After a morning's girlwatching in Paris, Clive James goes for a leisurely yet harrowing drive with Bonjour Tristesse author Françoise Sagan at the wheel, walks out on the opera, pays respects to the graves of Oscar Wilde, Edith Piaf, and Marcel Proust, seeks the definition of a "fashion victim," denounces I.M. Pei's pyramid atop the Louvre, and descends into the dance clubs beneath the streets. On the coast of Los Angeles, he endures a celebrity-grade workout, commissions a toupee from Beverly Hills stylist José Eber and his most trusted "hair unit" craftsman, undergoes a plastic surgery consultation, and meets the most cheerful (and no doubt most successful) car-parker alive. At the height of Japan's economic bubble, he does battle with his own chopsticks, loses himself in Shunjuku despite meaning to lose himself in the Ginza, beds down unsuccessfully in a love hotel, holds in his breath as he wedges himself into a commuter train, struggles to accept hospitality from robots, puts himself at the utter mercy of a game show, and gets drunk amidst junior geisha.
Why, you might ask, would a respected man of letters like James – author, most recently, of a new translation of Dante's Divine Comedy — do all this pratfall-intensive globetrotting, much less on the BBC for all to see? I would submit, as a longtime follower of the man's work, that it has to do with his twin drives to, with his wisecrackingly illuminating turns of phrase, keep his audiences laughing as well as thinking, no matter the medium in which he works. He fills the role of the entertainer, certainly, but simultaneously fills the role of the intellectual. An untiringly curious polyglot, not that you'd know it by the exaggerated ineptitude with which he asks for directions in Tokyo or interviews French starlets, James plays both low and high at all times, and you can see it in all these televisual journeys to Cairo, Rome, Miami, Rio, Chicago, Berlin, Shanghai, New York, Bombay, Hong Kong, and even the Sydney of James' native Australia. You can also see it in James' travel pieces for the Observer that served as their templates, all freely available on his web site.
Colin Marshall hosts and produces Notebook on Cities and Culture and writes essays on cities, Asia, film, literature, and aesthetics. He’s at work on a book about Los Angeles, A Los Angeles Primer. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on his brand new Facebook page.