Clive James has a high-maintenance girlfriend: the reader. To educate this girlfriend, to correct her wayward mind and haphazard schooling, he has written more than 100 loosely related essays on artists, intellectuals and tyrants, mostly of the 20th century—a crash course in modern history and culture. His selection is idiosyncratic, and his structure organic, like the movement of his own thoughts: “a trail of clarities variously illuminating a dark sea of unrelenting turbulence.” These are dense, earnest productions, leavened by Mr. James’ exuberance and sour goodwill. Cultural Amnesia is designed to be dipped into casually, but it can be read from beginning to end if you want to set your scalp on fire.
Although each of these essays is titled after some notable (though sometimes forgotten) figure, the names are just points of departure. An essay on Miles Davis is actually about the cushioning and corrupting effects of money on artists, while an essay called “Sir Thomas Browne” is about book titles. (Mr. James raided Browne’s Urn Burial for his 1977 collection of television writing, Visions Before Midnight.) Some titles are a tease. You can learn much about Anna Akhmatova from the essay below her name, but next to nothing about Evelyn Waugh from “Evelyn Waugh.”
Some figures, like the Nazi collaborator and sputtering anti-Semite Robert Brasillach, who published the names of Jews so that the Gestapo could find them more easily, seem to have been included solely as negative examples, a foul smell wafted toward us for a few pages. Don’t forget this, the author seems to say. Maybe you’ll recognize it when you smell it again.
Although he takes aim at literary theory, academic obscurantism, racism, reverse-racism and intellectual dishonesty of every stripe, Mr. James’ recurrent theme is the danger of political ideologies. Signing onto an ideology entails ignoring all evidence to the contrary. It’s a mind-shutting maneuver. His particular targets are “intellectuals who shamed themselves and their calling by bringing superior mental powers to the defence of misbegotten political systems that were already known to be dispensing agony to the helpless.” (Jean-Paul Sartre, please stand up.)
Writers who earn Mr. James’ praise are those who, like George Orwell and Thomas Mann, eventually loosened up their rigid politics, or at least began to take in the darker implications of their early beliefs.
Mr. James’ tone ranges from confiding to bombastic, and he’s entertaining at either extreme. His conclusions are brilliantly reasoned, but his relentless focus on World War II, the Holocaust, Stalin’s purges and extreme authoritarianism is enough to convince you that there were no hula hoops, no soap operas, no cupcakes in the 20th century—in fact, that intellectual seriousness demands that there be no cupcakes. His essay titled “Coco Chanel” devotes one paragraph to her achievements in fashion, the rest to the concept of small luxuries, culminating with the 70 years of deprivation suffered by ordinary Soviet citizens.
But also—as with every mid-century French figure that Mr. James mentions—he points out Chanel’s degree of collaboration during the Occupation. Collaboration is more than a minor theme of Cultural Amnesia. We get examples of great bravery (the historian Marc Bloch, tortured and killed for fighting with the Resistance), good intentions (Albert Camus, who played down his modest anti-Nazi efforts) and self-serving zeal (Jean-Paul Sartre, who called for the death of collaborators when his own resistance was slight). Mr. James is even more alert to the whereabouts and political activities of German intellectuals before and during the war, and his essay on Jorge Luis Borges focuses on his tacit support for an increasingly brutal Argentine regime.
Wielding his scissor hands, Mr. James cuts many a famous writer down to size. But he also proves a generous guide to the century, offering reminiscences from his writing life and common-sense asides about translations, the best biographies, the importance of at least a basic reading knowledge of Spanish. His focus may veer without warning, but his prose is clear and quotable. Trading jokes with Jay Leno wasn’t a conversation, but “more like mouth-to-mouth assassination.” The Gods “poured success on [Camus] but it could only darken his trench coat: it never soaked him to the skin.”
At over 800 pages, this is a weighty tome in more ways than one, but the only unreadable parts come when Mr. James pulls the wings off a joke or a poetic effect by trying to explain how the writer came by it. Norman Mailer wrote, “In the middle classes, the remark, ‘He made a lot of money,’ ends the conversation. If you persist, if you try to point out that that money was made by digging through his grandmother’s grave to look for oil, you are met with a middle-class shrug.” In admiration, Mr. James manages to stretch Mailer’s moment of inspiration by another 10 sentences: “You are having a drink with him, and he wants to describe someone who will do anything for money. The standard idea comes into his head of a man selling his mother or grandmother. Instantly he sees that the idea needs improvement …. ”
These passages, and any mention of Stalin past about page 300, feel like being cornered at a party. The wet kiss can’t be far behind.
Readers who chafe at the author’s constant recourse to Stalin will find a partial explanation at the end of a critique of “desk-bound Western intellectuals” who persist in describing Stalin as a military genius, when it was his indifference to suffering and waste that allowed him to send millions of soldiers to their deaths. “I still can’t believe that these obscenities happened in my time,” Mr. James writes, “and that during the Anzac Day march through Sydney in 1946 I was actually wearing a forage cap with a badge on it celebrating Stalin’s heroism and genius.”
Clive James wants the rest of us to rip off our badges—then we can join the rambling, unrehearsed and irresistible conversation that humanism makes possible. “When we talk about the imponderables of life, we don’t really mean that we can’t ponder them,” he writes. “We mean that we can’t stop.”
Regina Marler is the editor of Queer Beats: How the Beats Turned America On to Sex (Cleis Press) and a regular contributor to the Los Angeles Times Book Review and The Advocate.