This is a small thing I wrote for a series that never happened called Books That Made Me on the Literature pages of The Bubble.
The Rings of Saturn – W.G. Sebald
Cultural Amnesia – Clive James
These books, one of essays on historical figures and ideologies, the other a strange ‘prose-fiction’ on the experience of walking the coast of East Anglia, have in common the interpenetration of cultural awareness with daily life: both probe the material from which you form a life, its breadth and depth and essential ambiguity. Where they differ is in their manner of approaching the dangers and tragedies of history.
Sebald’s view of history is symptomatic of depression: other lives stand in an allusive and elusive relationship to the narrator’s disintegrating character. The fluent, meandering style evokes the heaviness at the centre of life: the weight of history, of self, of purpose. Proustian in that impressions strain with deeper meanings that cannot be resisted, Sebald’s is a poetic, arduous, potentially devastating experience.
More positively, James’ robust liberal humanist writing rescues individuals from oblivion. His breadth is astonishing: from Anna Akhmatova to Stefan Zweig via Chaplin and Thatcher, James embodies and urges a concern for sincerity in human affairs. Within the contingency of cultural amnesia lies a richness of thought that reveals the consolations and pitfalls of culture.
James and Sebald challenge us, ‘So much has gone before, what could possibly come next?’