Thursday 18 November 2010

Cultural Amnesia: Notes in the Margin of My Time by Clive James (Picador)

For any historian who is currently being asked what they want for Christmas, Cultural Amnesia by Clive James should be a welcome present, unless of course you've had it already -it came out in 2007.

The book is a large collection of short essays about significant figures of the twentieth century From Anna Akhamatova to Louis Armstrong, from Walter Benjamin to Jorge Luis Borges and so on through the alphabet until we get to the Z section from Aleksandr Zinoviev to Stefan Zweig(?!).

James fights cultural amnesia in two ways:
1. By taking a new look at people we thought we knew about-e.g. Mao, Satre, Tony Curtis, Norman Mailer, in several cases this left me thinking-(and James is very convincing)well if that's the case I've got some re-thinking to do. James is never happy with the popular image-but always wants to look behind the veil.

2. By reminding us of some twentieth century people who were very well known during their lives but have now become obscure-such names as Robert Brasillach and Louis Aragon.

Not only is the writer's breadth of knowledge breathtaking but it is all delivered in his inimitable witty, ultra readable style. Just the thing for after Christmas dinner.