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Not going gentle

In provocative essays, Clive James rages against -- and for -- the literary lights of the 20th century

James, shown here in London, warns in his introduction that "Cultural Amnesia" "will undoubtedly be a turbulent read." (Steve Forrest/Insight-Visual)

Cultural Amnesia: Necessary Memories From History and the Arts
By Clive James
Norton, 876 pp., illustrated, $35

I know Montaigne. Montaigne is a friend of mine. And believe me, Clive James, you're no Montaigne.

No, but he is Clive James, something I'd give critical heart as well as eyeteeth to be. Polymath, television interviewer and producer, and above all -- with the faintest necessary touch of the Yahoo -- one of the most ingeniously stimulating literary critics now writing in English.

Over the years James has been laboring upon something seemingly quite different: a collection of mini- essays, mostly brief, and ostensibly about writers, though Hitler is there (he did write that compulsory best seller " Mein Kampf ") as well as Margaret Thatcher, Mao, and Duke Ellington.

So why Montaigne? As with that most human of Frenchmen, all 76 pieces are really about himself: almost everything he has thought about almost everything. They ramble every which way while retaining a guiding moral gravity sparked by epigram and brought up short by paradox.

So why not Montaigne? Well, no one could be that (a spaciousness that four centuries later still opens free space in our clotted and encumbered minds), just as no one could be Shakespeare. But even to ask "Why not?" is a tribute.

"These fragments I have shored against my ruins," intones "The Waste Land." These 76 candles James has lighted against the dark ruins of much of Europe's 20th century. It is a moral and existential effort even more than a literary one. What are the lives, the choices, the heroisms, the shames, the difficult truths and difficult falsehoods that his writers have made?

James praises, skewers, laments, sympathizes , and above all ramps restlessly through all he has read, as if beyond its revelations some arch-revelation lurked. "The word: our token of ultimate peace," wrote Miguel de Unamuno (one of the 76), but the unquiet James finds only provisional bits of peace.

There is no single theme among the essays, which range from a page or two to more than a dozen, and are set out alphabetically: Anna Akhmatova to Stefan Zweig. There are clusters of concern, though. Some treat of writers confronting or not confronting Nazism.

There are the heroes: Marc Bloch and Jean Prévost , both of whom perished in the French Resistance. James is more scathing about those -- Sartre in particular -- whom he finds self-protective and subsequently arrogant about it. While admiring Sartre's fiction, he despises his philosophy (along with that of Foucault and Derrida) as intended to fuzz reality rather than reveal it. They write " the sentence that spurns the earth because it fears a puncture."

He has particular sympathy, on the other hand -- and does some of his best writing -- with a half-dozen Viennese writers in the 1930 s who gathered in the cafes where their conversations achieved a sublimely scouring brilliance. Most were Jewish, and what with the growing anti-Semitism of neighbors and landlords, " they could feel comfortable only in public. They could feel private only in public."

He laments but does not blame their failure to anticipate the full horror of what was to happen. Arthur Schnitzler and others had thought of anti-Semitism "as a stain on a living culture. The new anti-Semitism à la Hitler was a culture all by itself: a culture of death." Freud at first failed fully to recognize it. "He had banished God and the Devil, and replaced them with a family of contending deities bearing proud Greek names. They were household gods: aided by judicious therapy, they would one way or another always reach an accommodation, in a world where people like his old sisters, even if they were not happy, would die in bed. But the Devil came back. The Devil had never been away."

Some of James's excursions, once he has announced a name, verge on the comically -- or windily -- shameless. His essay on Rilke, for instance, barely mentions him, skipping instead to William Randolph Hearst's mistress Marion Davies and other assorted topics. Having proclaimed Evelyn Waugh the finest English novelist of the century , he limits himself to pointing out a rare grammatical error. More outrageous: His piece on José Saramago virtually ignores his extraordinary novels, confining itself to lambasting him for his quite extra-literary adherence to communism.

With Sir Thomas Browne, on the other hand, James analyzes the cadence of a single line so perfectly as to summon up the whole austere radiance of this master -- father, if you like -- of English prose. And if some of the excursions seem silly, most are at least delightful. I liked a piece about what artists need to surround themselves with. Contrasted with Wagner 's velvet grandiosity, Diaghilev chose the most spartan of furnishings: "Why . . . waste my imagination on myself?"

"Cultural Amnesia," with its encyclopedic length and organization and the intense jostle of its ideas, is not to be read at a sitting. It is to be dipped into over weeks and months. If the dipper occasionally brings up exasperation, it brings up astonished delight far more often; and, best of all, exasperated astonished delight.

Richard Eder reviews books for several publications.