame – truculent dancers and movie titans who like knob jokes – but it’s presented in a way that never seems like name dropping. It’s vicarious, true, but the enjoyment is immense.

There’s a lot of information about the nuts and bolts of TV production here, and James manages to ensure it’s not boring as batshit. Instead, it highlights the amount of work that went into the review shows – a mammoth amount, as the following indicates…

Editing is an essentially poetic process akin to compressing carbon until you get diamonds. In our case we were compressing dross to get zircons, but that made the job even more difficult.

…and the serendipity that was necessary to make the Postcards shows rise above the norm. There’s still silly stories, but the amount of work involved to make the seamless shows is remarkable. The increase of pace involved in the formation of a production company is enormous, but there’s the sense that, even in the whirlwind, there’s Clive in his regulation blue suit.

This time, though, there’s a lot more poetry. Though it’s long been a part of the author’s life, it’s making itself more known here – or at least is given a lot more space. The death of Larkin – and James’s distress at being overseas at the time – is touchingly conveyed. But there’s never any doubt that the creation of poetry – even in translation (his Divine Comedy was yet to come) – is still bloody hard work:

Money and time are forms of each other, and there is no poem that does not cost the poet a hundred times what he gets paid for it. Poetry, the centre of my life, has always been the enemy of my material existence, and even now, after fifty years of writing it, it is still trying to put me out of business.

Speaking of words, the description of James’s place in London’s literary scene is still a key part of the Unreliable Memoirs series. The personal nature of the meetings, the stoushes and verbal sparring are brilliant, but are shot through with the regret that comes with increasing workloads, if not increasing fame.

When the up and coming are still in the early stages of their ascent, they cling together for warmth, but higher up the mountain, even though it gets colder, they start going their separate ways to the top. They just get too busy. It was our timetables, and not our different views, that put the first cracks in the old camaraderie.

(I am not sure whether Julian Barnes would welcome being described as an Easter Island statue when presented with French farce, but it’s certainly a line that seems particularly appropriate.)

Along with his literary endeavours, the author’s incredible drive to self-educate stands out. It’s always been there, as has his awareness of the ticking clock of mortality, but there’s a heightened sense of the need to get on with it. Learning to read Russian, working on one’s poetry, and figuring out how to wring the best out of both interview and travel – they’re all grist to James’s mill. Research is never wasted, and sometimes approaches transcendence.

Of learning to read Japanese, he writes

One day I hope to start again, because it was one of the big aesthetic experiences of my life, like getting into the Bach cantatas.

There it is: that delight in learning. The way turning down an alley of passing interest can lead to obsession and delight. If there’s anything that James has communicated through the volumes of memoirs he’s written, it’s that education and experience are to be pursued, to be savoured. The bloke truly was an intellectual omnivore. True, he never thought he was all that crash-hot at the things he was doing – ah, there’s the Australia in the man! – but he was never afraid of giving it a red-hot go.

I think that’s the real Clive James I see when I think of this volume, and of the Unreliable Memoirs in general: someone giving it a go. The line between enthusiast and chancer is very fine, but James managed to walk it pretty well, at least from an onlooker’s perspective.

There’s plenty of hints throughout that James was considering another volume of memoirs. It’s saddening to know that his post-television exploits – including (but not limited to) his poetic growth and long struggle with illness – will not be written. For all their humour, these books in general (and The Blaze of Obscurity in particular) provide a portrait that’s touching in its humanity. It would have been interesting to see how Clive presented his later years – I’m sure he’d have spun a few excellent bon mots out of increasing decrepitude – but I think his poetry perhaps took on the role that memoir once played.

At any rate, I’m sad these are over. They’re no Boswell-styled epic, but they do capture a self-doubting man whose turn of phrase was pretty fucking great. And let’s face it, there’s not much more one requires in a memoir.

It was said that when people wept at Diana’s death they were weeping for their own mortality. If they did, why should they not have done? To treat your life as if it will last is an illusion. If chance doesn’t stop you early, decrepitude will get you later on. Even when I was young I could hear the clock tick. Now, with my sixtieth year coming up, I could hear it boom.

My Goodreads profile is here.

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