Clive James

Presented to the Calgary Women’s Literary Cub by Della Mae Wood, October 12, 2021

Clive James was an Australian writer of extraordinary literary gifts. At the time of his death in 2019 he was reputed among his peers to be the most wide-ranging critic of his generation and one of the most important and influential writers of his time.

He was born in Sydney in 1939, the year of the outbreak of World War II. He grew up in Kogarah where his widowed mother raised him after his father was killed in an airplane crash while returning from fighting in that war. Clive was just six years old. In his first autobiography (he wrote five), Unreliable Memoirs, he describes his childhood as ‘idyllic’.

James was educated at Sydney University where he met Germain Greer and Robert Hughes who became noted writers themselves. There he also met a woman who would become his wife, Prue Shaw, the great Dante scholar. After graduating he left Australia for the cultural climate of England, arriving there at age twenty-two with a great desire to become a poet. His second autobiography, Falling Toward England, chronicles this part of his life in hilarious narrative. After two years in London, enough to qualify for a Cambridge scholarship, he continued his education at Pembroke College.

James began writing criticism for literary magazines before becoming a television critic for the London Observer. He became the best-selling author of over forty books: five autobiographies, four novels, one travel book, thirty-two  books of cultural and literary criticism, a heralded translation of Dante’s Divine Comedy, and ten books of verse. His writings include the highly praised Cultural Amnesia: Notes in the Margins of my Time, a book he said, ‘that took him forty years to write, organized like the top of my desk.” It had its origins in his study of the thought and works of the notable people of his time. As always, he wrote with verve and wit.

In addition to his books, he wrote a large number of articles and reviews for a wide varietyof papers and magazines, ranging from the BBC Listener to the New Yorker. Following James’s death, Pulitzer Prize winning writer Adam Gopnik celebrated his work in a New Yorker article ‘Clive James Got It Right’: ‘The author of some of the best prose of the last fifty years …. He made you laugh, he made you think and then laugh, again ….’

James was enthralled by poetry all his life. His penultimate work, River in the Sky, combined autobiography, criticism and cultural commentary in a book length epic. Months before his death, his vision impaired, unable to read, he compiled an anthology of “Roughly eighty poems to get by heart and say aloud”. He knew hundreds of poems by heart and this book, The Fire of Joy, was a selection of his favourites. Published in 2020, his final work drew this tribute from John Banville in the New York Review of Books: ‘Few contemporary critics display the passionate commitment to the idea of poetry, and to the idea of poetry’s centrality to civilized life, that James does.’ 

Clive James died one month after he laid his pen down for the last time.