Monday, May 14, 2007

CULTURAL AMNESIA – Notes in The Margin of My Time Clive James Picador
NZ RRP $60

I reviewed this book on Radio New Zealand National earlier today. We rather ran out of time so here is a full transcript of my notes in which I say rather more than we had time for while on air.

I suspect that most people know Clive James for his various television shows where he took light-hearted looks at various travel destinations, for his numerous guest appearances on television programmes like Parkinson , David Letterman & Jay Leno, and for his very funny sequence of autobiographies of which there have been 5 so far the latest being North Face of Soho.

So one tends to have an impression of him being a bit of a well-read buffoon constantly off on wild adventures and telling funny stories, a bon vivant, a raconteur extraordinaire, and while he is all of these things he is of course much, much more than that.

He is a highly educated, extremely literate, multi-lingual, deeply intellectual man who has had much poetry and fiction and a great deal of serious criticism published over many years, in addition to his somewhat light-hearted memoirs. He has degrees from Sydney and Cambridge universities, a number of honorary doctors of letters and is a Member of the Order of Australia. He is also married to a scholar and has two exceptionally bright adult daughters.

This new book, which is the size of a brick by the way and shouldn’t be read in bed, is a very serious read indeed. It is a big read, one I think that should be read a chapter at a time, perhaps a chapter a month. I have to confess that so far I have only read about half of the book properly although I have extensively dipped into it

Arranged alphabetically James provides an essay on more than 100 persons whom he considers were the great figures whose ideas helped shape the 20th century. He includes writers, thinkers, artists, musicians, philosophers, politicians, dictators and film makers.

I have to admit that while many of the names were well known to me almost half were people I had not heard of. For example they range in the well-known category from Louis Armstrong and Miles Davis to Beatrix Potter, Norman Mailer to Charlie Chaplin, and Mao Zedong to Margaret Thatcher.
Among the authors are Gustave Flaubert, Jorge Luis Borges, Albert Camus, Alan Moorehead, Mario Vargas LLosa, G.K Chesterton and of course Franz Kafka and Marcel Proust.

Most of the essays comprise thumbnail sketches followed by James’ comments on that individual’s importance , contribution and influence at the time and since and run to ten pages or less. But then every now and again, as in the case say of Georg Christolph Lichtenberg they are much longer with his running to 26 pages. Now Lichtenberg, one of the figures whose name was new to me lived from 1742 to 1799 but James says he “stands at the beginning of German modernity, and right in the centre of the country’s post-World War 2 concern with the recovery of liberal thought from historical catastrophe.”

And here is how his 10 pages of Jean-Paul Sartre opens:

“Radiating contempt for its bourgeois liberal conformity, Sartre (1905-80) looms in the corner of this book like a genius with the evil eye. For the book’s author, Sartre is a devil’s advocate to be despised more than the devil, because the advocate was smarter.”

And he then goes into the whole moral question of Sartre excusing many who while not killing anyone themselves gave orders for their subordinates to do so.

It is by and large pretty heavy and high brow intellectual stuff which I am sure will be cropping up as recommended reading in university philosophy, sociology and political science classes. In the end I guess his thesis is about the fragility of liberal democracy and the beatings it took from fascism and communism last century and that we must learn from this and never take our democratic freedoms for granted.
In conclusion here are the opening two sentences of the author's 14 page Introduction:
In the forty years it took me to write this book, I only gradually realised that the finished work, if it were going to be true to the pattern of my experience, would have no pattern. It would be organised like the top of my desk, from which the last assistant I hired to sort it out has yet to reappear.


Anonymous said...

I liked your comments on Cultural Amnesia. I am reading it now (in bed - you're right not a good idea) and although I have read versions of some of the essays before, it still feels like getting a PhD in European History -while having great fun.

Anonymous said...

While anything with this cast of characters would be somewhat interesting to flick through I found the actual book very dull indeed. I raced out to buy it as I have loved almost everything Clive James has created over the years but obviousily somewhere in the 40 it took to write this he lost his sense of humour.
It needs to be re-written. By Bill Bryson.

Beattie's Book Blog said...

I'm inclined to agree with you and that is why I stressed in my review that this was not the sort of material that folk have come to expect from Clive James.It is very serious indeed and I found I could only read one essay at a time.