May Week Was In June by Clive James (Pan Macmillan - 1991)
I met Clive James once. It was in Hay-on-Wye, at the book festival, in 2004. I’d gone to hear him speak about his most recent collection of essays and, when the talk was over, I sped to the book-signing tent clutching my well-loved copy of May Week Was In June, determined to be first in line. I made it with ease, unfortunately. It meant that, instead of being able to listen to his exchanges with the first few signees, I was there at the front, and the clock was starting.
I’d read May Week so many times, I practically knew it by heart. What I wanted to say to Clive James was that, although it may have passed many people by, I knew exactly what he meant in it when he likened the propositions of Wittgenstein’s Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus to the leaves of a xylophone made of ice. I get that, I wished to say to Clive: I understand.
Instead, as I watched him begin to inscribe the title-page, the seconds of our encounter already ticking excruciatingly by, what came out of my mouth – in a shriller voice than perhaps either of us expected – was ‘I’m writing a novel’. ‘Are you,’ said Clive, in a tone which conveyed that this was not an interrogatory.
It was, alas, true. And as I said it, I wanted him to know that, just as we both understood what it meant to liken the propositions of Wittgenstein’s Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus to the leaves of a xylophone made of ice, so we both understood that novelists (unpublished novelists, that is) do not bother other novelists (established and successful novelists, that is) with drafts of their work. I meant to say all this but, instead, what came out of my mouth – in a voice hardly less shrill than on its previous excursion – was ‘I won’t show it to you’.
And then the pen had finished inscribing and the next person in the signing line was already showing signs of impatience and there was no reason to hang around. So there was the sum total of my utterance: ‘I’m writing a novel. I won’t show it to you.’ Had he got the point about the xylophone?
I was standing in that signing line because May Week Was In June taught me the ancient rhetorical truth that the turn of a phrase is not merely something that enhances an argument, but the argument itself. And that, as a consequence, learning how to turn a phrase, which you do by working out how others turn a phrase, is the best way of getting your arguments accepted, which is your best chance of making the world the place you would like it to be. That this works for ill as well as good is the reason why reading and writing are acts of moral courage.
Here’s how Clive James turns a phrase:
Emboldened by having started to get somewhere with Italian, I made renewed efforts to teach myself French, but I was at an early stage, possibly having overtaxed myself by choosing A la recherche du temps perdu as a primary reader. After six months I was about half-way through Du coté du chez Swann and still looking up every second word in an old Larousse. If I had known then that I would turn bald before I got through the whole thing I would probably have given up. A lack of sense of proportion is one of the big advantages of being young: when we grow out of it we leave possibilities behind along with the absurdity.
The technical brilliance of that last sentence still makes me gasp. Listen to the rhythm of it. Look at the splash that the demotic broad-vowelled ‘big advantages’ makes in the midst of a subtle aphorism. Note the compactness of the final phrase and the superb plangency of ‘absurdity’. Rhythm, syntax and lexis are doing the job of persuasion before the sense has fully asserted itself.
Here’s another example:
My mother’s fears while my father was a prisoner of war; her grief when he failed to return; her lonely struggle to bring me up – all this struck me as dramatic, and it was a mystery to me why my mother seemed more inclined to count our blessings than to curse fate. I was a long time, by now stretching to a lifetime, in grasping how reality has a texture to which histrionics are an inadequate response. Those millions of young lives apparently rendered meaningless by arbitrary death were taken from us too: a deprivation for which we can compensate only by making ours meaningful. When I was five years old and sobbing in my mother’s arms because the bull ants had stung my foot, children my age were being rounded up all over Europe, to be crammed into boxcars and dispatched into oblivion. There were mothers who were obliged to kill their children so as to save them from the protracted agony of medical experiments. Compared with that, the story of my mother and her little boy, and of her husband who did not come home, was something old under the sun, and possible to understand if hard to bear.
There’s so much that is excellent here that it’s difficult to single instances out. But try expressing the thought ‘reality has a texture to which histrionics are an inadequate response’ in fewer words and as natural a rhythm. Note the skilful use of syntax to pack ideas like explosives: ‘a deprivation for which we can compensate only by making ours meaningful’; ‘possible to understand if hard to bear’. Note the lexical contrast, which conveys the actual contrast, between the monosyllabic ‘the bull ants had stung my foot’ and the polysyllabic ‘children my age were being rounded up all over Europe, to be crammed into boxcars and dispatched into oblivion’. Try to think of words that would do a better job, in their places, than ‘obliged’, ‘crammed’ and ‘protracted’.
‘All I can do is turn a phrase until it catches the light,’ James writes, in the epilogue to May Week. I wish I could turn a phrase like Clive James and by that I mean I wish I could produce writing as dazzling as it is morally courageous, indeed that is dazzling because it is morally courageous, and the other way around.