Saturday, 24 November 2018

Clive James -- Unreliable Memoirs

Clive James has in recent years been serialising his struggles with leukaemia in a series he calls ‘Reports of My Death’, which such headlines as ‘My new wheelchair is a thing of beauty and precision’. This is Clive James to a T: beautiful phrasing, unending humour, and the temerity to put himself at the centre of every phase of his life, and assume that interest will follow. It does, because his sentences are that good. The Preface of Unreliable Memoirs, for example, opens with this beautifully balanced pair: ‘Most first novels are disguised autobiographies. This autobiography is a disguised novel’ (1). The first chapter, ‘The Kid from Kogarah’ introduces the voice of the main character in this novel, the egotistical man writing the memoir: ‘I was born in 1939. The other big event of that year was the outbreak of the Second World War, but for the moment that did not affect me’ (3).
See the source imageWhat follows in this first book of James’ memoirs (there were three initially, and two more in recent years) is the story of his growing up in Sydney, his experience at school and university, his long-suffering mother, early love affairs, national service, and departure for England. Here is James describing his first days at Sydney University, as a ‘man of the world’:
‘I had turned up in my school blazer, but in order to indicate that I was a man of parts I had pinned my Presbyterian Fellowship badge to the lapel, alongside the Boy’s Brigade badge in my buttonhole. A brown briefcase contained sandwiches. My haircut looked like an aircraft carrier for flies’ (130).
The style in uniquely James, and the book therefore reads like one extended newspaper column of cleverness and self-deprecating humour. I loved his description of his first sexual encounter, for example, which ends by undermining the integrity of the tale: ‘Lilith Talbot is among my fondest memories. And you can stop thinking that she’s a figment of my imagination. Of course she is’ (156).
For many writers, quoting lines like these would put the reader in danger of finding that the reviewer has picked out the best lines and the book is therefore a disappointment (like watching a film trailer that is literally funnier than the film itself). In Clive James’ hands, however, there is much more than this to enjoy. Some of the attitudes may have dated and there is at least one squeamish scene involving a young woman and a lot of randy boys – but, in the main, the story of growing up in Sydney in the 1950s is done very well and the book is a joy to revisit. The last few pages representing the 40 year-old remembering his youth could be clich├ęd but manage poignancy; the portrait of his mother on the quay as he sails away forever is a lesson in dignified restraint for one so ordinarily extravagant. So there it is: Unreliable Memoirs – a thing of beauty and precision.

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