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.