About Me

Kyle Smith (Twitter: @rkylesmith) is critic-at-large for National Review, theater critic for The New Criterion and the author of the novels Love Monkey and A Christmas Caroline. Type a title in the box above to locate a review.

Buy Love Monkey for $4! "Hilarious"--Maslin, NY Times. "Exceedingly readable and wickedly funny romantic comedy"--S.F. Chronicle. "Loud and brash, a helluva lot of fun"--Entertainment Weekly. "Engaging romp, laugh-out-loud funny"-CNN. "Shrewd, self-deprecating, oh-so-witty. Smith's ruthless humor knows no bounds"--NPR

Buy A Christmas Caroline for $10! "for those who prefer their sentimentality seasoned with a dash of cynical wit. A quick, enjoyable read...straight out of Devil Wears Prada"--The Wall Street Journal

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    Review: “Cultural Amnesia” by Clive James

    By kyle | June 20, 2007


    Kyle Smith review of Cultural Amnesia by Clive James (Norton, 876 pages, $35)


    The Australian critic Clive James’s brain is an intimidating place in which to dwell for 900 pages; if he were a super hero, he would be the Intellectual Hulk. In this thrilling compilation of biographical sketches of great and horrible people (the titular plea for remembering seems ill-chosen given that most profilees are unlikely to be forgotten: Flaubert and Freud, Mao and Waugh, Thomas Mann and Michael Mann) James appears staggeringly close to omniscient, and he’s read it all in the original Russian, Japanese, German, French. Come along! he cries, suggesting that the best way to learn to read a foreign language is to just dive in: “[Charles de Gaulle’s] four volumes of autobiography are all available in English. A beginner with French, however, could do worse than become acquainted with them….all four volumes can be kept easily on the bathroom shelf.” Come on Clive, don’t bore us suggesting such kid stuff. Everyone I know who has mastered je-tu-il-elle keeps the De Gaulle quadrilogy, in the original, shelved above the Q-Tips. Yesterday I read all of “Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire” while brushing my teeth, and tomorrow I’m going to zip through the complete works of Karl Marx as I cinch my belt.

    So vast is the neural network we’re talking about that Clive James may be the only person qualified to review Clive James. “Literary pygmies are always making pronouncements about what goes on in the head of a giant,” he warns us, though I felt more like an ant being singed under his unforgiving magnifying glass.

    The book is so learned and so wise (not the same thing at all) that it’s like finding a four-year college education in the “99.99 percent off” bin. James, a popular TV personality in Britain, can be recondite, but he also has a studio-audience-ready wit: “whole generations on the left exhausted their thin talents in an effort to say something Kate Bush couldn’t sing.” On Rimbaud: “Why Verlaine waited so long to shoot him is a great mystery.” And James is that rare intellectual who doesn’t pretend to like Coltrane: “listen to John Coltrane subjecting some helpless standard to ritual murder.” Even his asides–“Albert Camus, in the week before he was killed, wrote to five different women and addressed each of them as the great love of his life”–are like a Trivial Pursuit game on Olympus.

    Few sketches end near where they began, and most are delightfully serpentine—James supposes (in a characteristically sweeping essay on the 18th century aphorist Georg Chistoph Lichtenberg) that gay men, or at least the sexual omnivores among them, lack straight men’s obsessive desire for beauty, backing it with the example of Mao–who chose only the comeliest girls to lick off the dirt he never removed any other way.

    But what is film director Michael Mann doing in this book, and why does James poke away at the strange detail of a phrase of dialogue he misunderstood (Americans would not) in the movie “Heat”? Similarly, James can be unfair; he confesses that for years he mispronounced Degas—“from then on I never laughed at anyone who mispronounced an artist’s name, because it usually only meant that what he had read had run far ahead of what he had heard.” Four hundred pages later, he mocks Margaret Thatcher at length for mispronouncing Solzhenitsyn.

    James’s big idea is that intellectuals, particularly French WW II collaborators, rarely pay for their political cowardice, though many paid for their heroism. If you took away all the men and women of letters from Stalin’s time who made cooing noises in his direction you wouldn’t have enough people left to field a soccer team. But is Borges’s simple silence in a country gone berserk unforgivable? The discussion continues. As James puts it in another chapter, “A writer leaves you with everything to say. It is in the nature of his medium to start a conversation within you that will not stop until your death.”

    Topics: Books, Politics | No Comments »