James is a 'pugnacious and provocative' writer but Cultural Amnesia is not without flaws

Thanks to a suggestion from a post following my recent blog about Stefan Zweig, I have been dipping into Clive James’s book, Cultural Amnesia. James says that it took him 40 years to write this distillation of his reflections on the personalities encountered during his life through their books or, more occasionally, through their politics, their films or their music. The people one meets in these short essays, arranged alphabetically, are not limited to the living or to the western world – though the emphasis is on 20th century European writers. They are an eclectic bunch, including authors I knew such as Kafka, Thomas Mann, Camus etc (and many I didn’t, such as Peter Altenberg, Ernst Robert Curtius, Virgilio Pognoni and so on), as well as characters like Charlie Chaplin, Coco Chanel, Duke Ellington, Hitler and Margaret Thatcher. James’s method is to introduce the person, highlight a key quotation by him or her and then argue the truth or falsity of it.

James has read widely; he is also a pugnacious and provocative writer with a good line in witty punch lines. Yet sometimes the lateral thinking behind his assessments comes at the expense of simple clarity – or indeed, understanding. For instance, in his chapter on Sophie Scholl, the brave Munich student and member of the White Rose resistance movement to the Nazis, who was guillotined after a summary trial, on February 22 1943, aged 21, he is right to start out by stating that she “radiated a moral beauty” and that “she was probably a saint”. But then he veers off course for a long discussion about the possible merits of the actress Natalie Portman playing Sophie in a future Hollywood biopic. This is bad taste and is also irrelevant; there is a fine film already made: Sophie Scholl: The Final Days, which I urge readers to see.

I also wonder if James has properly studied Scholl’s life and her letters; for example, the influence of Newman’s writings about conscience on her decision to join the doomed resistance movement. His conclusion is, “Part of the sad truth about Sophie Scholl is that nobody remembers a thing she said.” But they remember something more important: the luminous witness of her brief life and extraordinarily courageous death, which has resulted in posthumous fame that grows year by year. Yesterday, coincidentally, was the anniversary of her death so it feels timely to pay tribute to her.

A similar weakness is evident in his chapter on Evelyn Waugh. James starts out by stating Waugh was “the supreme writer of English prose in the 20th century”. Many would agree with that assessment. Then the rest of the essay descends into a discussion about the grammatical errors in the prose of the writer Anthony Powell, which merely informs us how knowledgeable James is about dangling modifiers rather than helping readers to appreciate why Waugh occupies classic status.

Yet James can be insightful. In his essay on Charles de Gaulle, in which he quotes de Gaulle’s words on the death, aged 20, of his daughter Anne, who had been born with severe Down’s syndrome and who died in his arms, he concludes, “Nothing is more likely to civilise a powerful man than the presence in his house of an injured one his power can’t help. Every night he comes home to a reminder that God is not mocked: a cure for invincibility.” That is well said.

To conclude with James’s essay on Stefan Zweig (which was the reason I dipped into the book in the first place): he writes, correctly I think, that, “despite his success and his huge range of prominent friends, he had been on the verge of despair for most of his life.” The difference between us here is that James thinks of this as cultural despair, Zweig’s fears for the fragility of pre-war Viennese culture, whereas I see it as a form of spiritual despair.

The quotation chosen by James is steeped in pessimism: Zweig had lived for conversation with friends, recalling “heart-warming hours, looking out from the terrace over the beautiful and peaceful landscape…” at his hunting lodge in the hills above Salzburg. He ends the sentence, “… without suspecting that exactly opposite, on the mountain of Berchtesgaden, a man sat who would one day destroy it all.”

Yes, Hitler destroyed much – but not “all”, unless you think that pre-war Viennese intellectual cafe society (or post-war writing, journalistic and TV fame) sums up western civilisation. One 20th century writer whom James omits from his list of obscure and famous personalities is, significantly, Georges Bernanos; he is a magnificent counterweight to the kind of secular humanism that Zweig espoused.