CULTURAL AMNESIA: Necessary Memories from History and the Arts. By Clive James. Norton. 876 pages. $35.
Clive James, a literary chevalier, charges into the wreckage of the 20th century on a quest to save humanism. "Ours was an age of extermination, an epoch of the abattoir," he writes. Out of the carnage, James selects 107 figures, writes essays about them, and arranges the essays alphabetically, from Akhmatova to Zweig. "Cultural Amnesia" is highly idiosyncratic and eclectic, the kind of volume that includes musicologist Alfred Einstein but foregoes his physicist cousin Albert.
The book evolved over 40 years of reading and note-taking. James began the project, he says, hoping his notes would shape themselves into a pattern. No pattern emerged, and he realized why: "The totalitarian states ... had been propelled by ideologies, and what else was an ideology except a premature synthesis?" Drifting, organic, random and free: the essays of "Cultural Amnesia" are James's answer to oppression.
Beyond free choice and loose construction, it's hard to say what binds the subjects of these essays. Of the 107, 44 are writers, with only two Americans, F. Scott Fitzgerald and Norman Mailer, represented. Four are philosophers, among them Jean-Paul Sartre, whose arguments strike James as "ponderous folderol." Fifteen political figures, from Margaret Thatcher to Mao Tse Tung, get the James treatment. Key writers and thinkers from other centuries also show up. No painters, sculptors or photographers make the cut, but Tony Curtis is here. Women are largely forgotten; a paltry 11 matter enough to be counted.
More curious than the whimsical selection are the dizzy jumps within James's pieces. He writes, clearly, for those already in the know. The essay on Flaubert, for instance, is barely under way before it becomes an essay about paying with one's life for religious allegiance. Sir Thomas Browne's pages turn quickly into a discourse on book titles. Readers unfamiliar with Evelyn Waugh would encounter him here as the writer of a single, grammatically incorrect sentence -; worth a three-page address.
James is a nimble, entertaining thinker with an easy fluency, but he falls short as a crusader. Fans will enjoy roaming with him over a lifetime's reading, gawking at the sideshows and tripping down the detours.