Closing acts: Clive James
Clive James has endured his own circle of hell in health and emotional terms, adding pathos to publication of his 'Divine Comedy' translation, writes Robert McCrum
"I'm told that I'm looking quite shiny," says Clive James, putting his best face on things with a vintage display of Anglo-Australian stoicism. It's an instinctive optimism that is what you'd expect but is nevertheless moving.
Almost everything in the life of this great literary polymath is edged with darkness. James now dwells in a kind of internal exile: from family, from good health and from convivial literary association, even from his own native land. His circumstances in old age - James is 73 - evoke a fate that Dante might plausibly have inflicted on a junior member of the damned in one of the less exacting circles of hell.
James' health has lately been so bad that, last year, he was obliged publicly to deny a viral rumour of his imminent demise. Two or three times, indeed, since falling ill on New Year's Day in 2010, he has nearly died, but has somehow contrived to play the Comeback Kid. Perhaps he has found rejuvenation in the macabre satisfaction of reading premature rave obituaries from fans around the English-speaking world. 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.
"Essentially," he says, as we settle into the rather spartan living room of a terraced house in Cambridge, "I've got the lot. Leukaemia is lurking, but it's in remission. The thing that rips up my chest is the emphysema. Plus I've got all kinds of little carcinomas." He points to the place on his right ear where a predatory oncologist has recently removed a threatening growth. "I'd love to see Australia again," he reflects. "But I can't go further than three weeks away from Addenbrookes Hospital, so that means I'm here in Cambridge."
In a recent, valedictory poem, Holding Court, which describes his involuntary sequestration, he writes: "My wristband feels too loose around my wrist." In all other respects, he is tightly shackled to his fate.
Exiled from his homeland, where he has now become a much-loved grand old man of Australian letters, James is also exiled in Cambridge. His wife of 45 years, the Dante scholar Prue Shaw, kicked him out of the house last year after the disclosure of his long affair with a former model, Leanne Edelsten. This betrayal also devastated his two daughters, while eventually bringing them closer to their father. In Holding Court, James writes ruefully that "retreating from the world, all I can do is build a new world".
He is doing that this month in the only way he knows: in print. With a grim appropriateness, his new book is an extraordinary verse rendering - the fruit of many years' work - of Dante's The Divine Comedy. According to T.S. Eliot, this is the only book in the Western tradition that surpasses Shakespeare. It is typical of James' chutzpah that he has not only tackled this Everest of translation, but has scrambled to the summit in triumph.
James reports that, in Australia, he has been getting "wonderful reviews, which is very gratifying". Now he waits with some apprehension for the British critical response, knowing all too well that over the years he has been acclaimed as an entertainer but mercilessly criticised as the clown who wants to play Hamlet.
Flak is something he has had to deal with from the minute he decided to leave Kogarah, New South Wales. James comes from that remarkable generation of ambitious post-war Australians - other members are Robert Hughes and Germaine Greer - who felt they had to get out. "We all thought that the real action was overseas," he says. Any regrets about not going back? He has been burned too often by the Sydney media to answer that easily. "Let's just say, yes - and no," he replies. "Australia offers a wonderful life, but I've made my life here."
Vivian Leopold James (he adopted "Clive" after Vivien Leigh as Scarlett O'Hara made his name seem girlish), born in 1939, has said that "the other big event of that year was the outbreak of the second world war". Challenged with this now, he laughs and says: "Dramatising myself is what I do." He landed in England in the winter of 1962, having promised his Sydney friends he would be gone for just five years. But then he went to university in Cambridge. James became a leader of the revels and discovered a taste for mixing erudition with performance. He has been showing off ever since. Could he have become an academic? "I would have been a bad don," he admits. "I was always haring off to London. I would not have been sufficiently interested in my students - that's a character weakness. I'm not humble enough, and the capacity for ordinary work is not in me."
In place of the ivory tower, James gravitated to the Pillars of Hercules pub, the centre of the 1970s Grub Street of Ian Hamilton, Karl Miller and Terry Kilmartin. After some false starts, he landed the job of TV critic for The Observer, which would shape his career. "Terry Kilmartin, then Observer arts editor, was the key to it," he remembers. "I used the column to analyse British culture, writing about everything."
And, of course, to entertain. Clive James on television became a weekly must-see, importing an Aussie irreverence to rival that of Barry Humphries as Dame Edna Everage. The best of his observations - for instance, that "Perry Como gave his usual impersonation of a man who has simultaneously been told to say 'cheese' and shot in the back by a poisoned arrow" - had a surreal hilarity. Famously, he compared Arnold Schwarzenegger in Pumping Iron to "a brown condom filled with walnuts".
Dante is a first love, and one that is further braided into an old love through Prue Shaw's lifelong study of medieval Italian poetry. If The Divine Comedy is, finally, a 500-page meditation on love's ceaseless dramas, then James' translation derives its inspiration from his own nearly 50-year association with a great Italian scholar.
In the introduction to his translation, which is really a love letter to his estranged wife, James recalls the first time, long ago in Florence, Italy, that she explained to him the complex subtlety of the Paolo and Francesca episode in canto 5 of Inferno. "Though it was assembled from minutely wrought effects," he writes, "the episode really did have rhythmic sweep. Every moment danced, and the dance was always moving forward."
Whenever the younger James played truant from his Cambridge studies to look at one of the many, often hard-going, translations of Dante, he convinced himself that "the job was thankless". Instead, for 40 years he threw himself into London's human comedy, diverting himself with myriad literary and televisual distractions, dazzled a generation, had more than his 15 minutes of fame, then retired.
He returned to The Divine Comedy shortly after 9/11. All at once "I thought I could see how a translation might work", he says. Rather than attempt to render the notoriously difficult music of Dante's terza rima into English he would adopt a more familiar poetic narrative strategy and translate the 14,000 lines of The Divine Comedy into quatrains.
The result, just published, is a revelation. He has taken quite a few liberties with the text but only to put rocket fuel into a vintage motor. He's certainly given it all he's got. The project has been more than a decade in publication. "After I got ill," he says, "I was keen to live long enough to see the book published."
The translation has another therapeutic function: to restore his marriage. His wife, he says, has been a great enthusiast for his efforts. So are they reconciled? "That's putting it a bit high," he replies. "It's something I would dearly wish, but it may not be in the realm of the possible."
For the moment, he is basking in the pre-review attention, planning a sixth volume of memoirs, provisionally entitled Prelude to the Aftermath, and shaking his head over the horrors of the latest Dan Brown, another rival - of sorts - in the Dante stakes. I wonder if the Italian master has taught him any lessons about how to live. "Don't get exiled," he replies, with a final roar of laughter.
Guardian News & Media
The Divine Comedy, by Dante, translated by Clive James, is published by Liveright