Monday 23 October 2023

Guest review by Graeme Fife: CULTURAL AMNESIA by Clive James


"James is a wonder: the breadth, the stretch of his curiosity, the range of his cultural interest both in ideas and literature is extravagant, the depth of his knowledge profound..."

Graeme Fife is a regular reviewer here. He has written many plays, stories, features and talks for radio, stage plays and articles for newspapers and magazines, and is a regular contributor to BBC Radio 4's From Our Own Correspondent. He's the author of a string of books - children's stories, biography, works of history and fiction. His novel of the French Revolution, No Common Assassin, tells the story of Charlotte Corday.

‘Dollink, either you got the voice or you don’t got the voice; I got the voice.’ Zalinka Malinov (attributed)

I received this book as a gift but it is a gift in itself. James is a wonder: the breadth, the stretch of his curiosity, the range of his cultural interest both in ideas and literature is extravagant, the depth of his knowledge profound, add to this his wit and style and you hold in your hands the remarkable gathering of a lifetime’s inquiry into the human mind and heart.

The book comprises vignettes, some in quite extended essays, of individuals whose life and work has either enriched or compromised their existence. For the most part the men and women whom James remembers and speaks of, he recalls with affection and praise. Not always – he is not averse to censure and sees through cant or failed promise and I need not enumerate those whom he castigates. By and large, the censure they get they most obviously deserve. ‘Like his boss, (Goebbels) was able and industrious. He didn’t miss a trick. All he missed was the point.’

For some of the people celebrated in the pages of this totally compelling book, their legacy is an example, a very demanding example, of fortitude and integrity. Sophie Scholl (to whom the book is, in part, dedicated) was condemned by the Nazis for conducting a fearless pamphlet campaign against their venomous autocracy with her brother and friends, members of the White Rose resistance group. ‘Finally,’ she told the court, ‘someone has to make a start. We only said and wrote what many people think, they just don’t dare to express it.’

As Edward Gibbon (cited here by James in a separate chapter) said of life under the Emperors: ‘To resist was fatal and it was impossible to fly.’ The Gestapo offered Sophie Scholl respite if she recanted. She refused and the executioner, who in a small pity, took her first having allowed the condemned to smoke a last cigarette together, said that he had never seen anyone die so bravely. As James reports: ‘She just glanced up at the steel, put her head down and she was gone. Is that you? No, and it isn’t me, either.’ She was barely twenty-two.

Alongside the frankly solemn, even reverential, there is joyous mockery. His story of Albert Camus gives opportunity for a lively digression on the dumb bigotry of autocrats, their aversion to what Shakespeare’s King John calls ‘that idiot laughter’ and it’s a riotous comic gem: I cried with laughter. It’s evidence of the cool style of the man, his ecstasies of humour, so to put it. In another captivating digression on the choice of book titles, he writes: ‘(T. S.) Eliot's own idea of a terrific title was Ara vos prec, a sure-fire hit with any bookshop browser who spoke medieval Provençal.’

In the portrait of Diaghilev (‘Why should I waste my imagination on myself?’) he riffs on the contrast between the exquisite structure of the work with the hopeless disarray of the life’. Of Auden: ‘The man whose lyrics were showpieces of carpentry – try to imagine a poem more accurately built than The Fall of Rome – kept a kitchen that could have doubled as a research facility for biological warfare….(he) lived long enough for me to see his tie. I thought it had been presented to him by Jackson Pollock until I realised that it was a plain tie plus food.’

Of Heda Margolius Kovály – heard of her? Nor I … look her up, read on – ‘If the world can’t be ruled by the values that come naturally to a woman like her, how can it be worth living in?’ There were, on the other side, apparatchiks and I won’t name them but what emerges from James is an urgent sense that he has thought deeply about these people and their contribution to our culture, thought very hard indeed and is, therefore, to be relied on. Yeats, he acknowledges had some pretty batty ideas about mystic inspiration, the spiritualist claptrap which vitiates much of his early work, but he eventually saw through it and his magnificent later poetry confirms how ‘art was, for him a system of solid knowledge by far transcending his own fads.’ That is the triumph of his intellect and his allegiance to the deeper requirements of the work. This book is peppered through with such gemlike insights into the matter of artistic creation, social idea and action, the driving force of human courage in the face of adversity, such as the ‘misuse of language linked to fraudulent politics’. It’s generous, unfailing in honesty and an absolute delight. As I say: a gift in and of itself. With astonishing skill James combines penetrating enquiry with an aphoristic style, a happy blend which has a particular attraction: the steady unpeeling of reputation, deserved or not, with sudden explosions of mirth and brilliant turn of laconic phrase..

Cultural Amnesia is published by Picador.

More of Graeme's choices:

A Telling of Stones by Neil Rackham

At the Existentialist Cafe: Freedom, Being and Apricot Cocktails by Sarah Bakewell

The Piano Tuner by Daniel Mason

An interview with Graeme about No Common Assassin, his novel of the French Revolution

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