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30 review for Cultural Amnesia: Necessary Memories from History and the Arts

  1. 4 out of 5

    BlackOxford

    A Critic For All Ages I once met Clive James, on the raised pavement of the Barbican in London. We both had weekday flats there and I had seen him before in his daily pedestrian commute. Encountering him one day, I stopped abruptly and greeted him effusively as if an old friend. I probably had interrupted a reverie, so looking up and seeing a face that might have been vaguely familiar, he stopped to chat - about the weather, and the state of the Barbican landscaping as I recall. We parted with ne A Critic For All Ages I once met Clive James, on the raised pavement of the Barbican in London. We both had weekday flats there and I had seen him before in his daily pedestrian commute. Encountering him one day, I stopped abruptly and greeted him effusively as if an old friend. I probably had interrupted a reverie, so looking up and seeing a face that might have been vaguely familiar, he stopped to chat - about the weather, and the state of the Barbican landscaping as I recall. We parted with neighborly regards. Despite the brevity of our contact, given the range of figures he has included in this book, I’m a bit surprised that I didn’t make it into one of his vignettes. Everyone who is anyone in the world of literature is there in Cultural Amnesia. The most amazing thing is that James appreciates them all, even when he criticizes their mistakes and excesses. He starts from a position of their purpose, their intention and works back to his own criteria of the aesthetic, which he then frequently modifies based on his quite remarkable empathy. For me this is precisely the job of a critic - not to praise or condemn but to refine his own sensibilities by understanding those of others. James’s philosophy of criticism is marvelously summarized in his intention about the book, which is to demonstrate the truth of his belief that our literary inheritance “is our real and inextinguishable fortune.” This inheritance is something which can be ignored from time to time, or only partially appreciated, but it cannot be lost as long as it is talked about. And I take it that this is what he wants us to do with the contents of Cultural Amnesia - talk exuberantly about the wealth which is there for the taking. It probably is neither necessary nor healthy to take on the 800 pages of Cultural Amnesia in a single go. There’s just too much material to comprehend, too many insights to absorb, too many witticisms, anecdotes, and aphorisms to appreciate. The book is an hundred course meal which shouldn’t be wolfed down like lunch at a hot dog stand. I find myself starting with those figures I feel I know best (which is never as well as James) and drifting onto the (for me) relatively obscure names. It is mostly among these that I appreciate my own lack of education as well as James’s superb erudition and taste. There is no doubt - for anyone contemplating an extended stay on a desert island, Cultural Amnesia is really the only luxury one need have to be perfectly content.

  2. 5 out of 5

    Kris

    This book should come with a warning label on it. If you are anything like me, reading it will make your to-read shelf grow tremendously. Clive James is a well-known Australian writer, critic, broadcaster, and poet; he has often been described (in the US) as a public intelectual. Cultural Amnesia spotlights his comprehensive and deep knowledge is of Western culture, with a special focus on 20th-century Europe. The volume is comprised of 106 biographical profiles of a wide range of writers, music This book should come with a warning label on it. If you are anything like me, reading it will make your to-read shelf grow tremendously. Clive James is a well-known Australian writer, critic, broadcaster, and poet; he has often been described (in the US) as a public intelectual. Cultural Amnesia spotlights his comprehensive and deep knowledge is of Western culture, with a special focus on 20th-century Europe. The volume is comprised of 106 biographical profiles of a wide range of writers, musicians, artists, actors whom James deems important to know to understand 20th-century cultural, intellectual, and political life. (Note that some figures lived in earlier centuries, but James always makes their relevance to the 20th century clear.) These brief essays are organized alphabetically, and structured around one or more quotations from the individual being featured, which James uses as a jumping off point for a series of ruminations. While he stays focused on the life of the individual being profiled in some cases, in others his thoughts take him to other cultural and political figures. Following his connections and seeing how his mind works is part of the fun of reading this collection. Anyone who fears that Cultural Amnesia is a staid, boring encyclopedic volume need worry no longer. James clearly loves learning and sharing his knowledge. He often talks about his experiences teaching himself to read a host of languages, including Spanish, German, and Russian by having a dictionary in one hand and one of the classics he discusses in his essays in the other. He clearly wants us all to join him in what he says is the best way to learn a new language. In addition, these essays are developed along some common themes, particularly James's championing of humanism and liberal democracy. He writes movingly about writers' responsibilities to fight totalitarianism, as he draws on positive and negative examples from World War II in particular, with special attention to Germany, Austria, and France. As I was reading, I felt I was deepening my understanding and appreciation of Western culture, sometimes by taking a new look at a well-known figure, and other times by learning about a previously unknown person whose work I am know seeking out. (Top on my list is Egon Friedell, whose 3-volume A Cultural History of the Modern Age has been reissued and is high on my April list of books to order). I read through the essays in Cultural Amnesia in order, which led to some interesting juxtapositions. I moved from Louis Armstrong to Raymond Aron, from Albert Camus to Dick Cavett, from Coco Chanel to Charlie Chaplin. In the M's, I spent some time with Heinrich Mann and Thomas Mann, after which I segued to Mao Zedong. I think it is fitting, given James's central themes, that his final sketch before his conclusion is one of Stefan Zweig, whose memoir The World of Yesterday I just reviewed. Zweig was one of the foremost proponents of the liberal humanism, the internationalism, the commitment to freedom through culture, that James strongly advocates. In his concluding essay, James writes stirringly of the reasons why 21st-century readers should look to the past to understand a way forward to protecting liberal democracy from the forces of hatred, intolerance, and totalitarianism in the future: "The only answer comes from faith: faith that the rule of decency – which at last, and against all the odds, looks as if it might prevail – began in humanism, and can’t long continue without it. How will we know if our earthly paradise is coming to pieces, if we don’t know how it was put together? It was the human mind that got us this far, by considering what had happened in history; by considering the good that had been done, and resolving to do likewise; and by considering the evil, and resolving to avoid its repetition. Much of the evil, alas, was in the mind itself. The mind took account of that too. The mind is the one collectivity that the free individual can thrive in: which is lucky, because live in it he must. Even within ourselves, there are many voices. Hegel, when he said that we can learn little from history, forgot about Hegel, author of the best thing about history that has ever yet been said. He said that history is the story of liberty becoming conscious of itself." Clive James ----------------------------- A poorly formatted but serviceable web page includes the table of contents for Cultural Amnesia, in case any of you would like to review the vast array of people profiled by James: http://catdir.loc.gov/catdir/toc/ecip... Amazon's "look inside" feature provides another view of the Table of Contents: http://www.amazon.com/Cultural-Amnesi... ----------------------------- James is currently diagnosed with leukemia and emphysema. A number of articles published in Australian papers earlier in March 2013 featured interviews with his daughters and some examples of his recent poetry. A February 2013 interview with James was published in The New Republic, and provides insight about James' approach to educating himself: http://www.newrepublic.com/article/11...

  3. 4 out of 5

    Warwick

    (Edit November 2019: Oh, Clive…rest in peace, you magnificent bastard. You brought me innumerable moments of pleasure and inspiration. Here's to a life well lived and I sincerely hope Margarita Pracatan will be singing at the funeral. Cheers!) There is a moment in the Bond film You Only Live Twice where Moneypenny throws Sean Connery a teach-yourself-Japanese book before he leaves for a mission in Tokyo. Bond tosses it back to her with the admirably curt reply, ‘You forget I got a First in Orient (Edit November 2019: Oh, Clive…rest in peace, you magnificent bastard. You brought me innumerable moments of pleasure and inspiration. Here's to a life well lived and I sincerely hope Margarita Pracatan will be singing at the funeral. Cheers!) There is a moment in the Bond film You Only Live Twice where Moneypenny throws Sean Connery a teach-yourself-Japanese book before he leaves for a mission in Tokyo. Bond tosses it back to her with the admirably curt reply, ‘You forget I got a First in Oriental languages at Cambridge.’ I was reminded of this many times while reading Clive James's new and enormous book of biographical essays, Cultural Amnesia, because Bond's breezy insouciance is something Clive James seems constantly trying to pull off. Of the hundred-plus figures James writes about, fewer than twenty-five worked in English. Some of the others don't even exist in translation yet, but that's all right because James has read every single one of them in the original, and he's going to make damn sure you know about it. It's hard to dislike though. James has the endearing and all-too-rare quality of assuming the same intellectual curiosity (and capacity) in his readers as he has in himself, and authors are consistently introduced with helpful comments on how amenable their work is to the student of French, German, Italian or whatever. Occasionally he admits some shortcomings – ‘I can't read Czech. Not yet, anyway’, or reminisces that ‘There was a time when I could fairly fluently read Russian, and get through a simple article in Japanese’ – but these self-criticisms are decidedly self-serving. Some people call James a show-off. That's a matter of taste. I don't mind show-offs if they genuinely have a lot of knowledge to show off, and you can't fault James on that score. From the evidence of this book, he must have done nothing but read for twelve hours a day every day for the past fifty years. What's astonishing is how much of it he remembers. It would take me a lifetime to read all the writers he can reference within a single essay. A lifetime is exactly what it has taken Clive James to read them, and at times this book is presented as being something of a life's work for him. It's arranged alphabetically, from Anna Akhmatova to Stefan Zweig, and the first thing you find yourself examining is who's made the list. Although it putatively focuses on the twentieth century, there are some notable names from rather earlier, including Keats and Montaigne. There are a lot of people you won't have heard of, as well as several surprising absences. Hitler is there, but Stalin isn't. Albert Einstein is not there, but his cousin Alfred is. Michael Mann, bizarrely, is included although there's no mention of Scorsese or Lynch. There is a heavy bias towards writers, and specifically towards European writers: among other things the book is a celebration of the fertile intellectual ground that was the café culture in Vienna and Paris, before the literary scene in those cities was crushed by fascism. And in the end, the names themselves are just jumping-off points for James to write essays, often brilliant ones, about the intellectual concerns thrown up by the last century. The essays taken as themselves are wonderfully stimulating, not only fascinating in their subject matter but also a sheer joy to read because of the quality of his writing. As a prose stylist I can't think of anyone to touch him. He admires efficiency of expression in others, and this has made him one of the most aphoristic, quotable writers: The lessons of history don't suit our wishes: if they did, they would not be lessons, and history would be a fairy-story. The best way of reviewing the book is to say that every other sentence is as good as this. Nor is he afraid to use his prose gift to convey awkward messages. Coming in a general sense from the left, he has no time whatever for leftist ideology and he is particularly good on dissecting some of their holy cows like multiculturalism or feminism; here he is on the recent popularity of anti-Americanism: It would help if the world's large supply of anti-American commentators could decide on which America we are supposed to be in thrall to: the Machiavellian America that can manipulate any country's destiny, or the naïve America that can't find it on the map. While we're waiting for the decision, it might help if we could realize the magnitude of the fix that America got us out of in 1945, and ask ourselves why we expect a people rich and confident enough to do that to be sensitive as well. Power is bound to sound naïve, because it doesn't spot the bitter nuances of feeling helpless. At times like this I was practically dancing around my room with pleasure. Still, there is sometimes a sense that his veneration of clarity, while refreshing, can be misleading. Although it's obviously essential in an essay or in philosophy, there is at least an argument that in the arts a complexity of expression can be a pleasure in itself. Certainly this would be one defence of Miles Davis (whose abstruseness James dislikes) or of Thomas Pynchon (he doesn't get a mention, but I suspect James would disapprove). The subject matter of many of the essays, dealing as they do with one or other form of totalitarianism, can be fairly bleak, and one thing a James fan might miss a little is the humour he usually brings to his writing. It's a pity that he seems to have felt it was inappropriate, because when it does emerge, in his lighter moments, the sentences can really come alive. How's this for a description of male porn stars: With their clothes off and their virile members contractually erect, they are merely competitors in some sort of international caber-tossing competition in which they are not allowed to use their hands. While the women ‘can earn millions for spending a couple of hours a day wrapping themselves around an oaf’. Sometimes, but too rarely, this kind of wit is indeed brought to bear on political issues: he points out how outrageous it is that no one in the West finds the idea of the Kirov Ballet objectionable (though it has long been renamed in Russia), and wonders how people would react to the Himmler Youth Orchestra or the Pol Pot Academy for Creative Writing. It is a continual concern of the book to demand what moral responsibilities an intellectual should have when faced with totalitarianism. It's this approach which has led to James's much commented-on demonization of Jean-Paul Sartre, who is ‘a devil's advocate to be despised more than the devil’, ‘the most conspicuous example in the twentieth century of a fully qualified intellectual aiding and abetting the opponents of civilization’. Watching him lay into someone like this is great fun, not least because it gives you a few ideas of what to say to the next Sartre-nut who corners you at a party. Sometimes he seems to hold these people up to some very demanding standards: he's convincing on Sartre's feeble response to Nazism, but surely it's a bit much to question why Wittgenstein never mention the Fascists in Philosophische Untersuchungen, a work of pure linguistic philosophy? And if individual essays are often exceptional, the way they fit together in the book as a whole has problems. The main one being that there is almost a theme to the book, but not quite. The theme which looms largest is the way in which the twentieth century can be characterised as a clash between two forms of totalitarianism, left and right. But to really make this work, about a quarter of the essays, the ones which don't bear on this subject, would need to be cut. Alternatively if it's just going to be a random collection of biographies, a different quarter should be cut, namely some of those which do concern totalitarianism. As it is, we are left halfway between, not sure if the book is darting around with general curiosity, or if it's trying to build some kind of cumulative argument. A cumulative argument is still there, but it doesn't have the coherence it might have done. Perhaps that's by design. All I know is I loved the book, loved it because it was unashamedly intelligent and curious and because even when I violently disagreed with it (on multiculturalism, for example), I was still delighted by how beautifully the arguments were being expressed. Its close reading of its subjects invites a reader to examine it in the same way, and so in a sense my criticisms of the work are also testament to its effectiveness. Still, although there are a lot of fascinating characters in the book, the overwhelming presence is of Clive James himself, and I don't believe he ever had any other intention. The key quote comes in the essay on the great German critic Marcel Reich-Ranicki, of whom James says Just because he has an incurable knack of making himself sound arrogant shouldn't deafen us to the truth of his humility. Here you sense strongly that James would love someone to say something similar of himself. If you're one of those people that does find him arrogant, this book will doubtless give you plenty of ammunition to back up the theory. But if you're interested in learning something of what he's picked up from a lifetime's reading – not least about the art of writing a brilliant sentence – then Cultural Amnesia is a whole rich continent waiting to be explored.

  4. 5 out of 5

    Ted

    maybe 2 1/2 Even when I was rather enjoying a few pages of one of these essays, a feeling kept lurking in the background that James expected me to be taking notes - both so I wouldn’t forget the pearls of wisdom he was scattering, and so I wouldn’t forget who gifted them to me. Why I didn’t like the book at all. First let me admit that I only read about 25% of the book, plus the Introduction. James talks down to his reader. How does he do this? The most obvious sign is when he over and over says so maybe 2 1/2 Even when I was rather enjoying a few pages of one of these essays, a feeling kept lurking in the background that James expected me to be taking notes - both so I wouldn’t forget the pearls of wisdom he was scattering, and so I wouldn’t forget who gifted them to me. Why I didn’t like the book at all. First let me admit that I only read about 25% of the book, plus the Introduction. James talks down to his reader. How does he do this? The most obvious sign is when he over and over says something like “the student would do well”, as if we his readers are “students” fawning at the feet of he the master teacher. Were there a reference to “student” in the Index, there would be quite a few pages listed. James takes direct aim, in his Intro, on “science”. If the eighteenth century had meant to usher in the age of reason, the nineteenth century, with the cold snick of the guillotine ringing in its ears, meant to supply some of the regrettable deficiencies of reason by the addition of science … By now, after the twentieth century has done its cruel work … the future of science, Renan’s cherished avenir de la science, can be assessed from our past, in which it flattened cities and gassed innocent children: whatever we don’t yet know about it, one thing we already know is that it is not necessarily benevolent.Sheesh. I guess for James, the horrible wars of the twentieth century were mainly a result of scientific knowledge. And not to quibble, but this masterful writer can really write “science … is not … benevolent”? To me, science is not even the kind of noun that one can assert “benevolence” of. Maybe if he’d said “the scientific enterprise”? I would love to watch a debate about science between James and Jacob Bronowski. For a more detailed critique of the Introduction: (view spoiler)[ James tells us that throughout his reading and writing career, he made “annotations” which seemed to be beyond a narrow subject, belonging to a “scheme” which could perhaps be approached far in the future, perhaps near the end of his life. He talks of the threads of this larger scheme as “clarities variously illuminating a dark sea of unrelenting turbulence … Far from a single argument, there would be scores of arguments. I wanted to write about philosophy, history, politics and the arts all at once, and about what had happened to those things during the course of the multiple catastrophes into whose second principal outburst (World War I was the first) I had been born in 1939, and which continued to shake the world as I grew to adulthood.” He further relates that it became clear to him that to try to unify all these interrelated subjects and narratives (my word) into a systematic order, an overarching simplifying theme, a “premature synthesis”, was the thing to be avoided. This could be viewed by a reader as a cop-out. As an admission that the task was beyond his capability to execute it. After having read 20% of the book I view this plan as precisely a cop-out. James isn’t capable of constructing a long well-reasoned narrative. He’s strictly an essay man, and his essays contain very little “evidence” for his assertions. At best, they’re little more than personal views, uttered as if they’re revealed wisdom, for the humble “student” to take on faith. He says that, if he has done his work in assembling this volume properly, “themes will emerge from the apparent randomness and make this work intelligible.” Actually, very little of it is intelligible. Or rather, far too many of these pieces are ruined by key observations being made in an ego-laden style, attempting to say something rather commonplace, but in such a high-minded and convoluted way, attempting thereby to pass the observation off as a keenly stated, and profound, aphorism. And these observations, because of the crank style, become unintelligible. James attempts to lard them with so much inner irony and “surface” paradox, that this reader was stopped dead in his tracks, fruitlessly attempting to decipher what James is saying, and over and over failing to understand what it is that he is so damned pleased about. The “apparent randomness” refers to the fact that the ~100 portraits which comprise the book are given in alphabetical order! Not in chronological order, or not (heavens) in any predetermined sets by topic or narrative string, but in the most unthinking order possible – hence random. Well, okay. An interesting experiment, and required by James’ aversion to doing the work himself. But of course the narrative threads are no more going to appear by “magic” than James is going to write totally unfocused essays in each individual portrait. The section on the 2nd half of xvii is hard to summarize. He doesn’t define exactly what he means by humanism, hence I must assume he means the most common definition. def: an outlook or system of thought attaching prime importance to human rather than divine or supernatural matters. Humanist beliefs stress the potential value and goodness of human beings, emphasize common human needs, and seek solely rational ways of solving human problems. similarly, first bit from Wiki: Humanism is a philosophical and ethical stance that emphasizes the value and agency of human beings, individually and collectively, and generally prefers critical thinking and evidence (rationalism, empiricism) over established doctrine or faith (fideism). The meaning of the term humanism has fluctuated, according to the successive intellectual movements which have identified with it.[1] Generally, however, humanism refers to a perspective that affirms some notion of a "human nature" (sometimes contrasted with antihumanism). In modern times, humanist movements are typically aligned with secularism, and today "Humanism" typically refers to a non-theistic life stance centred on human agency, and looking to science instead of religious dogma in order to understand the world. (my emphasis) James, on the contrary, laments that “humanism is hard to find” in the modern world, and charges that “science is one of the culprits” for this. “… not the actual achievement of science, but the language of science, which, clumsily imitated by the proponents of Cultural Studies, has helped to make real culture unapproachable for exactly those students who might otherwise have been most attracted to it, and has simultaneously furthered the emergence and consolidation of an international cargo cult whose witch doctors have nothing in mind beyond their own advancement. By putting the humanities to careerist use … blah blah “ strikes me as meaningless: what does he mean by an inimical “language of science”? Who are the “proponents of Cultural Studies”, and how do they “clumsily imitate” this mysterious language? What does it mean to put the humanities to “careerist use”? Is this some kind of debate within academe that we are being subjected to? NOTE: Cultural studies is an innovative interdisciplinary field of research and teaching that investigates the ways in which “culture” creates and transforms individual experiences, everyday life, social relations and power. So what is this dreaded field (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cultural... )? It was initiated by “British academics in the late 1950s, 60s and 70s” James goes on to imply that something flowing out of this ill-defined (on his part) “field” has resulted in humanism being hard to find nowadays, because it has “no immediately ascertainable use” … but again his argument so cluttered with odd constructions and needlessly complex sentences that it almost approached Foucault, though without the latter’s inarticulate words and phrases. But what all this has to do with “science” I know not. James makes a very long and needlessly opaque statement about what his book is looking for, a way of telling a multi-threaded story of how “culture” and “humanism” (by which he appears to mean something quite distinct from the ordinary definition) are related, how each both makes and is made by the other, and how in the 20th century both were under existential threat from “political orders” that worked to weaken the webs binding these concepts together. He found in the 20th century “no field of creativity that was incorruptibly pure” (eg. a towering figure like Brecht “had given aid and comfort to totalitarian power”) Science comes under attack, despite the common notion that “humanism” implies a reliance on scientific method and is most generally felt to be allied with it. James seems overjoyed that English is now the universal language, owing to “the American international cultural hegemony”, which he apparently feels much at ease with. (hide spoiler)] James’ approach to women in the book is curious at best. I found it considerably far from the “best” end of the scale. He’s not shy about saying, in his Note on the Text,I have stuck with the traditional masculine dominance of the indeterminate gender … (and) the European tradition by which sufficiently distinguished females … referred to by their first names … Female readers can put all this down to unreconstructed chauvinism if they wish [he doesn’t care], but (their representatives in the book are not slighted) ‘merely outnumbered’.” To be precise, outnumbered by 97 to 9. Then a bone tossed: “This is a book about a world that men made, and it taught plenty of us to wish that women had made it instead.” Oh really? We’ll see how serious he is about that (see Peter Altenberg below). When I’d given up on the book, I decided to read the essays about women that I hadn’t yet. Here they are.(view spoiler)[ Anna Akhmatova (modernist poet) (view spoiler)[The first essay, leading off with a woman! But aside from one 8 word quote from “Requiem”, James’ narrative about her focuses on (1) her heroic stand against the tyranny of the state, and (2) “the beautiful incarnation of pre-revolutionary Petersburg” and “she was a femme fatale” and “love for her broken-nosed beauty was a common condition among the male poets”. Compare John Bayley on Akhmatova in The Order of Battle at Trafalgar - pages of quotations and analysis of her poetry. Never called by James simply “Anna”. 5 pages. (hide spoiler)] Coco Chanel (fashion designer!) (view spoiler)[This essay is leaky as a sieve. Typical BS quote, “Luxury is a necessity that starts where necessity stops”, is used to document (for the nth time) the miserable conditions of the workers’ paradise that the Soviet Union wasn’t. James urges us to believe that the return of high fashion after WW II was a reflowering of culture and meaning within society. No doubt a great many found happiness in this. But this is culture with a very small “c”, as James himself has urged elsewhere in the book. Here, it suits his purposes to elevate it. Chanel never called by James simply “Coco”. 5 pages (hide spoiler)] Alexandra Kollontai (Communist revolutionary) (view spoiler)[An anti-hero for James, about whom he has little good to say. So, just another small piece of the anti-totalitarian theme. Of course never called by James simply “Alexandra”. 5 pages (hide spoiler)] Heda Margolius Kovaly (Czech writer) (view spoiler)[This is a rather moving essay, which stays on track unusually well. James does quote from and recommend her masterpiece Prague Farewell. Only – well – it’s the same old totalitarianism is horrible theme. yes yes yes Clive, not only do we understand, you didn’t have to tell us!!! James calls her “Heda” several times. 4 pages (hide spoiler)] Nadezhda Mandelstam (Russian writer and educator) (view spoiler)[This is a perhaps the best essay about a woman. Key quote, “Only chance could save you”, from her universally praised (by GR friends) Hope Abandoned. But once we move into the later pages, we’re not only (again!) bogged into the theme mentioned above over and over, but I at least began having questions about the relation between culture, ideology, science – and whether many of the issues James brought up are not, nowadays, major downsides of his beloved American hegemony. (Note also, for about half the essay Mandelstam disappears entirely.) But no doubt an essay worth discussing over a few drinks (each). James calls her “Nadezhda”, I believe to distinguish her from her famous husband Osip Mandelstam. 6 pages (hide spoiler)] Zinka Milanov (Croatian opera singer) (view spoiler)[Milanov doesn’t appear to have quite the reputation that James implies, and the quote is only “attributed” to her. Not much here for a reader. Sort of a puff piece. No doubt a favorite singer of James’. James does not call her simply “Zinka”. 4 pages (hide spoiler)] Beatrix Potter (author) (view spoiler)[The shortest piece in the book, in which James makes no connection between her books and her interest in natural science & conservation. No surprise there. Fairly worthless, IMHO. James does not call her simply “Beatrix”. 3 pages (hide spoiler)] Sophie Scholl (student) (view spoiler)[An essay about a 21-year old student who joined her brother’s clandestine (not clandestine enough) White Rose revolutionary anti-Nazi group of young idealists in Munich in the early 1940s. They were all arrested in 1942. Sophie, given a chance (maybe) to recant her mistaken ways, refused, and was guillotined by the Nazis. This moving story is almost worth the price of admission (a German movie was made in 2005, never shown in the U.S. apparently). But even here, James ruins things by making more out of this heroism and idealism than it can carry, and moreover digressing for two plus pages about how, if an American movie were it to made, it would HAVE to star Natalie Portman, then going on about his own infatuation with Portman blah blah … James has no choice but to refer to Scholl as “Sophie”. 9 pages, the longest essay on a female. (hide spoiler)] And finally Margaret Thatcher (view spoiler)[This essay is mostly about British politics at the time of Thatcher’s rule. No damn connection to “culture” of any kind, as far as I can see. James seems quite in tune with her anti-union, anti-socialist, anti-leftist views. He winds up this curious and, to this American, rather pointless essay, with the outlandish assertion that when Thatcher, in 1982, met with Chinese leaders in Beijing about handing over Hong Kong, she implied to them that if things were not handled properly (from a Western point of view) they could be faced with the possibility of atomic war. (view spoiler)[James gives to footnotes in the book, so there’s no indication of what his claim is based on. Check out the web to see if you can find any evidence for this – I couldn’t. (hide spoiler)] James does not call her simply “Margaret”. 7 pages (hide spoiler)] The score: 9 essays (8%) on women, occupying 6% of the book. 1 is of an anti-hero, so doesn’t count. Throw her in the bag with Hitler, Mao, Stalin, Sarte, Goebbels, and several others, who only appear in their own essays to be pilloried and condemned. 1 of an English conservative politician 1 of a rather obscure opera singer 1 of an English writer of children’s stories (though she did more) 1 of a fashion designer 1 of a student murdered by the Nazis, who should be played by Natalie Portman 3 of writers who lived under Communist regimes. (hide spoiler)] Finally, two of my least-favorite essays. Peter Altenberg (view spoiler)[A strange case. Why is he here? Because he was a café favorite, admired by many real writers for the succinct little sparks that he threw off, basically on the back of a napkin, while cadging drinks and loans from the cognoscenti. And what does James do with him, with this man that he admits used his wit and reputation to get “bluestockings” into bed, when he was tired of patronizing prostitutes? The phrase that sends him off on the long discussion that frames the entire piece is “Was ist so nur?”, as a riposte to a young woman who complained “that his interest in her was based only (nur) on sexual attraction”. The point being that sexual attraction, to Altenberg (and to Fraser?) is everything. And this seems to be the whole reason why females enter into the picture at all. They don’t contribute to “culture” or “humanism” (at least not often), but they frequently promote/elevate the male in his sublime creation of these things - through the romantic aura which the initial sexual attraction somehow softens into. How many times will James repeat this “What’s so only?” He finds it both clever & profound. (hide spoiler)] Chamfort (view spoiler)[Seems like a somewhat up-scale Altenberg. “In the rich tradition of French aphorists” he committed suicide when faced with the guillotine in 1794. James says he “forecast the modern age by the reason for his death”. In this clumsy phrase he implies that those victims of the Terror who did not commit suicide but faced the blade did somehow not “forecast the modern age”, one would suppose. Chamfort was “a mighty lover of women”. This seems to be a wonderful point in a man’s favor for James. Chamfort’s “Maximes” took their place in literature “for those connoisseurs of the aphorism who positively liked the idea that there was a wasted lifetime behind the wisdom.” This seems to most definitely apply to James himself, who is most impressed with this person who according to his Wiki article was much more like Altenberg than James bothers to acknowledge, and whose suicide (botched so horribly that he lived for a year afterward, unbothered by the authorities) was because he was to be returned to prison, not to the guillotine. No matter. But the aphorism. It’s plain that James himself wished most painfully to be known as this sort of wit, that his pronouncements will have the charm of the sophisticated aphorism and be remembered for the fine phrase which he himself could craft. But here’s an example (which I could already repeat a dozen times) of James’ phrasing: Speaking of Chamfort’s “easy, wristy flourish to his phrasing”, James quotes Revel: “Systems of literary criticism are made to satisfy the devouring lack of interest in literary works that calls itself a thirst for culture”. This is itself one of these “easy, wristy flourishes” which James so admires, and he comments at length on it, to wit: “If that sentence turned on “calls itself a thirst for culture” it would just be a Wildean paradox. But devorante gives it savour, because the consuming energy of the deafness to art that goes into a critical system is always one of its distinguishing features – distinguishing it, that is, from the decently reticent poise of a sensitive response.” And that last sentence, in all its awkwardness and so-preachy exposition, its scornful lecturing to the students who cannot by themselves see the amazingly suave wit of Revel’s “wristy flourish”, is so typical of James. He aches for that “wristy flourish” himself, and simply produces a messy ejaculation. And that oh-so-suave “wristy”! What exactly James means by this foolish word is anyone’s guess – what it refers to most usually nowadays is a “hand-job”. Which now that I think of it, is pretty much what we watch James doing again and again – intellectual masturbation. (hide spoiler)]

  5. 4 out of 5

    Mir

    I didn't read this book. I read the 30+ pages of introduction and some entries here and there. Man, James really loves to talk about himself, doesn't he? You'd think he'd have gotten that out of his system with those multiple volumes of autobiography. There is also something old-curmudgeonly about the tone. "Kids today, no culture, end of society as we know it, blah blah." Which, I'm in a way sympathetic because yeah, most people are alarming ill-educated and uncultured. But I think they always I didn't read this book. I read the 30+ pages of introduction and some entries here and there. Man, James really loves to talk about himself, doesn't he? You'd think he'd have gotten that out of his system with those multiple volumes of autobiography. There is also something old-curmudgeonly about the tone. "Kids today, no culture, end of society as we know it, blah blah." Which, I'm in a way sympathetic because yeah, most people are alarming ill-educated and uncultured. But I think they always were. The kind of culture James is talking about has always been the purview of small elite. Anyway, the book: It is a collection of comments on a large number of extraordinary cultural figures, beginning with Anna Ahkmatova and ending with Stefan Zweig. Yes, it's in alphabetical order. Because, why not, I guess. (Even James himself admits that organization is weakness of his, joking that he has lost personal assistants in the morass of his desk. Just so we all know he is important and well-off enough to have a PA.) In short: there is some material of interest to be cherry-picked, but I wanted a book about culture, not an 800 page pangyric to James' own culturedness.

  6. 5 out of 5

    MJ Nicholls

    A bulletproof tome of time from the smartest man to ever be named Clive. A compendious compilation of cultural and historical monsters and man-stars (and women-stars), the volume swings with opinions on literature, the nature of evil over the century (the book’s kernel is a philosophical exploration of the holocaust), Clive’s own obscure literary heroes, and a unsummarisable outpouring of anecdotes, ramblings, opinions, and endless stream of erudition that leaves the reader in awe. I would award A bulletproof tome of time from the smartest man to ever be named Clive. A compendious compilation of cultural and historical monsters and man-stars (and women-stars), the volume swings with opinions on literature, the nature of evil over the century (the book’s kernel is a philosophical exploration of the holocaust), Clive’s own obscure literary heroes, and a unsummarisable outpouring of anecdotes, ramblings, opinions, and endless stream of erudition that leaves the reader in awe. I would award a sixth star if I could for the inclusion of Dubravka Ugrešić and Alexander Zinoviev.

  7. 5 out of 5

    M. D. Hudson

    Clive James’ massive tome Cultural Amnesia was a great disappointment to me. The format is straightforward enough: take those authors, politicians, arts and entertainment figures that have meant the most to James (good or bad), put them in alphabetical order, provide a biographical sketch, then a quote (or two), and then riff intellectually on that quote. This is a fine way to do an intellectual memoir. But this book is a genial, sprawling mess. Here's why: *** Staying on topic, bragging: James Clive James’ massive tome Cultural Amnesia was a great disappointment to me. The format is straightforward enough: take those authors, politicians, arts and entertainment figures that have meant the most to James (good or bad), put them in alphabetical order, provide a biographical sketch, then a quote (or two), and then riff intellectually on that quote. This is a fine way to do an intellectual memoir. But this book is a genial, sprawling mess. Here's why: *** Staying on topic, bragging: James allows himself a great deal of freedom in his discussions, which is fine so long as he holds a reader’s interest. But sometimes, despite its straightforward structure, the book is baffling in the most basic way. The first instance of this came for me at the Louis Armstrong section, which turned out to be, rather, a quote by Armstrong about how good Bix Biederbecke was, followed by James’ agreement that Biederbecke could really blow that horn. By the end of it, you realize there’s no Satchmo in the house. So why not just write a Biederbecke section? This arbitrary arrangement, which looks on the surface to be so rigorously thought-out, vexes the reader and leads to a feeling that despite certain claims to a unifying cultural vision, there is rather ad hoc approach to the project. But it gets worse. The section on Sophie Scholl (the German college student who was executed for protesting the Nazi regime) was somewhat more on topic, but took a far stranger turn when James embarked on speculating who should play Scholl in the talkies, speculation that then took him on a long dewy-eyed bout of incontinent praise directed towards actress Natalie Portman. Whether you agree with him or not about Portman, in James’ ardor, poor old guillotined Sophie Scholl gets lost in the Hollywood gush and semi-amateur movie casting. To make matters worse, James dedicates the whole book to Scholl, and yet he spills five times more ink on Tony Curtis. Then there’s James’ constant boasting. Ah the people and places he has seen! Of course these moments are rendered in the usual 21st century aw-shucks self-deprecatory way, but this doesn’t really fool anybody anymore, does it? A particularly egregious example comes in a typically off-topic maunder during the discussion of Heinrich Heine. Yes, Heine has a chapter, but there’s very little Heine actually therein. Rather, Heine is used as an excuse for James to extrapolate on celebrity, first with an aside on Greta Garbo’s lofty intellectual justifications for ignoring all fan mail, then, ickily, James’ own ruminations on the burden of fame. James, it would seem, is just enough of a celebrity to be asked for autographs – not Beatlemania level, but a steady drizzle. This provokes in him some fairly nasty comments on autograph seekers and stamp collectors. Sods! It all added up to nothing except to reveal the author’s own good opinion of himself and a certain lack of empathy for fellow human beings who happen to be goofier than he is (so goofy they seek Clive James’ autograph). *** Persistent hectoring about languages, yet more bragging: Nobody will ever accuse Clive James of wearing his learning lightly. Throughout the book, almost to a comic extent (almost), James tells us what a toiler he has been in making himself an intellectual. The tales are legion of him sweating over some beautifully-printed tome in the original German, French, Italian, Spanish, Japanese (!), Russian while seated at a café, usually the Copper Kettle (which is at Cambridge – as he’s quick to remind you) or some exotic locale during his extensive travels and TV documentary shoots. Each time this scene is set, he then tells the reader that he really should learn the language of the original work. Yes, as a monoglot, I feel ashamed and guilty about my lack of industry and application to make myself learn a foreign language. But really, I am not so sure James should have taken a more holistic approach to his belief in knowing other languages – when I read T. S. Eliot on his favorite French poets, I get this real feeling of missing out on something great, and never once does Eliot beard me for being a clodhopper. James, on the other hand, comes across a scold, and his “untranslatable beauties of the German (or French or Italian) tongue” mini lectures are off-the-shelf, the kind of stuff you read in Learn French in 30 Days ads in the New Yorker. But beyond his skills as a linguist, James’ pride in his learning is tiresome elsewhere. Throughout the book we get autobiographical glimpses of an intellect in the making. Here he is reading Paul Valery’s Introduction a la poetique: “I bought it in Cambridge in 1967. It was one of the first books in French I ever read to the end. It helped that the text was very short. But even as I stumbled through with the dictionary ever present, I could tell that I was on to something. I underlined things, put stars in the margin, added knowing comments about the provenance of Valery’s ideas (“Croce was here!”). It was a book I loved, and I love it still…” (p. 787). Elsewhere he mentions that a custom-made suit he bought in Italy was from the same tailor used by Gorbachev; said tailor mentioned James and Gorbachev share the exact same measurements (thank God we weren’t informed as to whether both gentlemen “dressed” to the same trouser leg). A letter written to James by Philip Larkin is mentioned, apparently so James can note that said letter is preserved in the National State Royal Archives of the New South Wales Repository for Fossils and Culture or some such place. *** Clichés, weird bête noires and general sloppiness: James says somewhere he spent 3 years writing this book, and that he considers it if not his magnum opus, at least his summing up. I wish he’d spent a few more years writing, or after writing it, spent 3 years editing it. Although James’ prose style can be engagingly conversational, it loses a lot of traction from cliché and frequent use of the tossed-off clever bit that’s not quite clever enough. Let me hasten to add that I am not one of those self-proclaimed Enemies of Cliché – clichés can be quite handy sometimes. But James can be quite heedless: “…he graduated in Madrid before embarking on a dazzling literary career…” “…none, not even the suave Fuentes, was to so glamorously exemplify the new role of the boom-time Latin American writer as world citizen and acknowledged legislator of mankind. Only Octavio Paz can really be talked of in the same breath…: Really, an intellectual’s memoir shouldn’t describe anyone’s career as “dazzling.” As for the stuff on Fuentes, I presume James deliberately changed Keat’s quote about poets being legislators from “unacknowledged” to “acknowledged” but the fact that Llosa ran unsuccessfully for President of Peru rather diminishes the effect here since he too, as a failed candidate, must remain in the ranks of the unacknowledged. Also, a rather willy-nilly ranking of writers (“Only Octavio Paz can really be talked of in the same breath…”) fly-spot the book from beginning to end, to the extent that they contradict themselves sometimes. What makes these bouts of bad writing particularly grating is James’ propensity to complain about our oh so low contemporary standards, a barbarians at the gate sort of woefulness one often finds in elderly intellectuals’ memoirs and interviews. This Senecan O Mores O Tempora elder statesman shtick is combined with some strange ideas about language in general and a tendency towards niggling little complaints about incorrect usage, characterize this passage in the Evelyn Waugh section: “The decline of grammar is a feature of our time, so I have tried, at several points in this book, to make a consideration of the decline part of the discussion. Except in a perfectly managed autocracy, language declines, and too much should not be made of the relationship between scrambled thought and imprecise expression….In a democracy, the language is bound to deteriorate with daunting speed… (p. 798) What is a “perfectly managed autocracy” and when has said entity even existed, let alone prevented the decline of language? Is decline bad? After all, Latin “declined” into Dante’s Italian (which James elsewhere exhorts us to learn) and Valery’s French, didn’t it? I know James isn’t this much of a dope – the on-going, centuries-long failure of the French Academy to maintain a “pure” French should scare off such calls for purity in English. In the passage above, in the part after the ellipses, he grumbles about the horrid misuse of the singular and plural forms of the word “phenomenon.” This is linguistic pecksniffian stuff you used to find in the back of The Atlantic Monthly where people reported quarrelling bitterly with their spouses over the use of “hopefully.” Yes, sloppiness in language does lead to sloppiness in thought, but intellectuals-with-standards such as James claims to be need to pick their fights more carefully. The word phenomenon isn’t even really English, certainly not an English form, and I am troubled by its misuse about as much as I am octopi vs. octopuses (and I am happy to see the incorrect (in Latin!) octopuses seem to be winning the fight). We can get rid of cacti while we’re at it. And let’s make “media” an interchangeable singular-plural the way “deer” is so all the schoolmarms of the English-speaking world can quit harping about it. Believe me, Cicero won’t care… If this weren’t bad enough, we are told that Waugh “was the supreme writer of English prose in the twentieth century,” (p. 797), followed with “Nobody ever wrote a more unaffectedly elegant English; he stands at the height to English prose; its hundreds of years of steady development culminate in him.” (p. 799). Shakespeare and Waugh, I guess, then everybody else. As for weird bête noires, every intellectual has them, I suppose, but James can get very silly. He mentions in passing early on how ridiculous Richard Burton’s haircut was in the WWII movie Where Eagles Dare. It was a kind of Beatlesesque pageboy, touching the collar at the back, I seem to recall. A brief mention at first, but James can't let it go -- a couple hundred pages later in the Arthur Schitzler section of the book, pages 690-695 are devoted to a full-fledged rant about Burton’s haircut in this movie (go ahead, check the index). Although some kind of meditation on how historical events are undermined by loss of detail in movies or the culture at large, James doesn’t really budge off the point that it is Burton’s haircut in this specific movie that prompts his rage. After exhausting the haircut topic, James goes on to point how that Burton had a really big head, then speculates how big his hats must’ve been. It was like a tedious, not at all funny celebrity roast. And the amount of reader’s time devoted to this lame material is inexcusable within the context of the rest of the book and James’ stated goal of rescuing us from “cultural amnesia.” Which is to say the book is terribly out of balance. A simple content analysis of the book will demonstrate. To recap, Sophie Scholl’s section goes from 706-714, but on 709 Natalie Portman’s pangyric begins, wherein all fleeting Sophie Scholl references subordinate to James’ musings as to whether or not Portman will ever be allowed to play her in a movie. Burton’s hair, as noted above, covers pages 690-695. So here are the grand totals: five pages to Burton’s haircut, six pages on Natalie Portman’s sublime skills as a child actress and an unconvincing argument why she’s much good as an adult, three pages on martyr to Nazi resistance Sophie Scholl (again, to whom this book is pointlessly dedicated). *** Lopsidedness: James does a really good job, just in picking the names he does, to bring forth a bunch of cultural figures that were at most a name to me. Many I’d never heard of before at all. A few I intend to track down (Lichtenberg). But James’ Top 100 list is a little strange – very heavy on eastern Europeans (Poles and Austrians especially) and rather light on the English-language sorts. Peter Altenberg, as amusing as he was, didn’t write much – but no T. S. Eliot? No Joyce? If you spent a lot of time holding forth brilliantly in a Vienna café, c. 1890-1929, you have a real good chance of showing up in James’ book. Germans exiled or killed by the Nazis also have a prominent place, although Walter Benjamin is far too breezily dismissed for writing stuff that’s impenetrable (this is only partially true, from what I’ve read, and I’m easily baffled). Jean-Paul Sartre is energetically hated throughout the book – quite convincingly some of the time, often by comparing him with Albert Camus. But Camus comes off as the usual saintly, haggard guy with a cigarette and little is added by James. Sometimes it seems that James is frantically trying to disguise the fact his book is often a warmed-over undergraduate debate about the Existentialists c. 1959. *** World History armchair generaling: In contrast to the arts sections of the book, throughout the history bits I too often felt myself under assault by Professor Obvious or puzzled as to why some of these intellectual heroes are really worth bothering with now (especially if I have to bother in the original Polish). As for the obvious, again and again, no doubt in his efforts to thwart “cultural amnesia” James tells us how bad Hitler, Mao, and Stalin were. This is fine, except that nothing particularly original gets brought up and the details are mostly in support of horrors the culture is already pretty aware of. The death camps and the gulag are indeed unspeakably awful. What lesson we need to draw from them is not that they are intrinsically awful (a glance at a photo of Dachau will convince everybody this side of the lunatic fringe), but how the death camps came about in the first place and how those processes of institutional and political erosion and failure apply to our culture today. I’m not saying James never hits on these things, but it is all a scatter, with nothing emerging that is particularly coherent. James’ take on the basic facts of history is hit or miss. His piece on Yamamoto and Japan’s militarism was pretty good, I thought, but then I don’t know much about these things. But often James was far too dismissive of Hitler’s talents (and Hitler crops up a lot in this book, but the Hitler section spends most of its energies on Arthur Moeller van den Bruck, a politically conservative German who, like so many others, failed to see what a disaster they were heading for. So why not a Moeller section? The reader will constantly ask herself this throughout the book). Like so many of those who let Hitler’s spectacular, utter failure eclipse his astonishing (and horrible) successes, James indulges in armchair generaling of the most fatuous sort. Here is Field Marshall Clive von James on p. 687: “(Hitler’s) reasoning was clever on the level of grand strategy. But on the level of military strategy it ignored a fact which has had on relevance in Napoleon’s time, but was now crucial: Moscow was the Soviet Union’s communications centre. If Hitler had concentrated his forces and gone all out for Moscow in the autumn of 1941, he could have had all the oil and minerals he wanted not long after. But he was far to smart: or, if you like, too stupid, except that it strains the meaning of the word.” Note that last CliveJamesian sentence – hyperbole combined with a too-easy conclusion combined with some punctuation and grammar I am not sure I understand, with a near-cliché closer (“strains the meaning of the word”). As for the rest, I’m no military genius myself, but destroying “communications” in the Soviet Union was not, I think, the key to success for Hitler. Stalin had already dismantled and moved beyond the Urals much of the USSR’s industrial capacity. Horrible winter weather, massive Soviet armies, and thousands upon thousands of T-34 tanks would overcome Nazi-occupied Moscow and a disrupted “communications centre.” Anybody who dismisses Hitler as stupid (or for that matter “a monster”) is in fact detaching Hitler from history, not engaging him. All of this is far too easy and its been done a thousand time before. But James can be quite good sometimes (which is why the sloppy, dashed-off parts are particularly disappointing). In a lucid, mostly on-topic discussion of political deep thinking guy Manes Sperber (no, I never heard of him either), James talks about those ideologues who come to see the errors of their ways, but never, it seems, completely so: “But (Sperber) doesn’t say enough about the Social Democrats. There were always more people voting Social Democrat than voting Communist, right to the end. Why did not the Social Democrats see the Party as the only hope? Sperber doesn’t tell us. Once can only conclude that even while he was writing his monumental autobiography, at the end of his life, he still clung to the belief that the people who fell for neither of the political extremes weren’t fully serious about politics. Such is the long-term effect of an ideological burden: when you finally put it down, you save your pride by attributing the real naivety (sic? Is this a British variation of naiveté?) to those who never took it up.” (p. 726) The clarity and wisdom of this impressed me greatly, even if I wish Sperber’s autobiography hadn’t been so predictably characterized as being “monumental.” This distrust of extremes while maintaining political passion is one of James’ most appealing traits. His take on Margaret Thatcher, while not exactly brilliant, was at least balanced and made some interesting points (her inability, apparently, to ever let anybody around her ever complete a sentence). *** I read through some professional reviews online after I started writing my own thoughts here. I was surprised at how many positive reviews there were – even Christopher Hitchens (who seemed only reluctantly positive, which is not an approach I’ve ever seen him take before. Rather mysterious.) Other reviewers were truly gushy and cited as a good how gosh darned daunting the book was, its 800 page count brought up as if it would be an impossible task to actually read through so much smart stuff from beginning to end. This is big-book-equals-big-brain criticism of the worst sort. And in the case of Cultural Amnesia, it is not true, for big as it is, this book is diced up into small, digestible pieces – so digestible a lot of it will pass right through you. I am a sloppy, easily-distracted reader and found Cultural Amnesia easy to gobble down in a couple of days, which is to say, for all its obscure figures, a pretty easy read even for the iffily-educated. And even at his worst, James is usually an entertaining writer. The problem is that he is only intermittently substantial. Take the best parts (like James’ insight on how Stalin exercised power by being crushingly boring, something all successful totalitarian governments wind up doing), get rid of the silly stuff (Portman’s acting chops, Burton’s hair) and tighten up the prose – you’d have a hell of a book coming in at 200 pages or so.

  8. 5 out of 5

    Marc

    Wowing, breathtaking, challenging, provocative, pedantic, enervating and frustrating I could write pages on end about this book: it is so rich and challenging (with more than 800 pages of dense text) that it certainly does not leave you indifferent. For all clarity: this is not an encyclopaedia. It may be built around a little more than 100 historical figures, but it offers only a limited amount of biographical material. James uses the figures as an occasion to convey his personal opinions on a w Wowing, breathtaking, challenging, provocative, pedantic, enervating and frustrating I could write pages on end about this book: it is so rich and challenging (with more than 800 pages of dense text) that it certainly does not leave you indifferent. For all clarity: this is not an encyclopaedia. It may be built around a little more than 100 historical figures, but it offers only a limited amount of biographical material. James uses the figures as an occasion to convey his personal opinions on a wide range of themes, a bit criss-cross and with regular diversions and repetitions, all in all the fruit of 40 years of intense reading. This book is largely confined to the 20th century (only about 10 figures date from before that period), and at least two thirds of the persons discussed are related to the major global conflicts of that period (especially the Second World War, and in particular the Holocaust) and the ideologies that caused these conflicts, namely fascism/Nazism and communism. James only talks about the political leaders to a limited extent (although Hitler, Stalin and Mao constantly come looking around the corner); the emphasis is on the intellectuals and artists, especially from literature and much less from music, theatre, visual arts and architecture. Obviously (I’m really sad, I have to use the word ‘obviously’) it is an almost exclusively male company (only 11 female figures have gotten a chapter, though more of them show up within; but some obvious ones, like Virginia Woolf, just remain unmentioned). And the vast majority are European (mainly French and German, very often from Jewish descent). The United States and Latin America are also well cared for, but Asia and Africa in particular are almost completely absent. Thus, this is a thoroughly white book, and because of its high brow content also very elitist (that is not made up for by the few chapters about Tony Curtis, Coco Chanel or Dirk Cavett). The ever-recurring mantra of James, which is underlined especially in his final chapter, is his unwavering belief in liberal democracy, in humanism and freedom. And there is, in my opinion, nothing wrong with that; it indicates that James really does have valuable things to tell, and it is his right to do so. But for our author, that belief is also an absolute criterion for morally weighing the many persons and currents mentioned. The heroes of James' story are those figures who contributed to those three phenomena (liberal democracy, humanism and freedom). He is utterly positive about intellectuals such as Raymond Aron, Benedetto Croce, François Furet, Wittold Gombrowicz, Leszek Kolakowski, Jean-François Revel, Ernesto Sabato, and Stefan Zweig, who - often against their surroundings - have openly opposed despotism, authoritarianism and all ideologies related to it. And the bad ones are not only the classic demonic figures (Hitler, Mao and Trotsky get a separate chapter, Stalin curiously not, although he is constantly mentioned), but especially the intellectuals ("the useful idiots") who have been ideologically complicit in the crimes of the regimes of those demons, who collaborated with their game, or who consciously turned away and kept quiet. James directs his sharpest arrows against leftist intellectuals and artists such as Bertold Brecht, José Saramogo, the whole clique of French postmodernism, and especially against Jean-Paul Sartre (he gets the poisoniest vitriol on his head, and time and again James repeats what a perverse role Sartre has played in the post-war period); but also cowardly right-wing figures are blackened, like Jorge Louis Borges (yes!) and especially Ezra Pound (curiously Louis-Ferdinand Céline is only shortly mentioned). So it is mainly authenticity that seems to be the criterion in the moral weighing process by Clive James, and rightly so. So I would not just call him "a right-wing bastard". All his opinions are clearly coloured ideologically, based on his belief in liberalism and humanism. But he uses this criterion as an inexorable razor edge, quite harsh sometimes. And occasionally James comes dangerously close to conservative-reactionary visions, for example in his attacks on multiculturalism and on Islam. What bothered me most about this book is its pedantic character: James squeezes opinions, stacks them up, repeats them very often, but rarely you can find a proper argumentation. Occasionally he sometimes explains why he detests or admires this or that person or development, but in most cases his opinion simply stands out as a statement, and that is frustrating. Also, there’s a big portion of conceit in this book: James eagerly demonstrates his knowledge of foreign languages (he claims that he learned German, Italian, Spanish, Russian and a bit of Japanese just by reading the classics from that language, with a dictionary next to it), or he invokes his multiple encounters with famous men or women and ridicules their petty personality traits. In short, this is definitely a very idiosyncratic book, (I have the impression that it could be twice as long if James had gotten his way by his publisher), but it also has its limitations, in style and in content. This book is formidable, breathtaking, and erudite, but also one-sided in its focus, very opinionated and provocative, regularly very self-indulgent and pedantic and therefore sometimes just enervating. But I’m sure that in coming years I’m going to browse through it many times again.

  9. 5 out of 5

    Jay Green

    My original review at the Irish Left Review: http://www.irishleftreview.org/2008/1... As a teenager watching Clive James on the TV of a Sunday night, I was never quite sure what to make of his combination of sparkling wit and sneering sarcasm. He was undeniably funny and reassuring yet at the same time somehow unable to disguise his discomfort at fronting a show composed of short, superficial witticisms on the quintessential mass medium of the second half of the 20th century. He seemed to feel it My original review at the Irish Left Review: http://www.irishleftreview.org/2008/1... As a teenager watching Clive James on the TV of a Sunday night, I was never quite sure what to make of his combination of sparkling wit and sneering sarcasm. He was undeniably funny and reassuring yet at the same time somehow unable to disguise his discomfort at fronting a show composed of short, superficial witticisms on the quintessential mass medium of the second half of the 20th century. He seemed to feel it was beneath him, or at the very least that he would have preferred to be elsewhere, and that it was only the chance to chat to Vitali Vitaliev or P.J. O’Rourke every couple of weeks that kept him coming back. It’s now clear to me precisely where he would rather have been: 1920s-30s Vienna. Much of the cultural activity referred to or discussed in this infuriating, intimidating, and baffling book seems to centre on or be connected to the Austrian capital. It took me a period of several weeks to read the whole thing, dipping in and out but proceeding assiduously and alphabetically, through its potted biographies, and I found myself increasingly bemused by the frequent references to Viennese culture; only when I looked back, in preparation for this review, did I see, having forgotten all about it, that the biographies are preceded by an “overture” (the book also has a “coda,” just to give you an idea of the kind of pretentiousness we’re dealing with here) that is devoted to the city in question. It’s in this overture that James explains the significance of the location that forms the focus of his work: Vienna was the source of a Jewish intellectual diaspora that, in his view, had a huge influence on the development of Western culture. This was the motherlode whence came much of the high modernism he holds in such esteem: Stefan Zweig, Karl Kraus, Gustav Mahler, Arnold Schoenberg, Arthur Schnitzler, and a whole swathe of others. Not that they all receive biographies of their own in this volume, but their influence seems to pervade the biographies of those who do. However, underlying this case study in oppression is the broader theme of the struggle of Western liberal humanism against various forms of totalitarianism, and this usefully explains why among those profiled are Adolf Hitler, Mao Zedong, Jean-Paul Sartre, Sophie Scholl, Leon Trotsky, Mario Vargas Llosa, Czeslaw Milosz, Raymond Aron, Jorge Luis Borges, Robert Brasillach, to name but a few, protagonists on one side or another of this struggle. The humanism in question, though, is a peculiar, idiosyncratic, eccentric version, albeit one explicitly related to “civilization” and civilizing activities such as the arts and humanities. In his introductory chapter, James writes: "As a journalist and critic, a premature post-modernist, I was often criticized in my turn for talking about the construction of a poem and of a Grand Prix racing car in the same breath, or of treating gymnasts and high divers (in my daydreams, I astonish the Olympic medalist Greg Louganis) as if they were practising the art of sculpture. It was a sore point, and often the sore point reveals where the real point is. Humanism wasn’t in the separate activities: humanism was the connection between them. Humanism was a particularized but unconfined concern with all the high-quality products of the creative impulse, which could be distinguished from the destructive one by its propensity to increase the variety of the created world rather than reduce it. Builders of concentration camps might be creators of a kind . . . but they were in business to subtract variety from the created world, not to add to it." All well and good, although given that Walter Benjamin is one of those profiled, it wouldn’t have been too much to expect James to know that, “there is no document of civilization which is not at the same time a document of barbarism.” For consistency’s sake, why not exclude any artist whose work depended on the patronage of empire, upon the destruction of the lives of thousands, if not millions, of others? Well, perhaps because this is not a humanism to which James seems willing to admit all of humanity. It is sad to think that he might once have recognized the craftsmanship and skill that went into the construction of a Grand Prix car, all the more interesting because of the involvement of so many individuals in its construction, but the fact is that since those early, broad-minded days of journalism, he seems to have taken a step backwards. There are no profiles in this book of car designers, despite the motor car being one of the most significant cultural forms of our age. There are no architects, no painters, no sculptors. A few people from the mass media: TV, film, radio. Not theatre. There are some musicians, but classical. In the main, there are poets, there are essayists and novelists, and there are politicians. And there is only a handful of women, which says something highly significant: This is a humanism that excludes more than half of humanity. And this is odd, because the whole book is dedicated to Aung San Suu Kyi, Ayaan Hirsi Ali, Ingrid Betancourt, and the memory of Sophie Scholl, as much as to say that these women are exemplars of the humanism that the author holds so dear. Indeed, while discussing postwar American education, he writes, ". . . the resulting story made Eleanor Roosevelt, whose idea the GI Bill was, into the most effective woman in the history of world culture up until that time, and continues to make her name a radiant touchstone for those who believe, as I do, that the potential liberation of the feminine principle is currently the decisive factor lending an element of constructive hope to the seething tumult within the world’s vast Muslim hegemony, and within the Arab world in particular." Disregarding the patronizing “feminine principle” and the murkiness of the sentence as a whole, might we not consider this a case of motes and beams? Where, in your book, are the liberated feminine voices of Western civilization, Clive? Where’s Aphra Behn, Virginia Woolf, Simone de Beauvoir, your own Germaine? They are absent. Women who had to struggle to have their voices heard are silent in this pantheon. And, most egregiously, not to say obscenely, the chapter devoted to Sophie Scholl, she of the White Rose movement, deals but briefly with her heroism and soon devolves into a multipage eulogy for Natalie Portman, the waif-like actress toward whom James seems to nurture unwholesome intentions and regards as the only suitable actress to take on Scholl’s life story. I have to say, his ill-disguised and squalid slaverings left a nasty taste in my mouth too. I suppose Portman at least should be flattered that she has such power to distract such a dedicated humanist from the ostensible subject matter of his work. The cover of this edition carries a blurb from J. M. Coetzee describing the book as “a crash-course in civilization.” It is no such thing. A car crash is more civilized. Rather, this is a series of biographies of a very particular subset of a specific generation, around whom the author has built an edifice composed of a grab-bag of heroes and villains in order to demonstrate (1) the size of his library, which he never stops going on about, (2) the extent of his own erudition, (3) the number of languages he can speak, and (4) that democracy is all very well in principle, but someone has to tend to the finer things in life and it can’t very well be the great unwashed. The writing, it should be said, is generally clear and fluent, unless James is trying to advance a simple argument, its simplicity concealed by superfluous references and asides, and the reader is rarely stopped in his or her tracks trying to figure out what’s just been said. Perhaps that’s the remnants of the journalist in James. It’s rare, though, that what is being proposed is either striking or original. Much of the argument is, truth be told, unchallenging and sophomoric: It’s Fukuyama light. Liberal democracy is unstoppable, history is liberty becoming conscious of itself. Totalitarianism cannot last. To make matters worse, the case is made in a voice of such arrogance and self-assuredness that you can’t help but sometimes feel that you’d be tainted if you agreed with it. Try this, from his chapter on Italian philologist Gianfranco Contini: "One night in Florence in the early eighties, my wife and I accompanied Contini to the opera. . . . After the performance it was raining so heavily that Contini accepted a lift home, with my wife at the wheel of our worn-out Mini. He was in the front passenger seat and I was folded in the back. They talked scholarly stuff . . . The rain was so heavy that we ended up going the wrong way. I remembered, and recited, a tag from Dante: “Chè la diritta via era smarrita.” Because the right way had been lost. Contini smiled from ear to ear, and when I added my regrets that I hadn’t written the line myself, he laughed aloud. My timing hadn’t been that good, but the pedagogue had been pleased to the depths of his soul. This is what he had been in business to do all his life: spread the word about culture across cultures. And one of his aesthetic beliefs, acquired as an inheritance from Croce, was that Dante had been in business to do the same. It was the universal conversation, conducted through memory, and it had happened right there beside the Arno, in the dying echo of the music. Though it can be overdone, there is nothing like a trading of quotations for bringing cultivated people together, or for making you feel uncultivated if you have nothing to trade. Nowadays very few people can quote from the Greek or would think to impress anyone if they could, and even quoting from the Latin-still a universal recognition system in the learned world when I was young-is now discouraged. Quoting from the standard European languages is still permissible at a suitably polyglot dinner table: I was once at dinner in Hampstead with Joseph Brodsky when we both ended up standing on restaurant chairs clobbering each other with alexandrines." Who, at this point, could not but feel sympathy for totalitarians? And this, from the chapter on Evelyn Waugh: "The decay of grammar is a feature of our time, so I have tried, at several points in this book, to make a consideration of the decline part of the discussion. Except in a perfectly managed autocracy, language declines, and too much should not be made of the relationship between scrambled thought and imprecise expression. . . . Everybody wants to write correctly. But they resist being taught how, and finally there is nobody to teach them, because the teachers don’t know either. In a democracy, the language is bound to deteriorate with daunting speed. The professional user of it would do best to count his blessings: after all, his competition is disqualifying itself, presenting him with opportunities for satire while it does so, and boosting his self-esteem." There is much else besides in this book to demonstrate that reading does not equate to intelligence. The snobbery and the recourse to poorly supported arguments such as this latter one (I can recommend, off the top of my head, Guy Deutscher’s The Unfolding of Language and Rancière’s Ignorant Schoolmaster for relatively easy-to-find and stronger counterarguments) suggest that in spite of having read so much, James understands very little. This struck me most forcefully when I read his chapter on Jean-Paul Sartre, one of James’s villains-the devil’s advocate of the volume, he says-not just for his defence of the Soviet Union but also for his fraudulent philosophy. Now, while it might be acceptable in some circles to suggest that there was more than a coincidence in Sartre’s decision to base his existentialism on Heidegger and Husserl’s philosophies during the German occupation, and to infer that his subsequent fellow-travelling with the Communists was another marriage of convenience, to argue that his philosophy was, as a result, pure sophistry, and to say so in such a vindictive and definitive manner, tells this reader that James really doesn’t have a clue what he’s talking about. A. J. Ayer and the Logical Positivists decided long ago that there was no need to read Heidegger because he used the word “Nothing” incorrectly, and that was the extent of their refutation. James doesn’t seem to have even gone that far before deciding that Sartre’s philosophy is a sham. And given that we know this, what reason is there to suppose that James actually understands anything else that he has written about in this book? The entire volume is suddenly suspect, if it wasn’t already (French culture as a whole receives short shrift in this book; apparently it has never managed to regain its pre-war heights). Or perhaps it’s just that James likes his philosophers analytical, clear of prose, and foundationalist: Plato, Russell, the early Wittgenstein. You won’t find any Rorty here, nor Foucault or Derrida. But then, where’s the problem when, as James reminds us, Alan Sokal has already shown that they were just a bunch of conmen? This really is a bizarre and partial book. Nevertheless, I was determined to get through it, all 850 pages, and determined to write a review, of sorts, so that I could put it aside for good. To see such a vast amount of knowledge expended to so little consequence is profoundly annoying. It really got under my skin. The only upside to reading it, I would suggest, is that the reader might learn other, better lessons at the author’s expense.

  10. 5 out of 5

    Charlie Miller

    Wow,. RIP Clive, one of our great devotees to the arts and culture. A tour guide to the intellectual pathways that lie behind us, this is his epic collection of essays on individual people that he deems worth remembering. Having said that, I was brought to the rude awakening that this version of mine was only the heavily abridged audiobook, whereas the original work is a tremendous 900+ pages. In this case though abridged simply means 'a selection of' as apposed to text being edited out. It's al Wow,. RIP Clive, one of our great devotees to the arts and culture. A tour guide to the intellectual pathways that lie behind us, this is his epic collection of essays on individual people that he deems worth remembering. Having said that, I was brought to the rude awakening that this version of mine was only the heavily abridged audiobook, whereas the original work is a tremendous 900+ pages. In this case though abridged simply means 'a selection of' as apposed to text being edited out. It's also read by the man himself, in his steadily charming Australian lilt. What a guy!

  11. 5 out of 5

    Geoff

    I was wrong in my initial assessment of this book, I am reading it straight through and there is certainly a linear thread winding through the essays. I'm in the M's and it is phenomenal. The essay on Egon Friedell keeps orbiting my thoughts throughout the day. Really, everybody, go find a copy of this book and read it. I didn't think people wrote like James anymore. I was wrong in my initial assessment of this book, I am reading it straight through and there is certainly a linear thread winding through the essays. I'm in the M's and it is phenomenal. The essay on Egon Friedell keeps orbiting my thoughts throughout the day. Really, everybody, go find a copy of this book and read it. I didn't think people wrote like James anymore.

  12. 5 out of 5

    Rick

    Cultural Amnesia is one of the best works of non-fiction I’ve read ever. It is thoroughly enjoyable (funny, thoughtful, incisive, generous in many senses of the word), even when it is pondering the recent century’s most awful evils. It is an illuminating read on topics familiar and unknown. James wrote Cultural Amnesia as a defense of liberal democracy, humanism, and art and culture that supports freedom, tolerance, and understanding. Organized as an alphabetized series of thematic essays, each o Cultural Amnesia is one of the best works of non-fiction I’ve read ever. It is thoroughly enjoyable (funny, thoughtful, incisive, generous in many senses of the word), even when it is pondering the recent century’s most awful evils. It is an illuminating read on topics familiar and unknown. James wrote Cultural Amnesia as a defense of liberal democracy, humanism, and art and culture that supports freedom, tolerance, and understanding. Organized as an alphabetized series of thematic essays, each of which ranges in length from two pages or less to over a dozen pages, Cultural Amnesia works despite the peculiar organization and it works both as a collection of essays that will ever more be dipped into and as a sustained single argument. Each of the essays is the name of a person, literally from Anna Akhmatova to Stefan Zweig, with many strange sandwiches between: Dick Cavett is between Albert Camus and Paul Celan; Terry Gilliam falls between slices of Edward Gibbon and Josef Goebbels, Sophie Scholl between Arthur Schnitzler and Wolf Jobst Siedler. The Family of Mann is here together in a way they never were in life: Golo, Heinrich, Michael, and Thomas. Tony Curtis, Adolf Hitler, Czeslaw Milosz, Edward Said, Margaret Thatcher, and Admiral Yamamoto get essays. So do Miles Davis and Duke Ellington, Charles Chaplin and W.C. Fields, Octavio Paz and Mario Vargas Llosa. Alfred Einstein does, but not Albert. Kafka but not Joyce or Woolf. What rescues the imperfection of any inclusion or exclusion is that the essays are not about the person named but move straightaway into a consideration of a topic sparked by a quote from that person. Essays are about fame, about freedom, about grammar, about memory, about hypocrisy, terrorism, courage, humanity, and more. James has his biases. He is, for example, no fan of Sartre, who not only gets an essay but gets slammed frequently in other essays. Not even Sartre, he says at one point early on, can be wrong all the time, though he tries. He is no fan of multi-culturalism or other simplifications that remove nuance from truth. But mostly his biases add to the book’s pleasure and argument, rather than distract or diminish. He is a graceful, engaging writer and the book a pleasure for mind and soul. He’s added writers to my list to read, music to listen to, films to see. Kindly, he has removed some as well and made others not necessary. He bolsters our commitment to liberal democracy and to humanism and helps us to feel better about our prospects, moving further from one troubled century and deeper into another.

  13. 4 out of 5

    Lyn Elliott

    Like others who rated this book highly, I regard this as a contemporary classic which places James amongst significant intellectual figures of the twentieth century. As the title indicates, his focus is on culture rather than politics or economics, though the horrors brought about by the extremist politics of fascism, Nazism and Communism are themes to which he returns throughout. He is unforgiving towards writers and intellectuals who have slid away from confrontation with the enormity of the d Like others who rated this book highly, I regard this as a contemporary classic which places James amongst significant intellectual figures of the twentieth century. As the title indicates, his focus is on culture rather than politics or economics, though the horrors brought about by the extremist politics of fascism, Nazism and Communism are themes to which he returns throughout. He is unforgiving towards writers and intellectuals who have slid away from confrontation with the enormity of the deliberate extermination of Europe's Jewry and the accompanying suppression of free discussion in Nazi Germany. Sartre is high on his list of targets; Camus is highly admired. Liberal democracy is the creed to which he adheres and to which he returns over and again. His passion for language, for the rhythm and flow of prose as well as poetry, for knowledge of grammar, are recurrent themes. You never quite know which of his chosen figures is going to lead him in what direction, but all are interesting and often provocative. I read from beginning to end because I wanted to immerse myself in the whole work. I will go back to it in future to follow through particular lines of thought, check on individual writers or musicians, pick up on the works of people I had not previously heard of and whose work, mostly written originally in languages other than English, I would like to pursue. James himself learned German, Spanish,Italian and French so he could read literature and philosophy in those languages. He is leaving us a remarkable collection which stands as a significant cultural monument in its own right, as well as passing on on the memory of men and women who played culturally significant roles in the evolution of modern Europe (mostly Europe, thought the book starts with Louis Armstrong as a vehicle to comment sparingly on racism). It's an inspiring book. Thank you, Clive.

  14. 5 out of 5

    Caroline

    Now I get why people are enthusiastic about Clive James. I first tried Latest Readingsand found it flat, but these brief profiles of writers, politicians, scientists, etc are gems. Beautiful turns of phrase. The only problem is my To-Read list grew exponentially while I was reading it. I really enjoyed finding out about some Viennese writers and thinkers I didn't know about--James is marvelous on the cafe culture. Now I get why people are enthusiastic about Clive James. I first tried Latest Readingsand found it flat, but these brief profiles of writers, politicians, scientists, etc are gems. Beautiful turns of phrase. The only problem is my To-Read list grew exponentially while I was reading it. I really enjoyed finding out about some Viennese writers and thinkers I didn't know about--James is marvelous on the cafe culture.

  15. 5 out of 5

    Nooilforpacifists

    This is not a work for reading quickly. Unless you're an "Oxbridge" grad, in which case, you might not need it at all. In the form of alphabetically-arranged biographical sketches, the Australian social and media critic James offers the short course on both the literary canon (remember that?) and political themes of the last 150 years. As other reviewers noted, reading "Cultural Amnesia" is sure to expand your TBR list--but also to enhance your stock of bon mots. Copious notes are compulsorily - This is not a work for reading quickly. Unless you're an "Oxbridge" grad, in which case, you might not need it at all. In the form of alphabetically-arranged biographical sketches, the Australian social and media critic James offers the short course on both the literary canon (remember that?) and political themes of the last 150 years. As other reviewers noted, reading "Cultural Amnesia" is sure to expand your TBR list--but also to enhance your stock of bon mots. Copious notes are compulsorily -- after all, James provides a wonderful (yes, sometimes windy) substitute for all those University courses you skipped for wine, women and song. "Could there be anything less astonishing than to work day and night on Wall Street to make the millions that will buy the Picasso that will hang on the wall of our Upper East Side apartment to help convince us and our guests that we are lucky to know each other? I have been in that apartment, and admired the Picasso, and envied its owner; I especially envied him his third wife, who had the same eyes as Picasso's second mistress, although they were on different sides of her nose." "From the French viewpoint, liberalism had been able to do so little in staving off the kind of Nazi brand of totalitarianism, it was thought that only another brand of absolute power--the Soviet Union--could fill the vacuum." Discussing the late 70s/early 80s deployment of intermediate-range nuclear missiles in Europe: "While whole generations of intellectuals on the left exhausted their thin talents in an effort to say something that Kate Bush couldn't sing--she, too, daringly believed that a nuclear war was an offense against love and peace--[French writer Raymond] Aron occupied himself with the more careful task of examining the peace that finally had come to Europe. . . European countries wanted American atomic bombs on their soil, not just to fulfill their NATO obligations, but because the weapons were accompanied by American personnel. A Soviet strike against the weapons would thus constitute an attack against the United States, which would be unable to remain uninvolved in the conflict." "Ezra Pound famously said that culture begins when you forget what book it came from." "in the West, someone obsessed with material things is correctly thought to be a fool. In the East [meaning pre-1991 Eastern Europe and USSR], everyone was obsessed with material things." "The1940-1941 band was [Duke] Ellington's apotheosis, and as a consequence maintained the materials of its own destruction, because all those star soloists wanted bands of their own. . . The new boys had to go somewhere. Ellington was too generous not to realize that one of the reasons they went was because of him, so he was careful not to criticize them too hard. He made a joke of it: it don't mean a thing if it ain't got that swing. But the joke was true, bad by extension for all arts." "There are commenters who can't get interested in Caravaggio until they find out that he killed someone. They are only one step from believing that every killer is Caravaggio." "Late-twentieth-century feminism put a lot of effort into arguing that a cult of female beauty had been imposed by a consumer society. But presumably a consumer society was not imposing anything on the Greeks when they made Helen's beauty the ignition point for the war that dropped the topless towers of Ilium down in flames." "After a life of misery, Anne de Gaulle, who had a severe case of Down's syndrome, died choking in her father's arms. She was twenty years old. At her funeral, de Gaulle is reputed to have said, 'Now she is like the others.' The awful beauty of that remark lies in how in how it hints at what he so often felt. Wanting her to be like the others . . . must have been the dearest wish of his private life." Quoting Joseph Goebbels,January 25, 1944: "Since Stalingrad, even the smallest military success has been denied us. On the other hand, our political chances have hugely increased, as you know." "If we seek reassurance about human dignity instead of mere acceptance of human weakness, we must face up to [late 19th/first-half 20th Century German humanist writer Ricarda Huch], and try to remember why Judas found it so hard to look into the face of Christ--not because the divine serenity that was there, because of the self-seeking calculation that was not." "It might help if the world's very large supply of anti-American commentators could decide on which America we are supposed to be in thrall to: the Machiavellian America that can manipulate any country's destiny, or the naïve America that can't find it on the map." "In the Gulag Archipelago, there is a great moment where prisoners are sweltering in a Black Maria while Jean-Paul Sartre is standing a few feet away on the footpath proclaiming the wonders of the Soviet Union." Aleksandr Zinoviev "tellingly" defined the Constitution of the Soviet Union "as a document published in order to find out who agreed with it, so that they could be dealt with." "Stalin's obduracy was the historical fact that defeats imagination. Given his intransigence, no other scenario than armed confrontation was really possible. The idea that the United States chose to fight the Cold War can be discussed, but only in the context of the reality that it could not have chosen to call it off." "The literary world turns the café into a campus, with conversation as a permanent seminar." "After the liberation of Paris in 1944 [Sartre] called, in his capacity as a Resistance fighter, for punishment to be vented on those among his fellow literati who had collaborated with the Nazis. The question of how much Resistance fighting he had actually done did not impede his post-war climb to prominence." "In the year when Senator John Kerry challenged President George W. Bush, the question of why Bush pretended to be able to speak English was never as interesting as why Kerry pretended not to speak French."

  16. 5 out of 5

    Smiley

    I had a tough decision in deciding to read this seemingly inspiring, knowledgeable essays by Clive James since I have never read him before; however, I made sure to be familiar with his writing style by reading his Unreliable Memoirs (Pan Books 1981) first as a supporting strategy and I found it arguably and challengingly readable. Before starting reading this hefty hardcover, I hoped I could make it from my self-motivation after reading this interesting recommendation: A lifetime in the making, I had a tough decision in deciding to read this seemingly inspiring, knowledgeable essays by Clive James since I have never read him before; however, I made sure to be familiar with his writing style by reading his Unreliable Memoirs (Pan Books 1981) first as a supporting strategy and I found it arguably and challengingly readable. Before starting reading this hefty hardcover, I hoped I could make it from my self-motivation after reading this interesting recommendation: A lifetime in the making, Cultural Amnesia is the book Clive James has always wanted to write. Organized from A through Z, and containing over 100 essays, it's the ultimate guide to the twentieth century, illuminating the careers of many of its thinkers, humanists, musicians, artists and philosophers. From Luis Armstrong to Ludwig Wittgenstein, via Walter Benjamin, Sigmund Freud, Franz Kafka and Marcel Proust, it's a book for our times - and, indeed, for all time. (inner flap) While reading its 106 lives, I noticed most of them (75; 70.75%), seven out of ten lives, were strangers to me, in other words, I have known/read around three out of ten lives (31; 29.24%) so I made a rough survey by tallying for their continents primarily regarded as their hometowns as follows: Europe: 84 (63 Unknown, 13 Known, 8 Known/read ) North America: 13 (9 Unknown, 3 Known, 1 Known/read) South America: 4 (3 Unknown, 1 Known/read) Asia: 3 (1 Unknown, 1 Known, 1 Known/read) Africa: 1 (Known/read) Australia: 1 (Unknown/not read) To illustrate my point in terms of my slight acquaintance on those eminent polymaths, the following list of a few names from each group would suffice to my friends: Peter Altenberg, Raymond Aron, Marc Bloch, Robert Brasillach, Dick Cavett, Nirad C. Chaudhuri, Miles Davis, Sergei Diaghilev, Alfred Einstein, Federico Fellini, Egon Friedell, Terry Gilliam, Josef Goebbels, Heinrich Heine, Ricarda Huch, Ernst Junger, Alexandra Kollontai, Karl Kraus, Georg Christoph Lichtenberg, Golo Mann, Alan Moorehead, Lewis Namier, Grigory Ordzhonokidze, Octavio Paz, Beatrix Potter, Edgar Quinet, Richard Rhodes, Virginio Rognoni, Ernesto Sabato, Sophie Scholl, Henning von Tresckow, Karl Tschuppik, Dubravka Ugresic, Miguel de Unamuno, Paul Valery, Mario Vargas Llosa, Carl Zuckmayer, Stefen Zweig, etc. If you are lucky, you may find one being either a hardcover or a paperback waiting on the shelf/stack in some good second-hand bookshops worldwide. As for my GR friends living in Bangkok or nearby, you may contact in person or call Books Kinokuniya, Siam Paragon Branch in Bangkok for a paperback copy published by Pan Macmillan (2012), I saw a copy on display there last week.

  17. 4 out of 5

    Boadicea

    Shocking sophistry Masterclass in arrogance (Ph)allacies abound. An original haiku to commemorate my inability to complete this irritating tome. I had earnestly embarked on the promised 'crash course in civilization' as advised by J.M.Coetzee, or as 'Notes in the margin of my time' as my second edition offers, not 'Necessary Memories....' together with the same lightbulb picture. I had known Clive James as a TV & media pundit, lugubrious celebrator of the weird & wonderful, and master of the witt Shocking sophistry Masterclass in arrogance (Ph)allacies abound. An original haiku to commemorate my inability to complete this irritating tome. I had earnestly embarked on the promised 'crash course in civilization' as advised by J.M.Coetzee, or as 'Notes in the margin of my time' as my second edition offers, not 'Necessary Memories....' together with the same lightbulb picture. I had known Clive James as a TV & media pundit, lugubrious celebrator of the weird & wonderful, and master of the witty putdown. So, I was interested in his thoughts on an encyclopedic array of cultural icons of the 20th century. But no, there are interlopers from both before and after; weirdly, the majority of the references stem from the early third of the century and are skewed particularly to a specific part of Western Europe, namely, Austria.The other lack of balance is more defined, related to gender with fewer than 10% female. However, having stated this, the idea of utilising certain personalities is actually a false illusion as to what the vignette is about: a scatter gun approach that is rarely illuminating about said individual, more reflective of the writer's modus operandi of confusion and chaos to progress his digressive account. Several philosophers appear but their remit is so illogical as to the reference point that their ideologies disappear in a smog of erudite speciosity. Whilst there are, undoubtedly, some gems among the dross, the fallacies of illicit transference are so commonplace to make me plot this book's demise within a week of commencement! I struggled through it to conquer a third all told. But, as other reviewers indicate, it's like 'Marmite', you'll either love it, or hate it... Still, spluttering spleen. Revolting, ending refined. Amnesia awaits!

  18. 4 out of 5

    Ryan

    I was lucky enough to see Clive at the Garrick in Lichfield a few years ago. He signed my copy of this book 'To Brian', but I'm willing to let that go. In many ways it's a follow-up to his TV series Fame in the Twentieth Century. It is also, to paraphrase J. M. Coetzee, a crash-course in civilisation. I found the essay on the Jean-Paul Sartre - the man who spent a lot of time denying the existence of the gulags, and even more time sweeping all mention of them under the rug - long overdue. It’s n I was lucky enough to see Clive at the Garrick in Lichfield a few years ago. He signed my copy of this book 'To Brian', but I'm willing to let that go. In many ways it's a follow-up to his TV series Fame in the Twentieth Century. It is also, to paraphrase J. M. Coetzee, a crash-course in civilisation. I found the essay on the Jean-Paul Sartre - the man who spent a lot of time denying the existence of the gulags, and even more time sweeping all mention of them under the rug - long overdue. It’s nice to see I wasn’t the only one who thought he was a self-serving windbag: ‘Sartre, after all, never actually killed anybody. But he excused many who did, and most of those never actually killed anybody, either: They just gave orders for their subordinates to do so.’ The entries on Amit Chaudhuri and G. K. Chesterton are insightful. A pity, alas, that the targets of James's satire are all safely dead.

  19. 5 out of 5

    John Pistelli

    Please read my complete review here. It begins, inflammatorily enough:Is it possible to ask, without sounding like a morbid troublemaker, why the death of Clive James last November was not greeted with the outpouring of vituperation that marked Harold Bloom’s demise the month before? Granted, Bloom celebrated Milton’s Satan and took a certain delight in playing the villain, as opposed to James’s avuncular televisual charm, but still—don’t the politically fastidious take politics seriously?Read m Please read my complete review here. It begins, inflammatorily enough:Is it possible to ask, without sounding like a morbid troublemaker, why the death of Clive James last November was not greeted with the outpouring of vituperation that marked Harold Bloom’s demise the month before? Granted, Bloom celebrated Milton’s Satan and took a certain delight in playing the villain, as opposed to James’s avuncular televisual charm, but still—don’t the politically fastidious take politics seriously?Read more...

  20. 4 out of 5

    Kent

    Have you ever met one of those people who seem to know just about everything about everything and, moreover, who can talk about everything without making you feel like a complete idiot? I've been fortunate to meet two, maybe three people like that in my life. Clive James, I suspect, is NOT one of those people. His erudition and self-assurance--though not always off-putting in the reading--might grate at a cocktail party. But he writes with such limpid precision that a lazy reader like myself wou Have you ever met one of those people who seem to know just about everything about everything and, moreover, who can talk about everything without making you feel like a complete idiot? I've been fortunate to meet two, maybe three people like that in my life. Clive James, I suspect, is NOT one of those people. His erudition and self-assurance--though not always off-putting in the reading--might grate at a cocktail party. But he writes with such limpid precision that a lazy reader like myself would do well to keep on his toes lest he be swayed too easily. And therein lies the rub. He writes persuasively about many people I had never heard of before opening this book. On the few occasions that I did have some knowledge of the subject at hand, our opinions were often so divergent that I couldn't help wondering if all the rest I had read wasn't pure poppycock. However, as he himself writes, when we "seek out the best of what is said," we "naturally assume that the very best resides amongst what is said well." And in the saying, he succeeds magnificently. So rather than remain in doubt as to the validity of his claims, I found myself adding one book after another to my used-bookstore shopping list. And this, I believe, is exactly what Mr. James might wish from his reader. "Cultural Amnesia" is a series of short essays inspired by aphorisms, well-crafted sentences, or simply neat ideas from a wide array of writers, artists, thinkers, critics, celebrities, or otherwise historical figures. If there is any overarching theme, it is a championing of humanism and the defense of liberal democracy against totalitarian ideologies. James does an admirable job of explaining why such a defense, in this day and age, is still necessary. He has a special fondness for witty writers of German, so much so that after a while I had trouble keeping them apart. He praises "the impressive density" of Benjamin's prose style, Altenberg's "unrivalled capacity to pour a whole view of life...into the briefest of paragraphs," Lichtenberg´s "nutshells packed as cleverly as an old soldier's kitbag," and Golo Mann's "capacity to get a book's worth of reflections into an article." After a while, they all kind of sound alike. He is sometimes a bit overly didactic. He tells us that the presence of Larousse on our desk is a sure sign that we're on the right track. (Those of us who have this French dictionary of proper names can sit up and wag our tails.) And given his love of precision, it's a bit disconcerting to see how careless he is of the spelling of Spanish and Portuguese words, but let's blame that on the copy editor. More suspect are his pronouncements on the poetic sonority and writing styles of artists whose languages he confesses to having an unsteady mastery of. And while I enjoy his mocking of the knee-jerk reactions of many left-wing pundits, he's not immune to unconsidered political statements. If he truly believes that the only difference between legal and illegal immgrants is that the illegal ones have more money, then he's woefully ignorant of how the visa selection process works. All in all, though, "Cultural Amnesia" is an impressive work that's probably best read in rather than straight through.

  21. 5 out of 5

    Eleanor

    Absolutely magnificent. It has been a privilege to spend time with Clive James while reading this book and I cannot recommend the experience too highly. He has the great skill of serious writing and thought, done lightly and with grace, and, where appropriate, with humour. I have given a few instances already as I worked my way through the book. A delight which appears on page 1000 is his description of the film "Where Eagles Dare": "There is something precious about the intellectual squalor of " Absolutely magnificent. It has been a privilege to spend time with Clive James while reading this book and I cannot recommend the experience too highly. He has the great skill of serious writing and thought, done lightly and with grace, and, where appropriate, with humour. I have given a few instances already as I worked my way through the book. A delight which appears on page 1000 is his description of the film "Where Eagles Dare": "There is something precious about the intellectual squalor of "Where Eagles Dare": it is a swamp with a surface of green pulp squeezed from emeralds". Sadly this brilliant and witty man is dreadfully ill: I saw just recently that he was too ill to be presented with a BAFTA award. If he loses his fight with leukaemia, as seems likely, I for one am immensely grateful that his brilliance will continue to shine because of his books.

  22. 5 out of 5

    Bryan--The Bee’s Knees

    Plenty enough comments about this one--and after reading through it with a couple of reading friends, I feel like I've said all I want to say about it already. Highly recommended for anyone interested in the cultural history of the 20th Century, James' point in all these essays is to raise ideas that, if we are not careful, could be forgotten as Liberal Democracy moves forward into the 21st Century. Some of the figures that James focuses on will be unfamiliar to the common reader (close to half Plenty enough comments about this one--and after reading through it with a couple of reading friends, I feel like I've said all I want to say about it already. Highly recommended for anyone interested in the cultural history of the 20th Century, James' point in all these essays is to raise ideas that, if we are not careful, could be forgotten as Liberal Democracy moves forward into the 21st Century. Some of the figures that James focuses on will be unfamiliar to the common reader (close to half of the names were unknown to me before reading, and of those I did know of, many were just a name I'd heard), but the personalities whose names stand as titles for the essays often have little to do with the essay itself: instead, they provide a quote which James then uses to expound on nearly any subject imaginable--but one which James doesn't want us to forget. Thus, many of the subjects deal with the uncomfortable reality of the past, and an attempt to debunk any romanticizing myths; to realistically look at the choices people had during the era of the Nazis and the Stalinists, and to examine why people chose as they did; and, not least, to give us examples that might help us as we face the future. I don't know that James' overarching optimism is fully warranted; he leaves us with the confidence that Liberal Democracy will eventually triumph. As long as Liberal Democracy has an external foe, he might be right. The problem is internal, though. Successful states seem to turn cannibalistic, dividing and conquering factions from within. Maybe there will be a method found to defeat this impulse as well, but I think that James might just as well have been served to give us a coda with the story of The Tower of Babel, instead of his triumphant march of liberal democracy.

  23. 5 out of 5

    Leah W

    Even though I was hooked on the Slate.com excerpts of some of the essays from this book, it took me awhile to get to. It's a daunting, lumbering brick of a book that took up a lot of my reading time early this year. Over the course of many, many essays, the format is about the same: it's a cultural figure (mainly from the 1900s, but with some extreme exceptions), there's a little biographical sketch, and then Uncle Clive tells you a story. A great deal of the time, this story has something to do Even though I was hooked on the Slate.com excerpts of some of the essays from this book, it took me awhile to get to. It's a daunting, lumbering brick of a book that took up a lot of my reading time early this year. Over the course of many, many essays, the format is about the same: it's a cultural figure (mainly from the 1900s, but with some extreme exceptions), there's a little biographical sketch, and then Uncle Clive tells you a story. A great deal of the time, this story has something to do with what seems to be the loose theme of the book--how intellectuals reacted to (or failed to react to) the dual threats of Nazism and Stalinism, which destroyed a certain beautiful strain of humanism best exemplified by turn-of-the-century Vienna, and how we should not believe we are beyond such evil now. That being said, sometimes Uncle Clive talks about something completely different. Anna Akhmatova, the first official essay after the introduction, the poet who could easily be used as an example of how Stalinism crushed the artist? Well of course Uncle Clive uses her story to explain the way men love and lust. Just let go of any expectations and learn to enjoy the stories, and you'll be fine. I expect that this book will inspire me to read dozens of other books, I learned something from it and it makes me want to learn more. Isn't that a good thing?

  24. 5 out of 5

    Casaubon

    [N]o matter how much you admire a novel, after about a year you forget everything in it. A collection of some 106 essays, named after persons of note, mostly from Europe in the first part of the 20th century. He starts from A (Anna Akhmatova) and ends at Z (Stefan Zweig) and those two gave me a sense to the boundaries of his project - Europe, first half of the 20th century. James lavishes his attention on those from Germany and Italy - the literary critic Marcel Reich-Ranicki, the musicologist Al [N]o matter how much you admire a novel, after about a year you forget everything in it. A collection of some 106 essays, named after persons of note, mostly from Europe in the first part of the 20th century. He starts from A (Anna Akhmatova) and ends at Z (Stefan Zweig) and those two gave me a sense to the boundaries of his project - Europe, first half of the 20th century. James lavishes his attention on those from Germany and Italy - the literary critic Marcel Reich-Ranicki, the musicologist Alfred Einstein, and so many dozens of those swirling around the cultural center of pre-WWI Vienna. There are others - the admiral Yamamoto stands in for Japan's doomed imperialism, Nirad C. Chaudhuri is a feted representative of Indian literature, John McCloy is taken as a representative of the "Wise Men" of the American establishment. While the essays are titled after individuals, they are only in part a biography. They are mostly a reason for James to go on tangents, often completely out of joint with their historical role. Egon Friedell, one of those Viennese wits mentioned earlier, gets a loving essay and his Cultural History of the Modern Age is laid out as an inspiration for this book; Trotsky gets three pages. It takes a lot of nerve to cram all of the life 20th century into a single book just under 1,000 pages: anyone who has read enough will find someone who is missing. (Only 11 women? Really?) But James knows this: he knows that simplifying the intellectual life of so many places over such a period comes "only at the cost of making it unreal". He goes on anyway, not least because he is bolstered by his capital-L Liberalism and a belief in democracy as a last refuge against tyrants. This book isn't all praise - he cuts at both the left and right, and whatever fellow travellers might have stayed too long with the extremes. (Sartre's timid apologies for the Soviet Union win him no favor from James; he'd rather stick with Raymond Aron and Francois Furet.) I feel as if I might have undersold him, but let me finish - James recommends books that you didn't know that you didn't know about, and in such a way that you want to go out and find them. That is a reason to see where he takes you.

  25. 4 out of 5

    Philipp

    Oh, what a book. James (who I'd never heard of before) summarizes a lifetime of reading, and note-taking, and it's essay-sized fireworks for 800+ pages. He usually starts off with a mini-biography of the essay's namesake, only then to go wherever the links take him - reading these essays feels like talking to someone who's in love with his work. 'This guy wrote some of the greatest essays ever, oh by the way if you like him there's this half-forgotten contemporary artist whose arias you should li Oh, what a book. James (who I'd never heard of before) summarizes a lifetime of reading, and note-taking, and it's essay-sized fireworks for 800+ pages. He usually starts off with a mini-biography of the essay's namesake, only then to go wherever the links take him - reading these essays feels like talking to someone who's in love with his work. 'This guy wrote some of the greatest essays ever, oh by the way if you like him there's this half-forgotten contemporary artist whose arias you should listen to, did I tell you I once met his cousin and we had the most wonderful discussion of Aristotle?' - this breathless love is how most of the essays are structured. The essays are ordered alphabetically, James writes that this order is arbitrary, yet I can't help but think that it's no coincidence that the book ends with the essay on Stefan Zweig. The Austrian Kaffeehaus-culture of liberal humanism under the roof of the arts is one of the major themes of all essays. The destruction of the Austrian culture by the Austria's Anschluß (the word Anschluß appears at least 50 times) and the scattering of Paris' intellectuals during the German invasion, is heavily implied to be the worst thing to have happened to the European intellectual life in the last 100 years, and most of the essays focus on that particular group of people. It's a joy to read his takedown of Sartre, and his love for such greats as Polar, Camus, Chamfort, Croce, Kafka, Friedell, Reich-Ranicki (as a German, that made me happy) is gigantic and jumps off the pages, infecting you. I've underlined so many books, it's going to be a minor chore to add them to my to-read shelf. Luckily, James is also a funny writer: Lysenko preached the kind of biological theories that Stalin could understand: i.e., they were poppycock. Some of the essays are rather strange, in these, James just goes off the track too far. The essay on Sophie Scholl quickly morphs into one about Natalie Portman (and Portman gets way more pages, weirdly enough), the essay on Charlie Chaplin immediately turns into a lacklustre discussion of art vs. science (and I've read better things about that particular 'conflict'), one essay is a bit about how the 'degeneration' of English is bad: as a biologist, I firmly believe that people who hold beliefs like that would have stood on shore while the first reptile crawled on land, telling the reptile to 'stop degenerating'. The essay on Heinrich Heine is just an overlong negative rant about autograph seekers. The worst essay is also the most Australian one, in which he rants for pages on pages on how the Afghani asylum seekers on board the Tampa bound to Australia in 2001 are just 'illegal immigrants' and 'queue jumpers', who should have just stayed in their home country until their application would have been accepted. It's especially worse because James, at that point, has spent 400 pages being in love with WW2-era intellectuals who've done nothing but 'jump queues' when they've escaped their home-country - can you imagine Einstein just sitting in Germany while the Gestapo is kicking down doors, waiting for his letter of invitation? Thomas Mann, too, was allowed into the USA without any papers, and Czechoslovakia even offered him citizenship so that he could formally immigrate. Sometimes, his own character comes through too much, I think this is best exemplified by this sentence: When filming in Rome, I had a jacket made by the celebrated tailor Littrico, and found out that I had the same measurements as Gorbachev: they were on file in Littrico's office. To which I can only say: so what? But these Rohrkrepierer-essays are in the tiny minority. I'd love to see a book like this on the life and work of scientists (if I remember correctly, only one of the 'good' essays has to do with science). Recommended for: People who can't get enough stuff into their brain. Not recommended for: People who, if they go on travelling to a beautiful country, get angry if there's a detour.

  26. 5 out of 5

    Ana

    Clive James manages to both enthrall you and challenge you with every sentence he writes. This is the thing that impressed me most about his essay writing skills: his sentences are mostly beautiful, sometimes very long and at all times packed with a lot of hidden meanings, irony and cleverness. His range of subjects is massive - in this book there's an essay on Tacitus, and one on Charlie Chaplin. You can figure out by yourself how wide the spectrum is. It is definitely a hard read, not for the Clive James manages to both enthrall you and challenge you with every sentence he writes. This is the thing that impressed me most about his essay writing skills: his sentences are mostly beautiful, sometimes very long and at all times packed with a lot of hidden meanings, irony and cleverness. His range of subjects is massive - in this book there's an essay on Tacitus, and one on Charlie Chaplin. You can figure out by yourself how wide the spectrum is. It is definitely a hard read, not for the uninitiated in literary patience, but absolutely worth it in its length and depth. Would recommend this to anyone who suffers from an avid curiosity of the world.

  27. 5 out of 5

    Steven Peterson

    I read this book a while back and just ran across it again. This is a fascinating work, in fact, almost a nonvolume. James notes at the outset that (page xv): "In the forty years it took me to write this book, I only gradually realized that the finished work, if it were going to be true to the pattern of my experience, would have no pattern." As such, "If I have done my job properly, themes will emerge from the apparent randomness and make this work intelligible" (Page xvi). Thus, the reader is I read this book a while back and just ran across it again. This is a fascinating work, in fact, almost a nonvolume. James notes at the outset that (page xv): "In the forty years it took me to write this book, I only gradually realized that the finished work, if it were going to be true to the pattern of my experience, would have no pattern." As such, "If I have done my job properly, themes will emerge from the apparent randomness and make this work intelligible" (Page xvi). Thus, the reader is the workforce to make sense of the various reflections and vignettes. James puts emphasis, in an "Overture," on Vienna of the late 19th and early 20th century. From there, he provides brief character sketches from "A" (e.g., Anna Akhmatova, Louis Armstrong, Raymond Aron) to "Z" (e.g., Aleksandr Zinoviev, Stefan Zweig), with stops at other letters in between. Thus, the ordering is simply alphabetical, again to make the reader pull things together him or herself. While the thoughts that he injects into these sketches can sometimes be rather close minded (his rather haughty dismissal of thinkers such as Derrida and Foucault), that is easily forgiven for the erudition and provocative comments that recur throughout this book. Let's take a look at a couple biographical treatments to illustrate his approach. Louis Armstrong, while a victim of racism from birth to death (in 1971), rose above that. The intriguing tie between him and Bix Beiderbecke (a white jazz musician, in an era when many said that whites could not play the genre) is one example. Just so, a brief sidebar on Benny Goodman (white) and his skills in jazz, all juxtaposed with Armstrong's appreciation of Beiderbecke. An interesting essay tying several themes together. Then there is William Claude Duckenfield (W. C. Fields). The essay focuses on how increasingly strong censorship in movies began to strangle Fields' career--maybe more than alcohol or age. One aspect of this essay is the observation that (page 208) Fields was ". . .one of those people who are born exiles even if they never leave home." Even looking at this volume as a series of intriguing character sketches makes this an interesting volume. Questions raised by James about some of the people studied lead to the reader reflecting on exactly what is at stake with the individual being discussed. There are also the larger questions hinted at in earlier pages of the volume. A fascinating potpourri by an intellectual who seats each character in a deep historical context, even by a few well chosen comments.

  28. 4 out of 5

    Margaret

    I don't think I have anything new to add to the other reviews but here's my 2p worth. When I first started reading this - eons ago - I really enjoyed it but I have downgraded it from 4 stars to 3 and am considering reducing it further. It's extremely repetitive and as bad as the Nazis and Stalin were does he really suppose he's saying something new in each essay that drags in yet another reference to the Holocaust or the purges in Soviet Russia, no matter what the starting point? And whilst I gi I don't think I have anything new to add to the other reviews but here's my 2p worth. When I first started reading this - eons ago - I really enjoyed it but I have downgraded it from 4 stars to 3 and am considering reducing it further. It's extremely repetitive and as bad as the Nazis and Stalin were does he really suppose he's saying something new in each essay that drags in yet another reference to the Holocaust or the purges in Soviet Russia, no matter what the starting point? And whilst I give him the benefit of the doubt that he really does read and understand the languages he talks about and is making reasonable suggestions when he suggests his reader starts with Zweig to learn German or whoever else to pick up French etc I am really, really tired of this self-promotion. OK Clive, we know you're clever and widely-read now can you shut up about it and talk about something else? The book is far too big to carry around so I read it at night between whatever else I am reading and it is now (~ page 720) more of the same again and again. I shall finish it out of bloody-mindedness but I did stop enjoying it much a while ago. He seems to take personally a lot of things that happened before he was born and had absolutely nothing to do with him and at times he comes across as an embittered old man raging against the world - which makes no sense; he's writing his little essays on subjects of his own choosing. And as well as being mostly about the atrocities in WWII and totalitarian regimes in the 20th century it is a world populated almost exclusively by men; [dead] white men at that. I doubt I am alone in recognising so few of the names he drops but he doesn't make me want to go and read any of them - even the writers he enthuses about are now tainted by association for me. Despite all my previous whingeing, when he chooses he can still be funny - e.g. his random little aside on the films Leon / Nikita in the essay that purports to be about Sophie Scholl - and if you've ever heard him speak each essay is very clearly written in his voice. I'm not sure whether that's a good thing or a bad thing actually - a little creepy to have a septuagenarian Australian talking to you when you're alone in the room!

  29. 4 out of 5

    murph

    Clive James' essays on selected quotations from the 20th Century. I'd written my initial reaction to this book last year - and having finally finished it a few months ago I can say this book is good for you. Yes, it is scatterbrained and yes, it is difficult to follow - James has not written a narrative, but a collection of essays that riff on quotations he has collected over the years. Attempting to weave a common thread through his essays would have been impossible: he jumps from discussions Clive James' essays on selected quotations from the 20th Century. I'd written my initial reaction to this book last year - and having finally finished it a few months ago I can say this book is good for you. Yes, it is scatterbrained and yes, it is difficult to follow - James has not written a narrative, but a collection of essays that riff on quotations he has collected over the years. Attempting to weave a common thread through his essays would have been impossible: he jumps from discussions of Stalin to why Natalie Portman should be the only actress to play Sophie Scholl. Frequently, the author of a chosen quotation isn't even the subject of his essay: the essay on Terry Gilliam is not about Gilliam - it's about torture (by way of Gilliam's movie Brazil) Slate has posted a selection of Cultural Amnesia's essays on their website, so you can stick a toe in before taking the plunge. The water's fine, though - once you get used to the idea that this isn't your ordinary book. Clive James returns over and over to the evils of Nazi Germany - and those who enabled it, wallowed in it - and even eclipsed it. He tries to remind us the sins of the past remain sins, when viewed from the present. He turns a spotlight on the false prophets of Communism and calls out the monstrous crimes of Mao. You cannot have the fairy tale, he seems to be saying unless you embrace this, too. There's lighthearted essays as well, but all dance around a moral center. The cultural and historical references fall like rain - and keeping up with them is likely impossible for anyone except Clive James - but it's still a very enjoyable ride. You will not feel smarter after having read this book - you will feel like you've been missing out on a whole other world. For those who want to catch up, this book supplies a list of places to start.

  30. 5 out of 5

    Christopher (Donut)

    The Picador e-book came with three extra essays, on the 'sludge' CJ read as a boy, on a stalker of Nicole Kidman, and on Formula 1 racers, all worthwhile, although I was kind of miffed that such a long book was just a little longer. And I don't want to exaggerate how long it took to read (about a year, once I started in earnest). Somewhere in the "M"s my enthusiasm peaked, and the rest of the alphabet was, if not a repetition of themes, then at least less likely to astound the reader. One wonders The Picador e-book came with three extra essays, on the 'sludge' CJ read as a boy, on a stalker of Nicole Kidman, and on Formula 1 racers, all worthwhile, although I was kind of miffed that such a long book was just a little longer. And I don't want to exaggerate how long it took to read (about a year, once I started in earnest). Somewhere in the "M"s my enthusiasm peaked, and the rest of the alphabet was, if not a repetition of themes, then at least less likely to astound the reader. One wonders, after a while, if his fondness for the wits of the Vienna cafes is because they were 'serious journalists,' like himself. Or, if "serious" is not the aptest word, since Clive James is pretty funny at times, I mean a well-read, cultivated and urbane journalist. (Is there any other kind? You have to ask?) At any rate, it will be a long time before someone else comes along and says "I too, have read Egon Friedell, and Clive James overrates him." I removed the "highbrow" designation from the book, because it is not really highbrow at all- polymath, perhaps. His coda, or peroration, sounds incredibly optimistic. Was it a mere ten years ago that people talked like this?: ... How will we know if our earthly paradise is coming to pieces, if we don’t know how it was put together? It was the human mind that got us this far, by considering what had happened in history; by considering the good that had been done, and resolving to do likewise; and by considering the evil, and resolving to avoid its repetition. Much of the evil, alas, was in the mind itself. The mind took account of that too. The mind is the one collectivity that the free individual can thrive in: which is lucky, because live in it he must. Even within ourselves, there are many voices. Hegel, when he said that we can learn little from history, forgot about Hegel, author of the best thing about history that has ever yet been said. He said that history is the story of liberty becoming conscious of itself.

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