May 2007

Arts & Letters

Too big for the bathroom shelf

By Peter Conrad
Clive James’s ‘Cultural Amnesia’

Let me begin with a digressive excursion into the fast-retreating past. It concerns memory, which is not only the ligature that holds civilisation together, as Clive James contends in Cultural Amnesia (Picador, 900pp; $49.95), but also the medium in which we conduct our personal moral reckonings.

Thirty years ago, shortly after meeting James for the first time, I reviewed a volume of his matey doggerel, Fan-mail - verse letters addressed to friends, one of whom was Martin Amis who, as literary editor of the New Statesman, commissioned the review. "I don't like a lot of what Clive writes," Amis muttered as he handed the book over, "but of course he's a friend and I can't say so myself." I took the point, and signed on as a hired killer. Fuelled by the competitive antagonism of youth, I wrote the lethal review Amis wanted. I did truly think that the poems in Fan-mail were dreadful, and I can still remember a gauche couplet in which James lamely extolled a passage from Dante's Divine Comedy: "For sheer intensity of lyric form / I've never met that stretch of verse's peer". (I quote from memory, wishing in this case that I were more forgetful.) Then, just before the review was published, I recalled my happy meeting with him, and sent a note assuring him how much I admired his literary essays and his Observer television reviews. I would have given Unreliable Memoirs a special mention, but it had not been written yet. I hoped, I said, that he wouldn't take offence at my mockery of his poems. He wrote back declaring that his friendship was mine for life. Despite that handsome guarantee, we have managed never to run into each other again.

His magnanimous response convinced me that James was a great-hearted fellow. As Cultural Amnesia reveals, he also possesses a very big head. His new book is a summation of all he knows, and of everything he thinks we should all, to preserve our culture, collectively memorise. Has any Australian ever read so much, in so many languages, about the arts, politics and philosophy, filing away the accumulated lore in a cranial library? (Not having quite outgrown the competitiveness of youth, I ask the question specifically of Australians born on the mainland.) The book's bulk is impressive, as if its 900 pages were the product of cerebration on steroids. James himself views it as a Herculean labour, remarking that it has taken him 40 years to write. Halfway through, he worries that it might be "a folly", like one of those overgrown, impractical architectural projects designed by eighteenth-century dilettanti who built pagodas or zigurrats onto their Georgian houses. James's twinge of panic is justified: Cultural Amnesia, I am sorry to say, is incoherent, garbled and ultimately pointless, meandering through a series of endless circuits inside his crowded, voluminous head. In its way, it's a noble folly, quaintly and quixotically idealistic. But it is also, from time to time, merely foolish. During those four decades of toil, James apparently lost sight of what kind of book he wanted to write - or rather he has ended up writing several contradictory, self-cancelling books at once, producing an amorphous, myriad-minded monologue whose structure and purpose are far from clear.

Is this James's version of what Harold Bloom, in a grandiose and bogus tome, called "the Western canon"? Only if you consider the television interviewer Dick Cavett and the waddling, viper-tongued Slavic soprano Zinka Milanov to be as canonical as Kafka and Sartre. Other obscure and exotic Jamesian favourites had me scratching my head and wondering whether he had made them up. Who are Hubert Auerbach, Heda Margolius Kovály, Ernest Lilly, John McCloy, Henry L Palmetto, Virginio Longoni, ORP Schraeder, Manès Sperber and Dubravka Ugresic? I have smuggled in a few of these names, I admit, from the roll call of gilded nonentities at the bootlegger's parties in The Great Gatsby, but I defy you to spot the intruders and separate truth from fiction. At one point James nominates Marcel Reich-Ranicki as his "personal favourite among all the world's literary critics". While gaping at the globally omniscient "all", I felt a faint twitch in my leg, as if it were being pulled.

The book organises an alphabetical list of such luminaries, but tersely dispatches each of them in what can only be called a bio. The A-Z format imposes its own arbitrary absurdity. Tony Curtis rubs shoulders with the learned philologist Ernst Robert Curtius - this really might be one of Gatsby's promiscuous bashes, which the host had the good sense not to attend - and a family gathering that reunites Thomas Mann with his brother, Heinrich, and his son Golo is gate-crashed by Michael Mann, the director of Miami Vice. James then selects a quotation from each of his subjects, which becomes the pretext for a free-associating riff. Is this then his own whimsically selective commonplace book? If so, he should perhaps have been content to anthologise the quotes. And is the book meant to cover the twentieth century, or does James, that one-man universe, intend to go back to an earlier modernity? There are odd, inexplicable raids on the past: the seventeenth-century essayist Sir Thomas Browne gets his own chapter, yet only so that James can tell us why he filched a phrase from Browne to use as the title for a collection of his television reviews.

So is Cultural Amnesia an autobiographical tour of James's own books? He refers to them repeatedly, complaining about American incomprehension of Unreliable Memoirs, bragging that critical contempt for his novel The Silver Castle has only made him fonder of it, and - like his own in-house bibliographer - referring us to his essay on Fellini, "collected in Even as We Speak (2001) and As of This Writing (2003)". Or is this yet another instalment of his memoirs, finding room for leftover anecdotes not immortalised elsewhere? In a book about the mental accomplishments of others, James proves to be weirdly preoccupied with the antics of his own body. I wonder if we need to know about his fitting for a suit in the shop of "the celebrated tailor Littrico", who announces that James has the same measurements as Gorbachev, or to follow our twinkle-toed cultural encyclopaedist around the floor as he dances the tango "not just in Buenos Aires but in London, Paris, Berlin, Madrid, New York, Nijmegen, Sydney, Melbourne, Adelaide and Auckland". Although I augmented James's cast with a smattering of Gatsby's guests, I swear that I did not smuggle Nijmegen into this dizzy itinerary. Look it up - I had to. On this evidence, I suspect James may be the kind of chap who keeps defunct airline tickets as souvenirs, perhaps gluing them into a scrapbook.

The varying subtitles of Cultural Amnesia acknowledge its mental muddle. The proof copy I read proclaims that these are "Necessary Memories from History and the Arts", which sounds sternly prescriptive: we are expected to absorb this elephantine curriculum with its immemorial wisdom. But the Australian edition is subtitled "Notes in the Margin of My Times", which sounds more plaintively peripheral. Notes, however, do not generally accumulate into such an onerous pile, and marginalia, like the so-called nature strips in the Hobart suburb where I grew up, are kept under control by the narrowness of the space in which they're scribbled. James is a brilliant columnist, unbeatable if confined to a couple of thousand zippy words. But a few hundred columns do not add up to a cathedral.

Digressiveness is a license permitted to an essayist, who cannot stray beyond the space allotted to him. In Cultural Amnesia, this spirit of rambling free-association ignores all limits, and goads James to crass self-indulgence. Take the case of Sophie Scholl, the student guillotined by the Nazis in 1943 for distributing pamphlets attacking the war. She has become one of our age's secular saints, and James - who in his bid for moral loftiness spends many, many pages castigating artists and intellectuals such as Richard Strauss, TS Eliot and Jorge Luis Borges for making their own cynical peace with fascist regimes - somewhat presumptuously dedicates his book to her memory. Yet his chapter about her can't stick to the point, and he soon permits himself a pervy aside on the "tiny midriff" of Natalie Portman, the actress whose "natural moral stature" (not to mention that peekaboo patch of unclad belly) qualifies her, in James's ogling eyes, to play Scholl in a biopic that Hollywood will surely never make about her life and death. The lapse of tone is ghastly, and it's hardly excused by James's claim to be a "premature post-modernist", equally attracted by high seriousness and the lowlier delights of mass culture.

James treats all his cultural eminences as if they were would-be Hollywood stars. Albert Camus is likened to Bogart, Albert Einstein wriggles into the scheme because of a fortuitous meeting with Charlie Chaplin, and Princess Diana has a walk-on, regaling James with an account of colonic irrigation. Scintillation is for him the most admirable of qualities - Milanov is "glittering", Norman Mailer "dazzling" - so that reading these encomia is like being blinded by a blitz of tinsel. Intellection matters less, in the end, than exhibitionism, which is why James brashly remembers "a dinner in Hampstead with Josef Brodsky when we both ended up standing on restaurant chairs clobbering each other with alexandrines". That, to me, is no more permissible than chucking bread rolls. James, however, complacently recalls how "our dinner companions ... had grown resigned to being an audience". All those talk shows have had a baleful influence, making him think of conversation as a performing art and a competitive sport.

The problem here is the incompatibility of showmanship and intellectual analysis, or of journalism and history. James is clever enough to see this, though glib enough to supply a defence. "We tend to forget," he says, "that journalism means today, and we are seldom encouraged to remember that history is made of nothing else except one today after another." While it may sound snappy, it is quite untrue. Journalism tabulates our days, with their engrossing ephemera: in its columns, Sophie Scholl's severed head can happily coexist with Natalie Portman's cheeky navel. But history is not written in this permissive, indiscriminate present tense. It requires hindsight and a teleological narrative, because it aims to show how the past begot the future. That ampler temporal understanding is what Cultural Amnesia lacks. Nothing goes anywhere, except exhaustingly round in circles.

Proud of his "inadvertently assimilated education" and his status as an independent man of letters, James recurrently derides the "tenured academics" onto whose specialisms he trespasses. He and his jocular cronies have even revived for their amusement the imaginary generic don called Professor Dryasdust, so often pilloried by Thomas Carlyle. Yet Cultural Amnesia is a grindingly pedagogic, even pedantic enterprise, ticking off young readers with shallow memories and setting them remedial homework. A sentence like "students should not excuse themselves from reading Alan Bullock's first monograph" puffs out so much powdery chalk that I sneezed after reading it. Students have my permission to excuse themselves from obeying James's directives, which are often ill-informed. Authoritative as ever, he declares Alfred Einstein's "standard monograph" on Mozart to be "the best single book on the subject"; take it from me, there are better and more recent books by Brigid Brophy, Wolfgang Hildesheimer and Peter Gay, among others. But mostly we are not actually expected to lumber through the recommended reading. James prefers to do that for us, and in commending Obrazy Italii by Pavel Muratov, another outlandish sage, he nonchalantly describes himself as "one of the few people alive who have ever picked up a copy of it".

We are meant to notice that he has read Muratov's book in Russian, just as elsewhere he ostentatiously cites untranslated works in French, Spanish, Italian and German. He does his own translating for our benefit, although sometimes this is not as much of a mental feat as he might imagine: having been told that Reich-Ranicki calls Joseph Roth a "Vagabond mit Kavaliersmanieren", do we need him to explain, for our benefit as monoglot morons, that this means "a vagabond with the manners of a cavalier"? All the same, James's polyglossolalia is here relatively modest. A mutual friend once told me about a literary soirée at which, after passing around the garlic bread, James announced that he had been "brushing up" his Hebrew. Even his confessions of linguistic error manage to do some deft swaggering. At one point he idly remarks that he has spent 40 years accentuating the word "empyrean" on the wrong syllable. It would take me as many years to imagine a social situation in which I might feel it appropriate to utter "empyrean" out loud, whether with the accent in the right place or not. I guess James keeps higher-minded and posher-voiced company than I do.

His forays into foreign languages (which - I'd forgotten - extend to Japanese) license some domineering judgements, handed down with a finality that tolerates no challenge. We are to take his word for it that "Tanizaki [is] a far more important writer than Mishima," a verdict that sounds to me as fatuous as his comment that "Queen Victoria ... wrote better than Queen Elizabeth I." I'd be more prepared to trust James's declarations about foreign writers if his opinions of literature written in his native language weren't so unpersuasive. He is deaf to the sonorous music of Milton, and bewilderingly laments the lack of human characters in Paradise Lost: he must be holier than the rest of us if he fails to see that Satan is everyone's alter ego. In a flush of adolescent rapture, he over-praises Keats, arguing that, if he had lived, he might have ripened into a second Shakespeare. This, James adds, would have been "a turn-up for the books" - a phrase that bathetically confuses bookishness with book-keeping.

Discussing other English writers, he concentrates on finicky verbal effects, like a stand-up comedian fussing over pauses or a talk-show host practising his delivery of what is known in the business as a zinger. He devotes a paragraph to Hazlitt's placement of a comma, and a whole meagre chapter to a grammatical solecism in a sentence by Evelyn Waugh. This fiddling makes you uncomfortably conscious of how studied James's own witticisms are: his description of the bags under Duke Ellington's eyes as "sets of matched luggage" sounds prepared, as packaged as the sagging suitcases. He remarks that Kingsley Amis often rehearsed jokes before he told them at lunch; James too is something of a comic swot.

Perhaps it is only a fellow Australian who can dare to point out what a local undertaking this book is - provincial despite its omnific range, and very dated, harking back to the benighted decades when we strained to overcome our country's geographical and cultural isolation. James nominates the architectural critic Wolf Jobst Siedler for "the title of Most Civilized Man in Post-War Germany"; he seems to be campaigning for an antipodean version of the same honour. He owns, he says, three copies of Egon Friedell's Cultural History of the Ancient World (all three, of course, in German), and treasures the book because "it makes you feel civilised". But why should he need to feel that way in triplicate? I was touched by his bereft, castaway account of listening to Ellington's records "from a long way across the Pacific". Still, he seems not to have noticed that the Pacific is now a puddle; Australians no longer have to read their way through a library to demonstrate their right to membership of the civilised world. The same insecurity lies behind James's mnemonic marathons, which begin with his recitation of a poem by Tennyson in his Sydney schoolroom, lead on to his enthusiasm for what he calls, in another telling reminiscence of the 1950s, a "Quiz Kid retentiveness", and reach their extravagant climax in his demand that we should all not only remember but memorise The Great Gatsby. Yes, the memory is a retentive sphincter: James, whose smallest room is an annex of his library, advises that "all four volumes [of de Gaulle's memoirs] can be kept easily on the bathroom shelf in the neat little Pocket Presse boxed set from Plon". I'm grateful for the tip, but worry that the neat little boxed set might constipate me. Sooner a comforting plop than the company of Plon.

One final quibble, again concerning James's patchy appreciation of the literature that ought to be his birthright. I inherited from James McAuley a belief that Edmund Spenser, with his playful mythmaking and his wanton power of linguistic invention, is the poet who comes closest to Shakespeare, so I didn't relish being informed that The Faerie Queene is unreadable. A wisecrack takes the place of reasoned argument: James, with his eye on the camera as it homes in for a close-up, confides that when plodding through it he "had to sit facing away from the window, or I would find myself counting the people on a passing bus". Like Professor Dryasdust doddering through his dreary chores, he needed to set himself "a daily quota" of pages. I nodded sadly as I read this, because it was only by forcing myself to swallow just such a daily dose that I got through Cultural Amnesia. I turned my back on the window, but couldn't help counting the planes that screeched over my house on their way to Heathrow and speculating about how many passengers they contained.

Having dutifully limped to the end, I decided that Clive James - and I never imagined I would think this, let alone write it down - can be bit of a bore. I am currently toying with possible nicknames for him: Dr Drizabone, perhaps. Ah well, I don't suppose he'll be renewing his vow of eternal friendship, at least not in what's left of this lifetime.

Peter Conrad

Peter Conrad’s most recent book is How the World Was Won. His Myths of the Day, based on a BBC radio series, will be published in 2016.

Cover: May 2007

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