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A polymath picks the historical and artistic figures that we should all know.

Reviewed by John Simon
Sunday, May 20, 2007

CULTURAL AMNESIA

Necessary Memories From History and the Arts

By Clive James

Norton. 876 pp. $35

Let us concede some things to Clive James right away. He is, or can be, a brilliantly original thinker; he is, or can be, a brilliant writer. He has read voraciously and multifariously on any number of subjects and put it all to excellent use. He has taught himself several languages, including some Japanese, by means of serious reading with the dictionary by his side. And having journeyed all over the world and sojourned in many places, this Australian is truly cosmopolitan.

Such a wealth of prerequisites suggests the ideal author for Cultural Amnesia, an 876-page book assembling brief essays about epochal figures in history (including politics, sociology and philosophy) and the arts. There are film directors and actors, jazz musicians, a fashion designer (Coco Chanel), an opera singer (Zinka Milanov) and, like James himself, a television host (Dick Cavett).

Intellectual prowess so nearly encyclopedic comes at a price; it is hard for its possessor not to feel omniscient, his taste unimpeachable. Consciously, James offers many disarming disclaimers; but there remains the inexpugnable unconscious. Not content with adducing key figures of the past century, James enshrines others as far back as ancient Rome. To cite only literary, historical and philosophical luminaries, we encounter Chamfort, Gustave Flaubert, Heinrich Heine, John Keats, Montesquieu, Sainte-Beuve and Tacitus -- in alphabetical order, like the book itself.

Given this, how can the author escape the charge of arbitrariness? Had James picked a less absolutist subtitle, his choice of 107 heroes and villains would have been unassailable. I found reading about those I know as stimulating and rewarding as reading about those I didn't. Especially useful to Anglophone readers is the preponderance of foreign figures, most of whom James read in their native languages. Judicious is the inclusion of Hitler, Goebbels, Mao, Trotsky and their likes: evil geniuses as historic as the good ones.

The essays usually begin with a shorter, more generalized survey, followed by one or more sections expatiating on one or a few headlined quotations, sometimes no longer than a half-dozen words. Just about every essay wanders off onto other figures, writings, ideas, events. An essay about Miguel de Unamuno turns into one about book reviewing; one about Chaplin is mostly about Einstein; one about Eugenio Montale considers poetry, literature, music and ballet in general. The essay on Camus brings in Mrs. Ceausescu, Mussolini, Ezra Pound, T.S. Eliot, Marshal Pétain, Hitler and Fats Waller. Topics such as true or false democracy, terrorism and anti-Semitism appear everywhere. Names drop like autumn leaves as the obiter dictum is raised to a genre.

Though soup and dessert may be equally pleasing, you may not want to be, after a few dips into the one, jolted to the other. That, near the end of a rambling essay, James will usually return to the ostensible subject -- from mixed berries back to soup -- makes matters scarcely better.

On the credit side, James is a master of aphorism and wry humor. Brevity, we have it on good authority, is the soul of wit, and wit is the salt of the aphorism. A page without several epigrams is a rarity; a page without one, nonexistent. They range from tickling irony to stinging insight, often simultaneously. Herewith some samples:

"The only thing I have to say against most modern poetry is that so much of it avoids all verse conventions without rising to the level of decent prose."

On Walter Benjamin: "He got up into the realm of theory, where critics rank as philosophers if they are hard enough to read."

Concerning Portuguese Nobel laureate Jose Saramago: "He published an article pointing out that no ruling party elected by the people ever truly represents them. The possibility that an unelected ruling party would represent them even less he left unexamined."

From an essay on the French thinker Raymond Aron: "Though the French will probably go on thinking proudly of Sartre as the Victor Hugo of political philosophy -- the most mentions, the most mistresses, the biggest funeral -- Aron's name is nowadays quite often invoked by those who believe there is an alternative to getting everything brazenly wrong."

And finally, "This is a book about a world men made, and it taught plenty of us to wish that women had made it instead."

Entire essays are as pertinent and persuasive as these pregnant sallies. Despite no particular interest in jazz, I was completely won over by the entries on Louis Armstrong, Miles Davis and Duke Ellington. Furthermore, James possesses the magic touch for knocking usurpers like Sartre off their pedestals, reaffirming our love for the likes of Camus and making sure we don't overlook a heroine like Sophie Scholl. And how could we resist Tony Curtis sandwiched between the great philosopher Benedetto Croce and the distinguished scholar-critic Ernst Robert Curtius?

On the debit side, James's German is riddled with shocking errors; his French, less so. More disturbing are flaws in his English: "Polgar, whom he realized was his equal"; "Thankfully he was too old"; and "the main reason . . . was because." Occasionally, too, misinformation: An art song in French is a mélodie, not a chanson.

But none of this makes the often delightfully autobiographical Cultural Amnesia less cherishable. The warts are few; the all is absorbing. ·

John Simon is the New York theater critic for Bloomberg News and the "Etcetera" columnist for Broadway.com.

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