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Clive James’s intriguing poetic response to Proust

What is James trying to do? He jokes that he has made a good living out of dying.

Baudelaire once wrote that “the best review of a painting might be a sonnet or an elegy”, and it is liberating to think that we can all respond to art with art. This isn’t just because it bypasses the airspace of criticism, but because art liberates something of the artist in ourselves. Baudelaire also knew that thinking needed to be rescued from academicians and from official culture.

Clive James’s verse commentary on Proust would make sense to Baudelaire. As James says in his preface: “I had always thought that the critical essay and the poem were closely related forms.” This is a very old thing to say, but perhaps now, when poetry is so marginal and introspective, is the right new time to be saying it. Part of the problem with saying that art should respond to art is the countervailing belief that great art should be in some way unanswerable. In short, what is the point of a short free-verse book on Á la recherche du temps perdu? Who’s it for? What’s it for? There is also something defiantly retro about the title (A Verse Commentary), evoking those chalk-dust-covered Latin schoolbooks we see in black-and-white films. But there’s a difference: usually the commentary is in prose and it’s longer than the poem; here, the commentary is in verse and it’s shorter (by a ratio of roughly 90:1) than the prose.

So, what is James trying to do? He jokes that he has made a good living out of dying. He has been prolific: his recent output – two books of criticism, a Collected Poems, a translation of Dante, and now this – is part of a great burst of late fruition. This book is not as slight as it looks, nor indeed as dependent on its pretext (Proust) as it appears. It is not a commentary in any but the vaguest sense, and is full of skittering side references to the world beyond Proust.

The book opens with a nice representation of Á la recherche as being “only” a structure in the sense that “Gaudi’s cathedral in Barcelona/And the weird Watts Towers in Los Angeles –/Eclectic stalagmites of junk – are structures”. You can enjoy what James is saying here without agreeing with the comparison, because he is cleverly taking up the idea of architecture as “frozen music” and inviting us to think of Proust’s novel, in all its great, ramifying spread, as something organic, something made of time as well as being “about” Time. Besides, in the next lines, he adjusts the tone by evoking “the sandcastle you helped your daughters build/Before you sat with them to watch the sea/Dismantle it and smooth it out and take it/Back down to where it came from”.

This is a moving switch, because it reminds us that there is something bleak and dark at the centre of Proust, and that beneath the tulle, the tisane and the taffeta is the great, annihilating sweep of time. James is also very good on what we often forget about Proust: his economy, his way of connecting up the world, seeing how it coheres and fits together. Seen from the point of view of what it leads out to and not what it “contains”, Á la recherche is quite a short book. James knows this, and is alive to the way in which metaphor holds Proust’s world and work together. Metaphor is language’s great two-for-one offer and he notices the reverbarative range of Proust’s seemingly trivial images, the way it all comes “[f]laring to life from a mixed metaphor”.

James also knows that so much of our memory and identity is dormant and untapped. He puts it beautifully when he writes how Proust, “famous for seeing how we bring to mind/The past, [ . . . ] also sees how we do not”, and how the bright moments we retrieve are “balanced by dark blots we know are there/Only because of how they do not shine”. There are many instances where he pulls out critical insights that, though not necessarily new, feel new because they are so well put. Their value lies also in being not just about Proust, but about Proust’s subject, which in a sense is the only subject there is.

For a short work, Gate of Lilacs nonetheless has a few longueurs, not least when plot summaries or historical and political context are poured into the joins of the poem like a sort of textbook cement. As someone who finds James’s usual poetry – with its seat-belt-click of formalism and its fondness for witty sententiae – too much like his TV voice, I found this book graceful in its thought, moving in its insights, and often written with a fluidity that makes me wish he had done more of this sort of thing. I’ll also put it on my students’ reading list to remind them that, whatever the universities tell us, we can’t understand something until we have responded to it creatively.

Patrick McGuinness is Professor of French and Comparative Literature at St Anne’s College, Oxford

Gate of Lilacs: a Verse Commentary on Proust by Clive James is published by Picador (112pp, £14.99)

This article first appeared in the 26 May 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Brexit odd squad