"In this book can be heard the merest edge of an enormous conversation. As they never were in life, we can imagine the speakers all gathered in some vast room, wearing name tags in case they don't recognize each other (although some recognize each other all too well, and avoid contact).
"My heroes and heroines are here. The reader will recognize some of their names, while other names will be more obscure. My intellectual betes noires are here too, and the same division might apply."
An almanac combining a comprehensive survey of modern culture with an annotated index of who-was-who and what-was-what, Cultural Amnesia is Clive James' unique take on the places and the faces that shaped the 20th century.
From Anna Akhmatova to Stefan Zweig, via Charles de Gaulle, Hitler, Thomas Mann and Charlie Chaplin, this varied and unfailingly absorbing book is both story and history, both public memoir and personal record - and provides an essential field-guide to the vast movements of taste, intellect, politics, and delusion that helped to prepare the times we live in now.
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James is a great essayist, and this collection varies from the short and pithy to the serious and profound. A self-avowed rhythm-and-tone buff, his own delivery of what he's carefully crafted is untoppable. There are several multifying themes, the most obvious being that each piece is attached to one persona from World Cultural History, and these are laid out alphabetically. It stops a long way short of literary biography, concerning itself more with ideas and their expression - in particular the lesser-known figures such as Egon Friedell and Alan Moorehead are contextualised in James' synthesis of what's good and bad about the world, and in his narrative of how he thinks people, nations and cultures have engaged with it and with each other. He rightly espouses liberal democracy, eschews the directions taken by Sartre and French postmodern intellectuals, and exemplifies the telling phrase and the genuinely humourous attitude of a well-read and (by now) honoured prophet in his own country, which is, by the looks of it, the metropolitan 20/21st century real world, not its literary simulacrum.