Our book today is Cultural Amnesia: Necessary Memories from History and the Arts, a bristling, muscular, mazy haphazard cathedral of opinion erected by Clive James, that grinning ombudsman of the Republic of Letters. Cultural Amnesia takes its readers through an alphabet of ideas, and a look at the Table of Contents gives a great picture of the range of James’ curiosity. Under ‘A’ we have Anna Akhmatova, Peter Altenberg, Louis Armstrong, and Raymond Aron. Under ‘E’ it’s Alfred Einstein and Duke Ellington. Most hilariously, under ‘M’ it’s Norman Mailer, Nadezhda Mandelstam, Golo Mann, Heinrich Mann, Michael Mann, Thomas Mann, Mao Zedong, Chris Marker, John McCloy, Zinka Milanov, Czeslaw Milosz, Eugenio Montale, Montesquieu, Alan Moorehead, and Paul Muratov.
I was very forcefully reminded of Clive James (by his most devoted partisan, one might say) just the other day in response to my recent complaint about the scarcity of really first-rate television critics! I was reminded that James has written a small mountain of first-rate television criticism in his career, and I was doubly chastised: not only should I have remembered that fact, but I should have assumed it even if I hadn’t known it, because there’s hardly a genre or critical sub-discipline in which James hasn’t written a small mountain of first-rate criticism.
Cultural Amnesia is an utterly magnificent demonstration of that fact – it’s a bewildering profusion, and its alphabetical arrangement can be a bit misleading, since there are plenty of times throughout the book when the ostensible subject of the letter heading gets lost in the bustling, infectious chatter of James’ digressions. There’s every chance that a reader will remember those digressions longer than they’ll remember the actual subject of the essay – like this little gem on book titles:
A foreign title often loses something when brought over into English, but sometimes there is an even match – Der blaue Engel and The Blue Angel, La Peste and The Plague – and occasionally there is a substantial gain. Francoise Sagan got lucky in that respect: Those Without Shadows. So did Gabriel Garcia Marquez: not for One Hundred Years of Solitude, a title I find as spongy as the book, but for The Autumn of the Patriarch. In the original German, The Tin Drum is Der Blechtrommel. Though it is always hard to judge the weight and balance of words in a language that is not one’s first, it is just as hard to believe that Gunter Grass lost anything there, because the English phrase gives you two clear beats on the drum, while the long German word sounds like someone choking. If on a Winter’s Night a Traveller is a faithful rendition of the Italian original, and is therefore ridiculous, because no Italian of any real literary judgment believes that Calvino, when he conceived that title, was doing anything else except putting on the dog, plus a feather boa, a plumed hat and a pair of platform shoes. (This is not to say that long titles don’t sometimes succeed: Elizabeth Smart’s By Grand Cental Station I Sat Down and Wept is still good, although it as never really a good book – it was an indulgence.)
I love the pinball distractibility, the unembarrassed plenitude of asides like that, so full of information, opinion, and offhand challenges. I love my inability to predict where that quicksilver mind of his will dart next. I love not knowing whose names will crop up in a discussion of Japanese admiral Yamamoto:
People of a literary bent tend to idealize the poet warriors, of whom, in modern times, Yamamoto must count as the most conspicuous apart from General Patton. But we need to ask ourselves whether a flair for the poetic might not be a limitation to generalship, in which a considered appreciation for the mundane is essential. A poetic flair has an impatient mind of its own: it likes to make an effect, and it has a strategic aim. One of those qualities is what A. Alvarez called a shaping spirit, and the other is what Frank Kermode called the sense of an ending. Yamamoto’s plan for deciding the war on the first day was not only the equivalent of a roulette player’s betting his whole bundle on a single number, it was also the equivalent of trying to cram the whole of The Tale of Genji into a single haiku. There was bound to be material that didn’t fit.
Of course the common spice of all these dozens of pieces is their combative tone (it’s the combative tone of the autodidact, although James was quite presentably educated in his youth, go figure), which can come in from any angle and almost always takes a roundhouse Johnsonian knockabout reading of lily-fingered cultural elites:
Books about Hitler are without number, but after more than sixty years the first one to read is still Alan Bullock’s Hitler: A Study in Tyranny. Familiarity with the events that it recounts should be regarded as an essential prerequisite to the study not just of modern politics, but of the whole history of the arts since its hideously gifted subject first demonstrated that a sufficient concentration of violence could neutralize any amount of culture no matter how widely diffused. It is not possible to be serious about the humanities unless it is admitted that the pacifism widely favoured among educated people before World War II very nearly handed a single man, himself something other than a simple Philistine, the means to bring civilization to an end. The lessons of history don’t suit our wishes: if they did, they would not be lessons, and history would be a fairy story.
“Critics are always remembered best for how they sound when on the attack,” James writes at one point in an essay on Viennese critic Alfred Polgar. “Schadenfreude lies deep in the human soul, and to read a tough review seems a harmless way of indulging it. But the only critical attacks that really count are written in defence of a value.” Cultural Amnesia came out in 2007, and great flow of Clive James’ work has followed it (including his long-awaited translation of Dante’s Divine Comedy), all positively glowing in defense of at least one obvious but always embattled value: the worth of simple inquisitive humanism. In recent years James himself has called attention to the rapid decline in his health, and quite apart from anything else, that’s dire news for the book-chat world. Cultural Amnesia would make one hell of a memorial – but I’d much rather it never did.