Latest Readings - Clive James (2015)

Coda

I HAVE BEEN READING two biographies at once. One, Lucy Hughes-Hallett’s The Pike, which is the life story of Gabriele d’Annunzio, deals with an almost entirely worthless individual: he wrote some resounding poetry, but otherwise he was good for nothing except whipping crowds into protofascist hysteria and proving that a galloping case of halitosis was no hindrance to his uncanny success with women. He must have had something, or so distinguished a woman as Eleonora Duse would not have gone to bed with him: but on the whole the only reason you would want to raise the raving twerp from his grave would be so that you could slap his face. The other biography is Mark Bostridge’s Florence Nightingale, the story of one of the most worthwhile individuals in the world. I am trying to do my duty to justice by finding her more interesting than him. On the plane of brute fact, nothing could be more interesting than how D’Annunzio, after the Paris premiere of Diaghilev’s Cleopatra, insinuated himself into Ida Rubinstein’s crowded dressing room and crammed his face between her legs. In sharp contrast, the only scandal generated by Florence Nightingale was the kind of brain-dead press concoction familiar to us today: in the hospital at Scutari, she watched amputations to learn how the process could be made less traumatic, and the press took the opportunity of calling her a sadist.

She was, of course, exactly the opposite thing. Mercy was her vocation. That being said, her preoccupation was to take the practical steps that would transform nursing into an act of public benevolence, with a set of procedures to be universally instilled. The inertia that she had to overcome being nearly as powerful as a whole society, she had no time for mere fine feelings.

From Bostridge’s exemplary book, a heartening impression emerges of how Nightingale could think on a vast scale while never shifting her attention from the importance of detail. Much of her reforming zeal was prescient. A germ theory of disease was still a quarter of a century in the future, but she somehow realized the vital role that could be played by cleanliness. Thus she transformed the Scutari hospital from a hellhole into a refuge. Her distinction of mind marks every chapter of her story, even those chapters which occurred before she saw what her true role was. She was greatly gifted in languages, in statistics, in conversation, in music, in learning, and in all the arts of civilization. She was full of fun. In the thinking of the day—it was still the thinking only yesterday—she would have made some brilliant man the perfect wife. But she guessed, correctly, that she was cut out for something more. Richard Monckton Milnes was a clever and charming man, but she turned him down. In the movie, starring Jaclyn Smith (fresh from her triumphs as one of Charlie’s Angels), he turns her down. But the movie isn’t as silly as you might think, because to portray Florence Nightingale as a beauty was not all that implausible. She was very attractive, and was well capable of being attracted to the right man. But she was even more attracted to a life lived on her own account, in service to a principle. It was a life that helped give us the hospital systems that we know today, and to give nurses the respect they deserve.

Nurses are on my mind of late. At Addenbrooke’s I see them all the time, and I expect the day will soon come when I see almost nobody else. Bless them all, of all colors and creeds. Just after I first got ill, and while I was waiting for my prostate operation, I was wearing my urinary tract externally, in an arrangement featuring a catheter plus a hefty plastic bag taped to my leg. Or anyway it was hefty when it was full. One night the bag broke and suddenly the floor was awash with amber piss. I signaled the night nurse, who told me to stop apologizing. (In such circumstances, I have found, one tends to apologize for one’s mere existence.) She set about mopping it up. She had a deformed body, with limbs all the wrong lengths. Life could never have been easy for her. But now she was making the end of life easier for me. It was a night to remember, and I haven’t forgotten it for a second. I can only hope that the sum total of my writings has been as useful to the world as her kindness, but I doubt that this is so.

After a series of cataract operations I am left with one eye working, and I sometimes wonder what would happen to my reading if that one began to shut down too. Meanwhile, I am already getting some practice at inhabiting the web world, where nothing is supposed to go on for too long. The excellent American poet Dan Brown has started posting a set of short critical analyses on his blog: a poem by his hero George Herbert, for instance, is made subject to an intense and knowledgeable technical analysis, only a paragraph or two long. Clearly Dan Brown is ready to use this compressed form to discuss any poetic mystery except why he still calls himself Dan Brown. In view of the fact that the perpetrator of best-selling thrillers of only semi–mental merit is already called Dan Brown, and that the name is therefore famous even in, say, Thailand, you would expect that Dan Brown the poet might at least call himself Dan M. Brown, if not Denzil Hercules Bairns-feather III. But no, there he is, still writing exquisite metaphysical poetry under a name that might as well be Jerry Lewis. That’s not the point here, however. The point is that to read his latest critical thought I didn’t have to limp out into the cold or even dial up a bookshop on the web. I just had to tap in his name. This is the next world arriving.

I don’t quite believe that in the era of the web every piece of writing should be short. I wouldn’t want a short version of War and Peace. But there are already literary periodicals that make a thing of shortness, as if written specifically for people who are bright but tired. My elder daughter has just introduced me to Slightly Foxed. Numbers appear regularly, and are full of short pieces about books that vanished, or that should be better known. Perhaps already falling into that classification myself, I tour each issue, lighting on articles when I know the name. A recent issue has an excellent piece about Alamein to Zem Zem, the fugitive little volume produced by Keith Douglas when he was fighting in the western desert. Later on he got killed in Normandy, just after D-Day. He was a superbly gifted poet who would have changed the state of the art had he lived, but he was cut short. One is lucky to have lived this long. There is a love poem from Douglas, called “Canoe,” and an elegy called “Vergissmeinicht.” He could point at them and say: if I’d had the chance, I would have done a lot more of that.

Now we must do the pointing for him. My idea of criticism’s duty is somewhere in that obligation. The critic should write to say, not “look how much I’ve read,” but “look at this, it’s wonderful.” If the young feel compelled to come and see your tomb, there should be something good written on it. Here in Cambridge, in Trinity College Chapel, there is a plaque dedicated to Ludwig Wittgenstein. It says, in Latin, that he released thought from its bonds in language. If I ever had a plaque, I would like it to say: He loved the written word, and told the young.

I speak as one whose languages are disappearing. Soon, I suppose, only English will be left, and then not even that. But if, at last, the written word retreats out of reach, what then? I am not much of a one for audio books, unless they are read by their own authors. Unfortunately, too many of them are read by actors. On the whole I hate the way actors read, always running on through the punctuation as if their task was to turn written forms into dialogue. One of them, I name no names, read my poem “Japanese Maple” aloud on the air in Australia just after it came out in the New Yorker. His voice was majestic, but he had no intention of observing the line endings and stanza breaks, which he took as an interference with his gift for naturalism. I tuned in on the web to listen, and felt that I had been tied to a chair and beaten up by Basil Rathbone.

My younger daughter and I could always watch Band of Brothers again, not to mention the whole of The West Wing from start to finish. If my weakening eyesight missed a plot point, she could explain it to me; as she quite often has to do already. The dialogue of The Newsroom, written by Aaron Sorkin, is often too fast for me and my wife, but not too fast for either of our daughters, who are in a continual state of supplying us with an English version of Sorkinese, like simultaneous translators at the United Nations. Coping with the output of the modern media can be a group effort, thereby lending substance to Proust’s wonderful idea about the community of minds. Usually it takes a whole bunch of us to understand anything, so anyone who thinks he can do the whole thing by himself is almost certainly a crackpot. Probably even Richard Feynman occasionally needed to have something explained to him. He was the kind of theoretical physicist who could actually fix your telephone, but I wish he’d lived to hear Josh and Donna in The West Wing simultaneously delivering a page of dialogue each in half a minute. Quantum mechanics might have struck him as a cinch compared with that.

And then, there is music. At least one of my doctors thinks I need music in order to heal. Alas, the truth is that music has never soothed me. I just find it too interesting. I should be listening to the late Beethoven quartets, and those two lovely quintets by Mozart, all the time; but I would get nothing read or written, because great music was never designed to be played in the background. If it moves to the foreground, I will be on my way out at last. I will be halfway through the dazzling, multifaceted wall of books, and on the brink of nothingness, where everything begins again, but for different people.