Clive James's compendium of short essays shows him at his most democratic, irreverent and dazzling. Even the flaws seem to be there for a purpose—to make the reader feel slightly less ignorantby Frederic Raphael / July 28, 2007 / Leave a comment
Cultural Amnesia, by Clive James (Picador, £25)
Halfway through this monumental catalogue raisonné of the writings in Clive James’s life, and library, I inadvertently broke protocol and read a chunk of what another reviewer had said about it. In a spasm of reheated little Englandism, AN Wilson cosied up to his public by assuring them that he had never heard of Witold Gombrowicz, who, he jeered, sounded fictional. Letting philistines off the hook of their monoglot complacency is a speciality of parochial critics, from FR Leavis to Kingsley Amis and on down. No surprise to discover that Wilson regarded as wearisome old hat James’s long obsession with the somewhat parallel histories of Nazism and communism. Trailing along with the prevailing cant, Wilson concluded that today’s American cultural domination was much more alarming than what was done, ages ago now, by one set of people with funny foreign names to a capsized raft of others—Friedell, Kraus, Schnitzler, Freud—whose work Clive James presents as of lasting importance. You don’t have to be a working paranoiac to suspect, in today’s anti-Americanism, a mutation of the old Nazi charge of Kulturbolshevismus.
Noticing that Cultural Amnesia was partly dedicated to “the memory of Sophie Scholl,” guillotined in Munich on 22nd February 1943, at the age of 21, Wilson declared the dedication “toe-curling.” Scholl’s “crime” was to have protested, peacefully, against the persecution of the Jews. Wilson’s dry-eyed response to James’s tribute to an Antigone whose self-sacrifice remains pretty well unknown in England tells us as much as we need to know about the kind of wilful amnesiacs James is up against. It also provokes the unequivocal statement that these 800 pages are as good an education, in literature and in common decency, as any one public intellectual could hope to bind between bulging covers. Only a genius or a fool will learn nothing from this book.
It is typical of the Jamesian method that he moves smartly from honouring the real Sophie Scholl to casting Natalie Portman in a putative Hollywood film about her heroism. The essence of Cliveishness is to ignore the “No Entry” signs in any sacred enclosure and to rip up the prim fences between high, low and medium culture, between English-speaking literature and “theirs,” whether they are the lost intellectuals of old Vienna or the South American renovators and innovators of Spanish literature. He is smart to spot the transatlantic cable that passes Miguel de Unamuno’s brave intelligence to Octavio Paz, Vargas Llosa and the rest, just as he is rightly less than subservient to the Tiresian genius of Borges, who only very nearly took an eminent stand against the Argentinian juntists. By contrast, Thomas Mann, for all his jealous grandeur, is properly, and lengthily, saluted.
James does, however, offer hostages to scoffers by advertising his own polyglot competences (German, Spanish, French, Russian); he even admits, a little showily, to the deterioration of his Japanese. What would the razor-edged Clive James have said about such self-regard, if it were not Clive James displaying it? Never mind: the self at work here is of such energetic quality, such gluttonous literacy, and so unguardedly generous with reminders of books that should be read, that only a prig or an idler will fail to make a long list of what he might otherwise have missed.
Although he gets no chapter to himself, Montaigne is a presiding presence. His claim that nothing human was alien to him proclaimed not only that he had ingested the culture on his shelves; it also confessed that he felt in his flesh the mortality, the flux of desires and thoughts, of purposes, passions and pieties which enable a man at once to judge and to sympathise with others. Montaigne’s bereavements both pained and enlightened him (he lost not only his famous best friend, Etienne de la Boétie, but also his infant daughter): like James, he had to concede that chance is our master and that the Epicure has also to be a Stoic. The deaths of others make us the curators of their reputations.
When a lifetime’s collection of essays is both highly spiced with intelligence and exuberant with instances, gossip and detail, there is generosity even in its flaws: they remind the reader of what a very clever man can have in common with him. When we are told that George Jean Nathan’s prose was very fine, so long as “his frenzy to decorate did not weigh down his architecture,” we sense that our guide is alerting us, and himself, to his own temptation to gild the arch. There are places, especially where James deals too indulgently, even complicitously, with contemporaries (Gore Vidal is unduly flattered and Amis père et fils too unquestioningly laurelled), when I wished that he or his editor had been scissor-fingered. But no buffet can contain only what you have an appetite for, or it will seem skimpy; a cornucopia is made to overflow. James’s penchant for jokes, kite-flying (with ribbons of prosaic fancy attached), bibliophile’s arcana, advice to the young and self-advertisement—it’s no surprise that Norman Mailer figures among his prophets—doesn’t so much get in the way of his seriousness as leaven it. A wit who sometimes aspires to be a bore but—to our good fortune —cannot quite hack it, he is the sparkling version of Edmund Wilson at his ranging best.
Just when you begin to think that only the A-list appeals to James, he introduces you to the musicologist Alfred Einstein (yes, Albert’s cousin), or Paul Muratov. On the big issues he is unfailingly sharp: in a nicely ambivalent essay on that addictive gambler Admiral Yama-moto, he even snaps at the straight-faced camp of Gore Vidal for his naughty claim that America provoked Japan into war. James has no doubt (nor do I) that Raymond Aron, disgracefully uncited in the mammoth Routledge Encyclopaedia of Philosophy, is a far more important and honest thinker than Jean-Paul Sartre. L’Opium des Intellectuels was a braver act of resistance—to the whole French intellectual establishment—than anything Poulou did.
One of the few injustices here is the dismissal of Bernard-Henri Lévy, who is not everyone’s idea of a modest violet, but who should be remembered less for “better wrong with Sartre than right with Aron” (which I suspect was not of his coinage) than for his advocacy of the “new philosophers”—never mind that he made himself their chef de file—and for his meta-Aronesque La Barbarie à Visage Humain, which broke radically with the soixante-huitard tradition of intellectual fellow-travelling. Mutatis mutandis, Levy is a Parisian Clive James, a multi-media, limelight-loving intellectual with globetrotting propensities; a case of mon semblable, mon frère-ennemi perhaps.
By way of proving that he is no kind of a bluffer, James shows knowledge of Flaubert’s sustainedly scholarly and ruthlessly polite rejoinder to Sainte-Beuve over the latter’s review of Salammbo, one of my favourites among Flaubert’s marvellously varied correspondence. Sainte-Beuve was also, notoriously, a target of Proust’s even more sustained denunciation. James relishes the polemics, but is properly fair to Sainte-Beuve’s qualities. The second rank also has its excellences.
As a self-confessed tanguero, James is unsurprisingly more at home with Hispanophone writers. He understands the long tragedy of Argentina with admirable lack of Britannocentrism. Unlike AN Other, he sees the sustained links between Nazism and the cult of torture in Buenos Aires: the tango was played endlessly by the camp orchestra at Majdanek and, in sordid reciprocity, Hitler’s speeches blared from the loudspeakers while Jews, in particular, were brutalised in juntist Argentina. Oddly, since one begins to think he knows it all, he fails to mention the sinister curiosity of the 1990s hit play Paso de Dos, which depicted an erotic relationship between a torturer and his female victim, in which death and orgasm brought the curtain, and the house, down.
Cultural Amnesia is an incitement to literacy and to a multiculturalism which is not vacuous with resignation but primed with an urgent sense of the fact, so unpalatable to the witless and the fanatic, that liberal democracy is “the indispensable state of affairs for any country,” but—as Vargas Llosa puts it—”first of all it must be a country, not just an area of conflict.”