FIRST REACTIONS: Critical Essays 1968-79 by Clive James

FIRST REACTIONS: Critical Essays 1968-79

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KIRKUS REVIEW

James, an Australian who's been publishing criticism in Britain for a dozen or so years, warns in his introduction that the early pieces collected here may be flawed by a bright-boy's eager phrase-making; he assures us that he does, later on, calm down. The admission is disarming if not entirely accurate: great slithy gobs of cleverness (most, though, set within a steady durable clamp of intelligence) show up both early and late. The vernacular, especially the sexual vernacular, is not avoided: writing on Auden's homosexuality as template of his poetry, James sees him attracted--politically and intellectually--to ""two sets of muscle-packed shorts, Communist or Nazi."" This jauntiness works well when James wants to be scathing--as he is on Lillian Hellman--but it reaches its natural level when James writes on television, where it reveals itself (John-Simon-like) as plain old entertaining-but-shallow nastiness. (""'Hi!' Liza would yell intimately, her features suffused by that racking spasm of narcissistic coyness which she fondly imagines looks like a blush, 'I'm Liza!'""; or ""Tom Conti played Adam in a style reminiscent of Peter Sellers pretending to be a lounge lizard.""). James' most mediated efforts come once about a novelist (Solzhenitsyn) and then more frequently on poets. In Richard Wilbur, he finds the dating clue: ""fluent, formal speech as the instrument of recuperation"" so perfectly fitted to the postwar years of the early Fifties. He is very clear-eyed on the hysterical overplay of Sylvia Plath, the rather too precise underplay of Elizabeth Bishop. Lowell and Berryman are treated with a severe attention. What James likes, though, is a little disconcerting. A D. H. Lawrence description of water as ""frail-rippling"" wrenches a gasp of ""what a writer"" (?) from James; the near-deification of Philip Larkin as the anchorite of modern verse is strange at least. Still, especially when his Cantabrigian ruff is down a little, James seems sure to develop into a major critic: the skill is there and the smarts, as is the easy lope of the style, the crispness when necessary--even the bold gaffe of tone. And evinced throughout, most of all, is an intellectual stamina that doesn't break stride when it encounters a piety. Now, though, he's still a little callow.

Pub Date: Sept. 26th, 1980
Publisher: Knopf