Cultural Amnesia: Notes in the Margin of My Time by Clive James (Picador) was first published to huge acclaim in 2007, and was reprinted last year. I have been re-reading it off and on for the past few weeks.
Oh my, it is so good – my intermittent, dipping in and out method of finishing the book was one I took up as the essays, short and erudite as they are, and the almost forgotten (honestly? I never forgot them: I had never even heard of many of these people) lives they chronicle, were overwhelming and a little too coruscating when I first read it. I liked the writing so much I read it all in one go and was a bit stunned, like eating an ice cream too fast: brain freeze! This time I approached it more cautiously and learnt new things, although I also cried more, got more angry, was more amazed…
The book is a collection of 100 2-3 page essays on an eclectic and personal collection of people who James has been reading about, writing about, thinking about for over 40 years. These are people who, before so many of them were destroyed (or they survived but so very changed by experience and witness) in the various totalitarian maelstroms that afflicted Europe, sort of created so much of the modern Western world we live in now. Even though I didn’t know many of their names – especially the Eastern Europeans and the Russians amongst them – I ended up realising that I knew, had seen, had lived things because of them and what they accomplished. You end up feeling very grateful, very sad at being confronted again with how potential is stupidly wasted.
It is a fascinating, rewarding book, important to have read I think.