Saturday, May 19, 2007

Since 1969, when his first book, “The Metropolitan Critic,” appeared (Edmund Wilson was its titular hero), Clive James has given us a prodigious flow of essays on the arts; reviews of film and television; many poems, some of them fine; and much forgettable fiction and memoirs. He has hosted innumerable television extravaganzas, the most lively of which had him tooling around Rome in a Vespa, showing us where the action was.

He is also an amateur historian of a serious sort: The large volume of essays he published four years ago devoted pages to Primo Levi’s significance and to the holocaust scholarship of Daniel Goldhagen. “Cultural Amnesia,” his new book, is subtitled “Necessary Memories from History and the Arts,” and only an “Australian overachiever” — as he once termed his fellow countryman, the art critic Robert Hughes — could have achieved it.

The book’s almost 900 pages consist of over 100 biographical and critical portraits organized from A to Z — from Anna Akhmatova to Stefan Zweig. Mr. James’ therapeutic aim is “to help establish a possible line of resistance against cultural amnesia,” an enterprise he has been reading and thinking about for 40 years.

Among other things it is a bid for remembering Mr. James as a remarkably prescient and entertaining commentator on our time. In that time, the fate of the Jews and events leading up to it are central to the volume, whose “overture” focuses on the Vienna of 100 years ago that Hitler would destroy.

Mr. James notes that “a book about culture in the twentieth century which did not deal constantly with just how close culture came to being eradicated altogether would not be worth reading.” So the volume is heavy with many German, Austrian, Polish and Russian men and women who acted and spoke out against the eradications that Hitler and Stalin conducted.

But as anyone the least familiar with his writings knows, Mr. James has also been incorrigibly gifted with what Wyndham Lewis called “the curse of humor” in its many varieties. One of them is a determinedly playful refusal always to provide a “responsible” portrait of the individual figure; instead he selects a sentence or quotation from the figure and sees where he can run with it.

What, we may ask, in this book about 20th century players and their precursors, is the 17th century English writer Sir Thomas Browne doing? He is there mainly, it seems, on the basis of a memorable figure from his “On Dreams” (“Dreams out of the ivory gate and visions before midnight”).

Convinced that “Visions before Midnight” would make an excellent title, Mr. James considers other excellent ones like Raymond Chandler’s “The Big Sleep” or “Farewell, My Lovely” — titles as good as the books they adhere to. A chapter on Gianfranco Contini, whom Mr. James considers the foremost Italian philologist of his time (heard of him?) turns out to be about various poetic verse forms, ending with a juxtaposition of stanzas by W.B. Yeats and Philip Larkin.

Miguel de Unamuno inspires Mr. James to useful thought about the activity of book reviewing, its credits and debits. So you never know just where you’re going to be taken in an essay, though the ride is almost always agreeable.

For a Yankee reviewer however, the slighting of American figures is notable; only a handful show up, consisting mainly of two novelists (F. Scott Fitzgerald, Norman Mailer), three jazz musicians (Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Miles Davis) and a couple of talk-show hosts (Johnny Carson and Dick Cavett — the latter especially well portrayed).

Perhaps this is to be expected from a man whose favorite literary critic of the last century is a Pole, Marcel Reich-Ranicki. (There’s something on the edge of chic in Mr. James picking a literary critic whom even those who read literary critics don’t know a thing about.)

Who would have thought that one of the chosen Americans would be John J. McCloy, representing the Eastern establishment of days gone by, and how on Earth could he be, as he is, followed alphabetically by … Zinka Milanov? But could we not have spared the likes of that old fraud Jean Cocteau in favor of, say, about 50 possible American choices? (It is good, though puzzling, to find Tony Curtis, a.k.a. Bernard Schwartz here, mainly on the basis of his immortal line, rendered by Curtis in Bronx cadences as “Yonder lies duh castle of my fuddah.”)

Mr. James has always had a sharp ear for high-flown obscurities as pronounced by continental sages and literary theorists. He notes that Walter Benjamin (whisper the name) made it in the realm of theory “where critics rank as philosophers if they are hard enough to read.” Benjamin, though “clever enough … was clear seldom: a handy combination of talents for attaining oracular status,” and he gave credence to “the damaging notion that there is somehow a progressivist humanitarian licence for talking through a high hat.”

Some of Mr. James’ best jabs are delivered at the theorists; he speaks more than once of his smattering of languages — he has studied Japanese and Russian along with ones closer to home and says he doesn’t regret the hours devoted to learning them since he might have read literary theory instead and ended up knowing nothing.

In a nice appreciation of Beatrix Potter, Mr. James quotes as his signature sentence the following from “The Tale of Pigling Bland”: “Pigling Bland listened gravely; Alexander was hopelessly volatile,” and remarks upon Potter’s “exquisitely elevated linguistic deportment.”

Such deportment, not always elevated but sometimes exquisite, is present often enough in Mr. James to keep the reader on his toes, alert for the next well-turned turn. One of the demons of the book, Jean-Paul Sartre, is ironically celebrated for his style of argument in which “German metaphysics met French sophistry in akind of European Coal and Steel Community producing nothing but rhetorical gas.”

Although some people talk about Heidegger and Sartre “as if they were Goethe and Schiller,” Mr. James sees them as Abbot and Costello rather. In his chapter on Serge Diaghilev there is a digression on famous literary slobs, such as W.H. Auden, who “lived long enough for me to see his tie. I thought it had been presented to him by Jackson Pollock until I realized it was a plain tie plus food.”

In my single favorite from the whole book, the style of Miles Davis’ trumpet playing is finely judged: “Deliberately parsimonious and oblique, like the sound track of a Noh play that had closed out of town.” Parsimonious and oblique would be very good going for most of us, but the Noh play closing out of town is sheer genius.

Clive James is a liberal humanist of enormous cultural, historical and linguistic ambitions. Even more basically, he’s what Robert Frost was admiring when Frost talked about the centrality of “ear” rather than “eye” reading. Mr. James writes about Scott Fitzgerald that his style was “so finely judged in its musicality it convinces its readers that their own melodic sense is being answered from phrase to phrase, sentence to sentence and paragraph to paragraph.” Not the least of the pleasure offered by this quite astonishing book is the answers it gives to our melodic, our human, senses.

William H. Pritchard teaches English at Amherst College. His latest book is “Shelf Life: Literary Essays and Reviews.”

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