Unreliable Memoirs

On the whole I find memoir a tricky genre to read and interpret. Any memoir seems to be at the mercy of two elements it seems to me – the memory of the author and how they select, reflect and analyse said memories. Whether the event’s of one’s past can be looked at with honesty and self-reflection, without falling into pity or an unwillingness to admit to mistakes.

Clive James wrote the first volume of his memoirs, which shares the title of this post, when he was coming up for his 40th birthday. Which was interesting for me as I am at a similar age, and I can safely say my memory is shocking. I have very little recollection of my early childhood and some of the memories beyond that are almost seen through smoke, so hazy are they.  And non-linear, too.  I would find it impossible to piece together everything into a coherent and threaded narrative.  So writing memoir is fraught with danger from the start – how reliable is the memory? And what does it reveal about the person in question?

James concentrates on his early childhood in Sydney, up to leaving for England in his early 20s. He plays with the idea of honesty throughout – one of the book’s much quoted lines is ‘Nothing I have said is factual except the bits that sound like fiction.’ So you may ask, well what’s the point? If you don’t know what to believe in the book, is it all a waste of time? And the nagging point that lies underneath is whether you feel vaguely manipulated by it.  All worthy questions, and this formed the basis of the discussion during my latest visit to my sister’s book club in Germany. I didn’t feel as strongly about this as others, but I did think that the embellishment of some scenes did render the tone of the book as somewhat uneven. There was an awful lot of stuff about sex that proved a little grating (there are only so many masturbation stories you can hear before it gets wearing) but I can’t deny it didn’t make me laugh out loud on occasion, so if the impact is profound I can’t say it mattered to me too much whether the set-up was true, partly true or a figment of James’s imagination.

James became somewhat of a TV treasure in this country during the 80s and 90s, and I remember his droll sense of humour when discussing the weeks TV or in his travelogue programmes. So it was interesting to see where his love of literature came from (mostly self-read, he eschewed traditional education by never attending classes) and some of the university magazine stuff was great fun. I would have liked on his relationship with his mother, which lacked detail, (other than his attitude towards her was selfish and cavalier), but this stuff may be explored in further volumes, which I have yet to read. I may go ahead and do so, as I figure the later years will be of more interest.

So there was a bit more meat to dig our teeth into than I thought after reading the book. But despite the belly laughs,  I felt a bit exasperated by its slipperiness, and frustrated that I could never quite get a handle on the boy presented within its pages.

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