Some writers have blogs. The Australian critic, poet, novelist, television personality, and all-around man of letters, Clive James, is more ambitious than that. And though still unsure of how precisely to characterize his Web site, CliveJames.com, he thinks of it as a cross between a space station, college campus, and online pyramid that will preserve much of his prose, poetry, conversation, humor and, eventually, television programs for as long as forever is. Gloriously erudite and various, it is becoming more erudite and various if not by the minute, then by the season.
Technically, CliveJames.com is a multimedia Web site, divided into four sections: text, audio, gallery, and video. According to Mr. James, it is the first such Web site to be created by any writer in the world. Besides the ever-increasing corpus of writings by Mr. James himself, it includes contributions from many of his fellow writers and friends. As of now a partial list would include Martin Amis, Peter Porter, Cate Blanchett, P.J. O'Rourke, Piers Paul Read, Julian Barnes, Jonathan Miller, and Ahdaf Soueif. All can be heard (and seen) on the site, chatting away as if in talk-show paradise. If you want to enter conversational heaven, it is now officially just a click away.
Though technical and financial resources remain limited, Mr. James has high hopes for his site. As the author of two dozen books, including novels, memoirs, poetry collections, television criticism - he is undoubtedly the funniest television critic of all time - and literary criticism, he hasn't failed to notice that even for an author as popular and critically acclaimed as himself, books can be fragile things. Which is to say, they have a nasty tendency to go out of print, the last surviving copies gradually turning yellow and brittle with age. At the moment a hefty portion of Mr. James's writing remains both in print and in demand, but he is keenly aware that literary culture is fighting a rear-guard battle against the artifacts of the ever-more ingenious technology of a new century. And thus - to the World Wide Web! (Exeunt writers.)
Mr. James has mixed feelings about the shift from page to screen, especially about the concomitant decline in literacy. Earlier this year he published a comically subliterate ode to his Microsoft computer program ("Windows is shutting down, and grammar are / On their last leg," it began) that reads like a gloss on the text-message babble featured in Mr. Amis's last novel, "Yellow Dog." But as I hear him, talking a mile a minute down the telephone line from his home in London, the effervescent 66-year-old sounds upbeat.
While he insists that "nothing quite beats the book as an item of technology" and expresses the ardent wish that at least some of his volumes will always be in print, he notes that the Australian National Library, with a nose to the future, has already asked to archive his Web site. "I'll effectively be immortalizing everything I've done," he said.
Unlike with books, "there's no warehouse that's eventually going to fill up with unsold copies and cause its section of the earth to sink - the thing is weightless. Eventually I hope that bright young people will come into the site and never come out, just wander around forever. I do know that when people hit on the site they tend to stay a long time. Whether it's because they fall asleep or just die there, I'm not sure."
The touch of self-deprecation reminds you that although he may be an Aussie (moreover, one who looks like an ex-rugby player), the word-obsessed Mr. James has lived in London since 1961. He left Australia at around the same time as three of his most brilliant contemporaries - the art critic Robert Hughes, the comedian Barry Humphries, and the feminist iconoclast, Germaine Greer. (There is even a book about their exodus, Ian Britain's "Once an Australian.")
All four were preceded in exile by the poet Peter Porter, a decade their senior, who decamped to London in 1951, and all, says Mr. James, are notorious for their omnivorous tastes in music and poetry. "It's an Australian thing," he said. "We start off at the edge of the world, and we get very hungry for the rest of the world. Culture was our passport - the idea of getting over there and being able to talk better than the natives."
This ability is on full display in the audio section of the site. Over the last few years, Mr. James and Mr. Porter, an old friend, have been recording a series of radio conversations about literature for the Australian Broadcasting Corporation. Four of the sixpart series are on the site, with two more shortly to follow. The conversations already posted are: "On Not Having a Classical Education," "The Literature of the 20th Century," "Humor in English Literature," and "The Artist and Politics."
While the titles might recall a first-semester college course, the conversation is so quick-witted and entertaining that any thought of sterile lecture halls and dumfounding exam questions is quickly banished. Both men speak at breakneck speed without overwhelming the listener, despite frequent allusions, quotations from the Greek, references to obscure Spanish philologists, and so on. This is how literature ought to be discussed and rarely is - with precision and sophistication, but without fear of the personal, even adulatory, note.
"Camus to me was such a figure," Mr. James gushes at one point, recalling his own student days in Sydney. "He had glamor and he knew it. He wore a Humphrey Bogart coat and knew it was a Humphrey Bogart coat. He had a Gaulois glued to his lower lip. He died romantically in a car crash. When I was reading him, I planned to die romantically in a car crash." Characteristically, this moment of unabashed fandom occurs within the serious context of a discussion of totalitarianism, a topic by which Mr. James has long been obsessed. The epigraph to his definitive collection of essays, "As of This Writing," comes from the French philosopher Alain Finkielkraut: "Barbarism is not the prehistory of humanity but the faithful shadow that accompanies its every step."
What really excites Mr. James about Camus is not that trench coat and dangling cigarette but the fact that, unlike his erstwhile comrade, Jean-Paul Sartre, he exhibited a genuine "touch of heroism," both in resisting the Nazi occupation of France and in dissenting from Sartre's Stalinist line on the Soviet Union. There's also some good gossip. Camus, we are told, found out what was really going on in the USSR through the novel means of sleeping with Arthur Koestler's wife, who knew all about it and told him (one would like to think) during their Gaulois-infused postcoital pillow talk.
Besides the radio dialogues, there is artwork (other people's) on display in the gallery section, while under "text" you can find not only some of Mr. James's own essays and poems, but a growing number of verses by other poets as well. "Having guest poets is just the beginning of what I hope to do, which is to build up a festival of high-class arts that I'll disappear into," he said. "It's a very complicated platform, and what they're building for me is a system where they can load text directly. Next year I may launch a weekly newsletter, a kind of blog, the sort of thing I used to write for the Observer years ago. Eventually, I want to make little movies, stage plays, tango dances. ... There's no limit to what I think can be done with it. I just wish I'd started 40 years earlier."
The part of the "toy" that most excites Mr. James is the "video" section, which currently houses 18 separate interviews with everyone from the American film director Terry Gilliam to the dissident Chinese novelist Jung Chang. The only snag is that, like most such Web endeavors, it's a money-loser. To have two technicians armed with digi-cams film a half-hour conversation with, say, Cate Blanchett sitting on Mr. James's living room sofa, costs very little. What costs money, he says, is "to stream the stuff." Until recently he was paying one thousand pounds a month out of his own pocket merely to send the signal.
Mr. James said he may charge a subscription fee for his weekly newsletter, if and when he writes it, but the likelihood is that most visitors will content themselves with the free stuff rather than cough up an online dime. Even the proprietor seems doubtful about the prospect of making any money. "My whole instinct is that the Internet is a free culture," he said. Unfortunately, that means the dozens of television programs he wrote and performed during the 1980s - surprisingly, he considers them his finest work in any medium - won't be on the Web any time soon, since he doesn't own the rights and can't afford them.
Perhaps the most touching aspect of the site is Mr. James's sincere desire to make it genuinely educational - to bring high culture to the masses, though without a trace of snobbery. "One of the things the site can do as it develops is provide high-level English conversation. There are a lot of people who get their English to a certain level, and then starve for a way to improve it. The first year people from 50 different countries logged on to it, and you start wondering, 'Who are these three people in Pakistan?'"
In the meantime, Mr. James continues with his original passion, namely putting words on paper in the most reasoned and elegant order possible. A new collection of essays, "The Meaning of Recognition," was published by Picador in October, and he is finalizing what he hopes will be his magnum opus, "Alone in the Cafe," a book of notes on quotations from other writers.
"I've spent my whole life writing in the margins of books, and I developed those notes into essays," he said. "It's ranked alphabetically by author of the quote. What is in this book is what I think should be remembered about the 20th century - Vienna in '33, how America became an artistic power through the G.I. bill in '45, what young people going into universities ought to know. It's meant to be a book that a bright young beginner can pick up and learn who Diaghilev was, and how he links to Balanchine, and how Balanchine links to Hollywood. It's a kind of hypertext. Its no bagatelle - it's a quarter of a million words."
In the first installment of the conversation about "Not Having a Classical Education," Mr. James remarks that when young people listened to him and Mr. Porter talk at an arts festival in Melbourne, they were not nearly as impressed by their wisdom, age, and attainments as they were by the simple fact that they could remember so much. "Because it seems that in the new information age, no one remembers anything or carries much in their heads, and that's what we were doing - talking about what we remembered."
To which Mr. Porter replies: "Well, I think all culture lies in the head. I don't believe in libraries. There's a line in a poem of mine, 'There are no libraries in heaven,' and I believe that to be the case. Unless it's in your head, it can't get into your heart." Perhaps this Web site, which already gleams with planetary brightness in the cyber-firmament, will help counter information-age amnesia and get into our heads, hearts, or at the very least, our "favorites" columns. Spend a rainy weekend with it and test it out for yourself. Chances are you will find it very good company indeed.
Mr. Bernhard is the East Coast correspondent for LA Weekly. He last wrote for the Sun on John Ashbery.