Books: Unreliable Memoirs |
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Unreliable Memoirs


1The Kid from Kogarah
2Valley of the Killer Snakes
3Billycart Hill
4The Force of Destruction
5Enter the Flash of Lightning
6Dib, Dib, Dib, Dib
7Eros and the Angel
8The Imitation of Christ
9Milo the Magnificent
10The Sound of Mucus
11A Prong in Peril
12All Dressed Up
13Let Us Rejoice, Therefore
14Basic Training
15Very Well: Alone
16Fidgety Feet
17That He Should Leave His House

“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.”

In the first instalment of Clive James’s memoirs, we meet the young Clive, dressed in short trousers, and wrestling with the demands of school, various relatives and the occasional snake, in the suburbs of post-war Sydney.

First published 1980 by Jonathan Cape.

To Rhoisin and Bruce Beresford
and the getting of wisdom

Andromache led the lamentation of the women, while she held in her hands the head of Hector, her great warrior:

“Husband, you are gone so young from life, and leave me in your home a widow. Our child is still but a little fellow, child of ill-fated parents, you and me. How can he grow up to manhood? Before that, this city shall be overthrown. For you are gone, you who kept watch over it, and kept safe its wives and their little ones ...

“And you have left woe unutterable and mourning to your parents, Hector; but in my heart above all others bitter anguish shall abide. Your hands were not stretched out to me as you lay dying. You spoke to me no living word that I might have pondered as my tears fell night and day.”

— Iliad, xxiv, translated by S. E. Winbolt,
from The Iliad Pocket Book, Constable 1911

Introduction to the 2015 edition

by P J O'Rourke

What accounts for Unreliable Memoirs being the best memoir in the world? And by that I mean no backhand compliment. The memoir genre has suffered an over-grown pullulating decadence of bloom in the 35 years since Clive’s work was published. One need only be bitten by a shark or fondled by a stepdad to unload one’s history upon the reading public. Nowadays to say “best memoir in the world” is almost to say ‘best fart in an elevator’.

But do not blame Clive. His book trails none of the stink of the up-to-date memoir. Especially it has no funk of message — no fetor of “setting goals”, no reek of “courageous persistence”, no effluvium of “self-acceptance”, and none of the fetid compost-heap putrescence of “finding my inner me”.

Nor does Clive ever fall back upon that most pathetic trope of storytellers, “And it really happened.” On the contrary Clive starts his preface to Unreliable Memoirs by saying, “Most first novels are disguised autobiographies. This autobiography is a disguised novel.” Thus Clive becomes, so far as I know, the first honest memoirist. And, so far as I see, the last.

Unreliable Memoirs is written with a mastery of the honest and a down-the-hole understanding of its pitfalls. Honesty comes in various types and the best is exaggeration.

Clive exaggerates to wonderfully honest effect. He sets to work with singular material, a combination of an exceptional young mind, an upbringing in the exotically named town of Kogarah, a pained childhood with his father, a Japanese prisoner of war, surviving only to die in a repatriation plane crash and his mother worn by worry and toil and, finally, tragedy. Then Clive, by a wild act of exaggeration, makes all this universal. He takes the yeast of his memory and plants it in the bread dough of ours.

The motto of other memoirs is “Know Me.” The motto of Unreliable Memoirs is the better version, inscribed on the temple of the Delphic Oracle. Or, I should say, the motto is “Getting to Know Thyself, Slowly” — the inscription at Delphos as written by a man too modest to use the imperative mood.

But not so modest that he’s dull and unrevealing about the nature of “The Kid from Kogarah” both inside: “Having a character that consists mainly of defects ...” And out: “Similarly uncontrollable was my virile organ, which chose the most inconvenient moments to expand. For some reason riding on the top deck of the trolley bus led to a spontaneous show of strength.”

It is a book of embarrassment. Clive in his room lets the neighbourhood fat kid climb on top of the wardrobe to “bed bomb” in a flying belly flop onto Clive’s mattress. “He had ... a behind like a large bag of soil ... The frame of the bed snapped off its supports with the noise of a firing squad ...” The author hides from his mother. “Once again it was very dark under the house.”

Clive at university falls in with bohemian aesthetes. “It was my first, cruel exposure to the awkward fact that the arts attract the insane.”

Anyone who is or has been “getting to know thyself, slowly” blushes with recall of suchlike. Yet, universal as Unreliable Memoirs may be, it is not an Everyman’s Memoir. Instead, this is an Every-Thinking-Person's memoir. It’s a record of the chaos each individual releases into the world at birth. The need for that individual to think is evident in the well-thought-out descriptions of the protagonist’s thoughtless acts, “ ... helping to restore the colour in a faded patch of the lounge-room carpet rubbing a whole tin of Nugget dark tan boot-polish into the deprived area.”

It is a book of embarrassment rather than humiliation. The root meaning of humiliation is to be humbled, ground into dust underfoot. That can’t be done to Clive James by any person; he’d stub his toe on Clive’s works.

And Unreliable Memoirs is full of lessons on how to overcome embarrassment, or impediments. Although I think these lessons leaked out by mistake. Clive means to entertain. But Clive is so profoundly entertaining that you can’t help but learn something by watching his act.

First, read deeply. I’m not sure exactly why. Maybe reading is a way of tying yourself to the mast so that you can hear the siren-song of ordinary life without smashing on the rocks of everyday existence and becoming a journeyman plumber in New South Wales.

More likely, reading thousands of books is a way of being intimate friends with thousands of people, an impracticality in life, particularly when the intimate friends died before you were born.

Everything in print is a personal and confidential confession to the reader and begins with a literal or implied ‘I’. Even the mild first sentence of Unreliable Memoirs — “I was born in 1939.” — is not something you’d tell a stranger on a trolley bus, especially not on the top deck.

I do know Clive has read Evelyn Waugh’s A Little Learning, but more learnedly than the way Waugh wrote it. He’s read H. L. Mencken’s Happy Days, wiping the satisfied smirk off its face. He's read Samuel Butler’s The Way of All Flesh, which is autobiography as thinly disguised as Clive in his brief childhood career as “the Flash of Lightning”. (“You would not have known, when this sinister avatar caught and slipped your startled gaze, that his mask and cape had been made by his mother.”) However, Clive writes a Bildungsroman without any tedious Bildungs.

Clive is the best-read person I’ve ever known. He’s read it all, often in its original language, no matter if the language is as unwonted as Russian or Japanese. Once, before the dawn of Google, I asked Clive for the source of a bit of Ring Lardner dialogue that I wanted to use in a travel article. I couldn’t find the quotation in my, I thought, complete set of Lardner.

The Young Immigrunts,” said Clive, “published in 1920, page 78.” I can’t absolutely swear that Clive said, “page 78.” But there it was.

Clive is a great talker but he’s no mere solo artist. He talks beautifully in duet and ensemble. He does it by listening. Here is Clive listening to his Sunday School teacher: “ ... Mr. Purvis would launch into an attack on beer and Catholicism. He pronounced beer bee-ar. The legionaries who pee-arsed Christ’s side with a spee-ar had undoubtedly been enslaved to bee-ar. A sure sign of Catholicism’s fundamental evil was that it required the drinking of wine even in church, wine being mee-arly another form of bee-ar.”

Be self-conscious. Someone else may be looking at a clear path across the lounge-room carpet to the loo. Clive spies the ice-slick patch of Nugget dark tan boot-polish that’s only a step away.

And fail at most of the things you try. No, fail at all of them. The Victorian critic John Churton Collins said, “The secret of success in life is known only to those who have not succeeded.” And Collins would know. His entry in The Cambridge Guide to Literature in English ends, “Morbidly interested in murder, spiritualism and graveyards, and depressive in temperament, he drowned himself near Lowestoft.”

Clive finds a cheerier message in Collins’ aphorism. Fail at everything anyone has ever done. Then you’ll have to come up with something new that no one has done before or will do again, such as write Unreliable Memoirs.



The London Review Of Books