Review: Clive James – ‘Cultural Amnesia’

Liam Elvish | Content Writer

When a book serves as an educational resource as well as a source of enjoyment, the reader can only wish for more. Clive James’s 2007 miscellany Cultural Amnesia – Notes in the Margins of my Time does not just fit the theatrical bill, so to speak – it covers the entire programme.

So, what exactly is ‘enjoyable’ about a volume which covers such historical travesties as Stalin’s pogroms and Nazi Germany, along with Maoist China and the Spanish Civil War?

Well, for one thing, James’s prose is lavish at standard, and dazzling at best. Each of his paragraphs levitate like syntactic deities, to the point that any reader will be prompted to consider other writers of similar critical stature as literary mediocrities. The book is encyclopaedic without ever being exhaustive. Each of the ‘chapters’, or segments, are correspondingly brief, yet anyone who believes in the foolish notion that brevity necessitates lack of substance has only to read James’s work as evidence to the contrary. At its core it is thorough and heroic, revealing an emotional depth unmatched in any work of resembling magnitude.

James covers a separate cultural or political figure in each essay. For those reluctant to delve into any lengthy biography covering any of these respective persons (there are one hundred and six in total), this book is a perfect find, for James’s scholarly ambience radiates from cover to cover.

Specifically, this is a book about the two major parallels of totalitarianism in the twentieth century. Yet it is far more than that. James goes into a myriad of skilfully crafted tangents, an episodic series of rabbit-holes that will prompt one’s curiosity to undertake further research. His chapter on Sir Thomas Browne, for instance, covers the writer’s universal predilection for phraseology, whilst his essay on film-maker Terry Gilliam explores the short history of the use of torture, taking his cue from a particularly memorable scene from Brazil. And while, I must admit, I had never read Camus or Cocteau prior to Cultural Amnesia, but time waits for no man, and a speedy trip to Waterstones beckoned some purchases for catch-up; I have read them both now, a privilege I owe entirely to James.

Even a devotee of Ian Kershaw will discover facts about the German regime that will wrench the gut even more frantically because of James’s way of telling them. The sheer psychological impact of Nazism is told with a vividness so stark it will make you question the simplest of your many mundane domesticities and label them luxuries.

Those who dislike their history short may assume the book’s content should be composed of sweeping generalisations, given its subject matters of such seismic proportions. Fortunately, this book could not be further from that. James touches many a raw nerve, whilst never once glossing over the hard realities or, still worse, distorting them for literary impact. He is a writer who calls a spade a shovel, and then proceeds to show you how it was designed and crafted. Conversely, his examination of the scale of human brutality is met with a tenderness that will resonate with the reader. Those who know the basics will be driven to delve into the specifics.

In a rare instance of critical self-allusion, James remarks, in the penultimate chapter, that his book is essentially ‘the story of the will to achievement in the face of all the conditions of despair’. He, humbly, informs us that he has no expectation for being granted the same type of posterity as many of the men and women whom he idolises here and, while it is true that James, unlike most of his forebears, has enjoyed the benefit of putting pen to paper in far preferable historical circumstances, this should never diminish his gift. If, in part, the work was set about with a wish to emulate the achievements of some of them, then James has done so indisputably in creating this masterpiece.

For a piece of work already over ten years old, Cultural Amnesia shows no sign of waning in value or provenance. It is essential reading for anyone who wishes to know the truth about human existence.

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