Cultural Amnesia: Notes in the Margin of My Time
‘In this book can be heard the merest edge of an enormous conversation. As they never were in life, we can imagine the speakers all gathered in some vast room, wearing name tags in case they don’t recognize each other (although some recognize each other all too well, and avoid contact). My heroes and heroines are here. The reader will recognize some of their names, while...more
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 ...more
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, ...more
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 ...more
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 ...more
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 ...more
Staying on topic, bragging: James ...more
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 ...more
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 ...more
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 ...more
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 ...more
A lifetime in the...more
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 ...more
And whilst I ...more
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.
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 ...more
This book is a roughly 850-page blueprint of Clive James's cathedral. He focuses mainly on writers in Eastern Europe during and prior to the Holocaust. It is unclear whether he recognizes that he is providing a personal, not an objectively correct, definition of the culture and genre that is ...more
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 ...more
I found the essay on the Gulag-Denying Jean-Paul Sartre long overdue, and ...more