Christopher Hitchens once wrote of George Orwell that “it is possible to reprint every single letter, book review, and essay composed by Orwell without exposing him to any embarrassment.”
The same could be said of Clive James–essayist and poet–when examining his output. At first glance, knowing James’ politics (to this day he calls himself part of the “proletarian left,” despises the free market, and favors a state-run media—he should emigrate here), one would expect dreary repetition. Certainly, that is what we got from James’ contemporary Gore Vidal. No matter the topic, Vidal always steered it toward his military-industrial complex conspiracy. Even Christopher Hitchens didn’t completely give up the Trotsky ghost; in one of his last essays, Hitchens scrambled to find something of relevance about the Old Man and found it in Trotsky’s conclusion that communism had failed.
But James bears re-reading. Not only is he eerily prescient about many things, but he is refreshingly unpredictable. You would never know that he is of the Left from reading his essays. James follows logic, and many times his gut, and the reader never knows where this journey he takes them on will end (not so with Oliver Stone, who more than anything else wants to be remembered as “a good historian;” you don’t even need to read the flyleaf of his Secret History of the United States to know the book will about the fascist tendencies of America). Like Orwell, who knew the Purge Trials were rigged based on his “feeling it in their literature,” James detected Lillian Hellman’s continuing fondness for Stalinism in the 1970s when others were applauding her as a stubbornly free thinker. Today, new evidence has come to light that Hellman never got over her feeling that Stalin had been right, but in the early 1970s, Hellman had successfully bamboozled the public with her self-serving portrait of a repentant leftist in Scoundrel Time. In that era, James knew she remained a Stalinist and based this, not only on her phony writing but in the “shivers” she caused in him when James met her.
With Orwell who is often cited as a prophet, James expresses his wish that the writer had not been so blinkered by Marxism. James pays lip service to the usual praise given to Orwell: his honesty, his clear style, his prescience about the Soviet collapse. But James also notes Orwell’s shortsightedness, chiefly in his Marxist-oriented belief that the British Empire actually made a profit from its subjected colonies (like Southern slavery, it never yielded a dividend). Orwell was equally mistaken about the flexible nature of capitalism; far from being in the dust heap, which Orwell saw signs of within his lifetime, capitalism could mutate (in the case of China) as well as topple Soviet Communism by whetting the appetites of Levi Jeans-hungry Russia.
James is equally unfashionable about Nixon. Reviewing his memoirs in Nixon’s nadir year of 1978, James found much to admire in the fallen President. Unlike JFK, who was a sham on nearly everything, Nixon had genuine accomplishments and sincere beliefs that truly represented what was good and bad in America.
When James settles down to some honest demolition of academics he is remarkable. He quickly invalidates Daniel Goldhagen’s thesis that the Holocaust was a logical result of the German character. James accepts that Germans could be anti-Semitic, but counters the historian’s argument of an entire nation being willing executioners by citing the plotters against Hitler, anti-Semites who were nevertheless disgusted with the concentration camps.
James can be pedestrian, even politically correct at times. Even in 1977, it was pretty commonplace to label Raymond Chandler solely a writer with a gift for similes. James is repelled by Chandler’s Phillip Marlowe with his quasi-fascist tendencies (in addition to a sexually telling willingness for the detective to assure a beating) expressed through a deep racism. Had he not been such a loner, James asserts, Marlowe would have been a good candidate for a fascist movement according to James.
With reprinted essays, the temptation is always to characterize them as a valuable time capsule documents. But James’ determined refusal to be fashionable frustrates such a notion. Like Orwell, he transcends his era and provides readers with a model of how to be a true essayist rather than an ephemeral pundit.