Saturday, July 30, 2011

James - Unreliable Memoirs

Unreliable Memoirs: Always Unreliable, Clive James, Picador, 1980.

This first book of James' memoirs covers his childhood and first go at University.

James calls his memoir 'unreliable', right in the title. James is telling the reader that this is a fictive memoir, a recollection of actual events and people but combined with fiction. True stories may be exaggerated or expanded upon with fiction elements, some tales may be invented, depictions of people may be acurate or partially or entirely fiction. It is assumed though, that even with a generous dose of fiction, the essence, the main body of the tale, gives a genuine insight into the life and character of the person writing the memoir. In fact, the use of fiction is meant not to obfuscate the past, but to help reveal it by providing detail, a focus, a contrast.

Most of the book concerns James'childhood in Australia in the fourties and fifties. Tale after tale recounts James' adventures as a child. They are largley comic, and no doubt exaggerated versions of real events. Many of the stories depict James behaving badly. At times funny, at times irritating, but always readable. The reader continues turning pages to see what happens next even while cursing James the child for being a nasty little shit.

According to these memoirs, James was an unusually self aware child. James tells us that he frequently made deliberate calculations in behavior to ensure acceptance at school. For example, when almost labelled as a 'brain' or even worse, a 'teacher's pet', he set fire to his desk to provoke a beating from the school disciplinarian and thereby ensure his acceptance as one of the bad kids. Other similar calculations follow. In his last years of school, he observed that he was now one of the smaller kids instead of one of the largest. Therefore he reionvented his persona, changing his behaviour from bad kid to class clown, and by making others laugh avoided being bullied.

There is much humor in this book, some of which has not aged well, but that is often the case with humor. There is also pathos in this book, and moments of reflection, and constant apologies from James for being such a rotten kid. He writes that he knew better even then, but did not change his behavior. But he would improve eventually, years later, he assures the reader.

Another interesting characteristic is that of false modesty. James makes a point of telling us his very high IQ score, then self-deprecatingly states that it means nothing. Yet he did make a point of telling us.

The final section of Unreliable Memoirs tells of James' first crack at University. Though the smallest section it is the most interesting. Here we meet characters more realized than the shadowy companions of his childhood. We witness James' attraction to the avant-garde, and to literature and the literary life, all presented in a sequence of amusing tales. He tells of his early love of books, of the counter-culture as it was in the fifites, of his early writing, of his freinds and schoolmates. James writes once or twice that he had few freinds, yet he never lacks for company. Perhaps 'few', like 'some', is a relative term to be taken relatively. All through his schooling James insists he neglected his studies, yet he always has high marks. In University he also neglects his reading, his work, his classes, yet he manages a degree.

Following his degree James quickly finds work at a newspaper. He seems to take to it well. But he abruptly decides that England is the place to be so he loads up his trunk and heads across the sea. He says goodbye to his girlfreind (who along with others reapears in later sequels to this memoir) and boards ship headed for England, circa early 1960's. The bad behavior toward other people and things continues during his University years right to the memoirs end, but, James insists, his behaviur improved, eventually.

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