Bookworks Presents Shelf Awareness for Readers: Look at This, It's Wonderful

By: Aug. 28, 2015
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I'm not big on guilt reads ("You mean you've neverread...?!"), but I do love being surprised by the occasional revelation that an extraordinary writer has been there all along and just escaped my attention. This happened recently as I was being captivated by an advance copy of the just published Latest Readings (Yale University Press) by Clive James, who is still writing brilliantly in the midst of his battle with terminal leukemia. "If you don't know the exact moment when the lights will go out, you might as well read until they do," he observes.

In a chapter titled "Novels in Sequence," James touches upon Edward St. Aubyns, Anthony Powell, Marcel Proust, Evelyn Waugh, Paul Scott and Lawrence Durrell. But he saves his highest superlatives for Olivia Manning's Balkan and Levant trilogies: "Beyond the scope of any camera, the writing gives us the rich depth of the exotic settings.... Manning is still not getting the attention she deserves. She deserves something better than mere fame. She needs her reputation raised to the level of unarguable fact."

Here's a confession: I'd never heard of Manning before James enlightened me, but since then I've already devoured The Great Fortune, Spoilt City and half of Friends and Heroes. The Levant Trilogy awaits.

James notes that "the two sequences, taken together, outstrip anything else on our list for the sense they convey that the author sees the world as it is, and as it is bound to become, tragic experience having planted itself so deeply in the texture of time. Her great creation leads from then to now, and makes now bearable."

In a "Coda," he suggests that a critic "should write to say, not 'look how much I've read,' but 'look at this, it's wonderful.' " I can think of no better advice to give for James's new book, as well as Manning's Balkan Trilogy. Look at these, they're wonderful. --Robert Gray, contributing editor