This is a big book, in lots of ways. Big physically (mine is an ex-libary hardback which had, sadly, never been borrowed), running to 900 pages; big intellectually, covering as it does almost every aspect of high-end culture in the West over the last 60 years; and big emotionally, as it is the author’s gaze backwards at his work and times and it is, therefore, rueful and elegaic.
it is a series of essays, ostensibly each about a notable person but, in fact, much more varied than that. They are arranged aphabetically, from Anna Akhmatova to, the perfect end point, Stefan Zweig. There is a preponderance of European thinkers and writers and a constant reference back to the horrors of the 20th century and what they mean, and should mean, for all of us.
It would be easy to assume that this is some sort of self indulgent assembly of past notebooks but it is much more than that. In the introduction, James explains the fragmented and slightly serendipitous format but there are some themes that permeate this amazingly wide-ranging work.
Chief among them is, probably, the effects of 20th century totalitarianisms on intellectual and cultural life. Many of these issues touch on the relationship between sheer bloody-minded horror, perpetrated by zealots who have lost their humanity, and intellectual integrity. He gives a hard time to Jean-Paul Sartre, for example, whom he sees as a poseur never able to confront reality.
Another theme is reading in different languages. James reads in Spanish, German, French and Italian, as well as English. He basically advises us to give it a go, with a dictionary, and that you soon get the hang of it. This all looks bewildering, or at least it does to me. But in his conclusion, he confirms what he claims we should already have realised, that this is really a patchwork of reading rather than a maintained abiliity to do it all the time.
I commend this book. Brilliant for dipping into.