• Most American playgoers of my generation only know John Osborne through the excellent films of Look Back in Anger and The Entertainer directed by Tony Richardson a half-century ago. Though the original Angry Young Man enjoyed a brief American vogue—Look Back in Anger and The Entertainer were produced simultaneously on Broadway in 1958—no play by Osborne has been seen on the Great White Way since 1969. I wouldn’t be greatly surprised if the much-praised Old Vic revival of The Entertainer makes it to New York sooner or later, Anglophilia being what it is, but I very much doubt that Osborne’s plays will ever take root in this country, for what (mostly) made him angry was the British class system, about which normal Americans know little and care less. A novelist can overcome that obstacle if he’s sufficiently clever and has other interesting things to say—Kingsley Amis did it—but only the very greatest of playwrights can contrive to embed in a two-hour-long play sufficient background information to make so fundamentally impenetrable a subject intelligible to those who know nothing about it going in. Osborne had his moments, but he wasn’t that good, not even in The Entertainer.
John Heilpern, an expatriate Brit who reviews theater for the New York Observer, has now written an authorized biography, John Osborne: The Many Lives of the Angry Young Man (Knopf, 527 pp., $35), in which he endeavors mightily to prove that Osborne is not only worth remembering but worth performing. I’m not quite sure he succeeds, though his book is lively and readable (if not especially well organized). What he does succeed in doing is leaving the reader in no possible doubt that Osborne was a monstrously difficult man whose gifts, at least in the second half of his life, weren’t impressive enough to justify his bad behavior. Be forewarned, too, that John Osborne wasn’t written for an American audience, meaning that those who don’t already know a pretty fair amount about postwar England are likely to find certain parts of the narrative to be tough sledding. If you’re interested in Osborne, though, you’ll certainly find it worthwhile.
• Clive James, like John Osborne, is not nearly so well known in the United States as in England, and his latest book, Cultural Amnesia: Necessary Memories From History and the Arts (W.W. Norton, 876 pp., $35), is unlikely to change that, partly because it is all but impossible to describe succinctly and partly because James himself is peculiarly resistant to pigeonholing. Not only is he a liberal who despises ideology in all its myriad forms and has a pitch-perfect ear for left-wing humbug—a combination of traits increasingly hard to find on either side of the Atlantic—but he is a spectacularly well-read cultural journalist who writes with witty flair about the most serious of ideas, which makes him an oddity in a po-faced world dominated by pop culture.
As for Cultural Amnesia, it’s a fat volume of short essays about a hundred or so people, most of them 20th-century artists and writers of various kinds. Each essay is a commentary on a well-chosen quotation from its subject, and the essays are arranged alphabetically. The overarching theme of the book is the fate of humanism in what James describes as “an age of extermination, an epoch of the abattoir,” meaning that many of its subjects either ran afoul of Hitler and Stalin or sucked up to them. Most of them are present for obvious reasons, though a few are ringers (I never did figure out why James thought Tony Curtis and Zinka Milanov belonged in a book about the likes of Jean Cocteau, Ludwig Wittgenstein, and Stefan Zweig) and several others are unlikely to be familiar to the average reader (I readily admit to never having previously heard of Egon Friedell or Alfred Polgar, though reading Cultural Amnesia made me want to know much more about them).
All this is part of the deliberately eccentric, wonderfully unpredictable charm of Cultural Amnesia, which is a cross between a philosophical dictionary and a bedside book for eggheads. Most of it is full of good hard common sense: I can’t imagine better short discussions of such widely varied figures as Raymond Aron, F. Scott Fitzgerald, or Jean-Paul Sartre, to name only a few of the people in whom James takes an interest. He is especially good on bad guys, for he writes with a razor and has an uncanny knack for summing up a lifetime of intellectual vice in one or two devastating sentences: “In the long view of history, [Bertolt] Brecht’s fame as a creep will prevail, as it ought to. An unblushing apologist for organized frightfulness against the common people whose welfare he claimed to prize above his own, he was really no nicer than Sir Oswald Mosley, and a lot more dangerous.” I don’t know when I’ve read a more quotable book, or a more stimulating one.