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Archive for the ‘biography/autobiography/memoir’ Category

Unreliable Memoirs was first published in 1980 and I read it around that time. It was reissued in 2015, which is perhaps how my book club came across it. Back in the 1980s, it was memorable if for no other reason than that my husband could not read it aloud without almost crying with laughter. So I was very interested to see what I thought after all this time.

The book covers James’s life in Australia from his birth in 1939 to his arrival in England in 1962, that is, his early childhood, school and university years. Brought up mostly in the Sydney working class suburb of Kogarah, he chronicles a list of the sort of small doings, disasters, passions and friendships that make up a young person’s life.  In his introduction to the 2015 reissue of the book, P.J. O’Rourke claims that James ‘by a wild act of exaggeration’ makes his experience universal. ‘He takes the yeast of his memory and plants it in the bread dough of ours’. Yes, James does capture the insecurities of childhood, the friends won and lost, the battle to become independent. But it doesn’t feel at all relevant to my childhood experience – even less so than it did when I read it thirty years ago. And I’m afraid I no longer find much of it funny.

What James aims to do is to lift his experience out of the ordinary and into the realms of legend through humour. His two main techniques are exaggeration and bathos. He does warn us about the exaggeration, making an overstated joke about the whole idea of memoir: ‘Most first novels are disguised autobiographies. This autobiography is a disguised novel’. At the end, he writes: ‘Nothing I have said is factual except the bits that sound like fiction.’ You can find examples of exaggeration like this on just about every page. Testing showed he had a high IQ, so he was sent to a school with an advanced curriculum, where ‘One boy with bifocals would be turning an old washing machine into a particle accelerator’. Instead of turning a forward summersault over him, a large girl drove him into the floor ‘like a tack’. The best swimmer in his school ‘trained about a hundred miles a day’. He is also keen on bathos. When his grandfather dies, James ponders whether he ‘died in a redemptive ecstasy after being vouchsafed a revelation of the ineffable’, but concludes ‘he just croaked’. This descent from the sublime to the ridiculous is carried throughout by James’s comparisons with people and places in Kogarah with writers or characters from high culture as in ‘I suppose if I had been John Stuart Mill’. He compared his liking for The Saturday Evening Post with ‘the way Turgenev felt about the emblem book he wrote of to Bakunin’. The juxtapositions are clever, but seem designed to let his audience know that he isn’t really as ignorant as he presents himself as being. Does the humour work? Not really. I still find the exaggeration and bathos funny sometimes, but more often the humour he draws out of the incidents he describes is that of cruelty and humiliation. Why is it funny to smash up a neighbour’s prized garden? Or disrupt a ballet performance? Or take part in what sounds remarkably like gang rape?

James was brought up by his mother, his father having been killed in a plane crash when being repatriated from a Japanese prisoner of war camp. I can’t help feeling sorry for his long-suffering mother. We do not get a clear picture of her; James doesn’t even tell us she worked in a factory to support them. It’s all about him. Even allowing for the exaggeration, he must have been a difficult child, anxious and needing constant reassurance and a terrible show off. He presents himself as the leader in many of the incidents he describes, but always seems to be courting popularity. As he notes towards the end of the book, ‘excessive conceit and defective self-esteem are often aspects of each other’. It’s true his older self shows some self-awareness; he is ‘too spoilt to profit from disappointment’; he has ‘cocksure ignorance’; and he ‘rather liked the idea of being thought of as a shit – a common conceit among those who don’t realise just how shitty they really are’. He must have had considerable charisma – how else at university did he break so easily into not only the North shore cool set but student intelligentsia as well? But knowing that he played the clown out of insecurity does little to make the self he describes more likeable; his self-assurance seems to have been accompanied by an absence of empathy.

One of the questions I had in re-reading the book is how well James had dealt with sexism. The answer is badly. Of course, growing up in the 1950s, the young James couldn’t be expected to do anything other than accept the norms of his time, where girls were almost without exception seen as sex objects by boys. As well as the gang rape of the ‘town bike’, we get a whole chapter on James’s love affair with his ‘prong’, and the way he transferred his interest from the boy down the road to girls. But might the older James write about this in a way that suggests he thinks differently? No. Take for example ‘the Libertarians freely helped themselves to each other’s girlfriends’. At one level this is a joke about Libertarians and free love. But at another, it reveals James’s sexism; clearly girls couldn’t be Libertarians, merely their appendages. He’s not writing as someone immersed in childhood; his bathetic juxtapositions show that. Writing in the 1980s, he should have known better.

I should also admit that any youthful affection I felt for James has been tarnished by his rejection of climate science in favour of a smart-ass scepticism. According to his Wikipedia page, he identifies as a liberal social democrat, but many of his views are now conservative. It’s hard to know whether he just enjoys swimming against the tide – though which tide is unclear – or whether he has come to share the views of his rich and famous friends. He has made a very successful career by being a very clever clown. However I note that he also has real literary and scholarly achievements to his credit.  It’s worth having a look at his website – http://www.clivejames.com/ – which is his attempt to put ‘a lifetime’s experience as a cultural critic to a new use, and so offer a critical guide, through the next medium, to works of thought and art by other people, and sometimes in other eras. The only criterion for inclusion would be intensity of expression, with the aim of creating, in this latterday Babelic flux we call the web, an island of quality where every word is meant, and every image meaningful.’ Now that he’s dying of chronic lymphoid leukemia, I don’t think he’s trying to be funny anymore.

Here’s a rather different view of James.

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