Cultural Amnesia: Necessary Memories from History and the Arts

By Welsh, Jim | Journal of American Culture (Malden, MA), June 2008 | Go to article overview

Cultural Amnesia: Necessary Memories from History and the Arts


Welsh, Jim, Journal of American Culture (Malden, MA)


Cultural Amnesia: Necessary Memories from History and the Arts Clive James. New York: W.W. Norton Co., 2007.

This is a browse about book, written by a gifted stylist who is very widely read and who has a clear sense of what (or whom) should be considered important. Consider, for example, his elegy to F. Scott Fitzgerald, which makes the expected comparison with Ernest Hemingway (a writer not considered important enough to deserve an entry of his own in this book, by the way), a writer whose style could be and was imitated, unlike Fitzgerald's, which was, quite simply, too exquisite and too unreachable for imitation or parody. An unexpected comparison found in this entry is made with Booth Tarkington, certainly a secondary talent to Fitzgerald, but one who, like Fitzgerald, was fascinated by the wealthy and the reckless, and, like Fitzgerald, certainly caught the spirit of his times.

By no means are the entries in this book confined to celebrity writers as famous as Fitzgerald, however. At another extreme is Alfred Polgar, born in Vienna in 1873, and destined to become "the unsurpassable exemplar of German prose in modern times, even though he never, strictly speaking, wrote a book" (561), but how many Americans would be aware of his stylistic achievements? And, by no means are all of the figures in this carpet writers. Filmmaker Federico Fellini is here, for example, as is the enigmatic "Chris Marker" (born 1921 as Christian François Bouche-Villeneuve), whom James considers the "best mind" of the nouvelle vague. (James dismisses Jean-Luc Godard as "an obvious featherbrain" politically and compliments Truffaut for having the good sense to avoid overt political statements.) The Marker entry quickly moves to a consideration of the nature of documentary filmmaking, praising Marker's work at the expense of the more famous (though far more facile) Michael Moore.

The book is a constant delight because of its surprises, as Terry Gilliam bumps up against Edward Gibbon, Miles Davis against Sergei Diaghilev (1872-1929, "born in Novgorod and buried in Venice"). Decadent poet and dramatist Jean Cocteau against G. K. Chesterton, also a poet and writer, but of an entirely dierent stripe. You'll find Chaplin here (but not Keaton), Marcel Proust (but not Joyce), Alfred Einstein, the musicologist (!), not "his physicist cousin," Albert. There is a certain Germanic predisposition throughout the selections, as is announced by the book's "Overture," devoted to "Vienna." Here one finds an admitted nostalgia for Old Vienna café society, a world in which "You didn't complete your education and then start your career. Your education was your career, and it was never completed" (1). …

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