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…