Clive James is dying just as he lived—in full public view.

The Australian-born poet, critic, BBC television personality, Radio 4 presenter, translator, memoirist, journalist, raconteur, and wit is dying of leukemia and emphysema. James retired himself from television years ago, but at seventy-four he keeps very much in the public eye, as British newspapers report each new farewell poem he publishes.

It’s a strange goodbye for a writer who claims to despise the contemporary cult of fame. Celebrity has been one of James’s recurrent themes. His prescient mock-epic, The Fate of Felicity Fark in the Land of the Media, written in 1975, was a pitiless sendup of the celebrity culture that had not yet been named. Felicity “Flick” Fark, a beautiful “Innocent” selected to be “Miss Knockout, Queen of youth,” becomes ubiquitous on television, wins a role in an avant-garde play where she stands nude and silent as a statue, stars in a film, and eventually marries a Peer, Sir Humphrey Highrise. Felicity’s every move and utterance are recorded and analyzed by a voracious media; a reporter is waiting when Sir Humphrey and Felicity get to their honeymoon suite. In 1993, James covered the same ground more prosaically with a documentary film and a breezy book on Fame in the 20th Century.

He doesn’t appear to see the irony of his decades-long effort to sustain his own, relatively minor celebrity. Self-exposure has been James’s stock-in-trade for decades. He published the first volume of his autobiography, Unreliable Memoirs, in 1980, when he was barely forty. In his poetry, he expresses desires that most of us try to tamp down. In one poem, he exults when he sees his enemy’s book on the remaindered shelf among “The sinkers, clinkers, dogs and dregs / The Edsels of the world of movable type.” Sometimes he’s leering. James lets his chauvinism go wild in a paean to women tennis players: “Bring me the sweat of Gabriela Sabatini.” Sometimes he’s pathetic. He admits that he never cried until he was over fifty. James keeps himself center stage even here: His tears are not only for those he hurts but also for the suffering that made his heart so cruelly cold.

Known for early savage satires, James has turned understandably somber of late, bluntly recording his decaying health. He fights “to cough up muck.” His cataracts make the sunlight sting his eyes. When he looks in the mirror, he sees only the ruins of his old face, and he has become too hard of hearing to follow conversations, where he used to shine. His body still moves, but “in my mind the fires are dying fast” (“Holding Court”).

These days, he sings nothing but “funeral songs.” He compares his body to the driftwood houses he used to build for his daughters during holidays in France, houses were “Proof / That nothing built can last forever here.” He knows death is common, and he imagines death as a fall into an “unplumbed well” (“Driftwood Houses”). He tries to face termination squarely. Everyone he’s known and loved will be down that well, but they will not even enjoy the comfort of a touch, for the dead are “nowhere.”

James’s recent poetry is not only about aging. More than anything, it is about regret. He has turned the British literary world into a confessional, as his poems return again and again to his adultery, carefully concealed in what appeared to be his tell-all memoirs. He sees now the folly of lying in order to pretend to be true to everyone, and he recognizes now that his selective honesty devastated his family and left him sad and alone. Fittingly for a man who considers religions to be “advertising agencies for a product that doesn’t exist,” his regret is comfortless, offering “no cure . . . for these last years of grief / As I repent and yet find no relief” (“Rounded with a Sleep,” 2014).

James is too uniquely himself to be merely a type, but there’s a cautionary tale in his living, and now his dying, before his audience of readers. Because he spotted celebrity culture on the horizon when it was the size of a man’s hand, because he professes to be uncomfortable with his notoriety, James appears to think he cannot be captured by it. His late poems, even at their most touching and humane, suggest otherwise. James has made himself a minor deity in the cult he says he wants to escape, and the cult itself has proven too powerful to escape, the lure to go public too strong to resist, even as his life ebbs away. Even the shame of his adultery doesn’t silence him. He might have been describing himself when he quipped of Madonna, “She had no private life. It was all public.” Now that fame is available to everyone with a laptop, we’re in the new normal that the younger Clive James so accurately analyzed: Live public, die public. 

Peter J. Leithart is president of Trinity House. He is the author most recently of Gratitude: An Intellectual History. His previous articles can be found here.

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Articles by Peter J. Leithart

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