If fame seems a slightly inauspicious topic for an essay or book of essays, it is even more so for what sometimes seems like a group of essays cut down to caption size and blurred together as a companion to a PBS series on the subject. Yet Clive James has made the best of a bad situation by getting off as many witty or merely amusing remarks as he can throughout his summary of 20th-century celebrity.
And celebrity is what the book is really about, not fame. After all, a book that gives more space to Madonna than to Einstein and lots of comment on numerous Hollywood stars is, one must conclude, about celebrity. Indeed, it reads at times like an annual encapsulated highlights of People.
Those who might regard the cult of celebrity as one of the scourges of modern life certainly won't find much solace here; celebrity is all but worshiped, and certainly admired as a worthy end for which to strive.
The book begins with a reprise of people whose fame could be said, I suppose, to elevate them to the level of 20th-century celebrity, but who lived earlier -- the likes of Jesus Christ, Julius Caesar, Cheops and Alexander the Great. This is perhaps the most odd section of "Fame." For these people all lived before the celebrity machine called Hollywood, and the book's attempts to account for their fame without it is strangely deficient. Indeed, this attempt to superimpose Hollywood values on the ancient concept of fame just doesn't work, and it is something of a relief when Clive James moves on to more recent times.
"Fame" does get off some very humorous lines. Apropos Elvis Presley, Mr. James remarks that "Music and movies had made a Memphis bumpkin into a planetary presence as inescapable as carbon dioxide." Of the punk-rock musician Johnny Rotten, he writes: "He sank back into the obscurity from which he had never really emerged, leaving the world with a suggestive example of what fame could do if it was cleverly enough manipulated: operate without people."
But in general this book is devoted to summarizing, as briefly as possible, the careers, love lives, exploits and failings of TV and film stars. Inevitably, some political people make their appearance -- mainly those of whom it could be said that they achieved celebrity status -- and it is here that one finds "Fame's" most notable failing.
Nowhere are the limitations of the author's point of view more apparent than when he turns his attention to Hitler and Stalin. His discussion of the tragedy of the 20th century, of events that make ours very possibly the worst in human history in terms of human misery, is so trite as to render the events themselves less significant than soap opera.
There is a tendency in this book, perhaps understandable, always to exonerate the celebrity, as if he or she can do no wrong. In discussing Frank Sinatra's performances during World War II and the noisy enthusiasm of his female fans, Mr. James remarks that the singer should not be blamed for the fact that his fans went crazy about him -- as if he had nothing to do with it, and as if this wasn't very close to the effect he wanted anyway.
Mr. James makes similar remarks about other celebrities, thus creating an impression of wounded innocence, as if the last thing in the world these people ever wanted was the wild adulation accorded stardom.
Fortunately, this book gets better when covering some of its least appealing subjects -- and there are many. Mr. James has several acid remarks on the subject of Aristotle Onassis, as in his famous lack of discretion regarding an affair with Eva Peron and the manner in which it began -- minutes after their first meeting. He is sometimes scathingly sarcastic in his treatment of Hitler, and also shows a certain skepticism regarding Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan.
But he is somewhat weaker on figures of truly heroic stature, such as Winston Churchill. Besides being rather flip about him, Mr. James also states that one of the reasons people trusted Churchill during the war was that "They knew that only a role player could inspire." This, however, seems quite inadequate as an explanation, and the remark is more evidence of the constant straining in this book to interject what really amounts to a rather shallow concept -- celebrity -- into every historical observation.
Luckily, much of this is redeemed at the end by deceptively simple remarks, which really add up to a theory of fame -- remarks to the effect that ordinary life, more difficult and better, is what is most important anyway. Had they appeared sooner, they would have cast much of the book in a different light. I wish they had been placed at the beginning.
Author: Clive James
Publisher: Random House
Length, price: 256 pages, $27