TRAVEL CLIVE JAMES, UNRELIABLE MEMOIRS
What accounts for Unreliable Memoirs being the best memoir in the world? asks the great comic writer PJ O’Rourke, before answering the question himself
The memoir genre has suffered an overgrown 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’.
Clive James is our most celebrated export to have never been a movie star or singer, as much as he tried to be. Nope, he was a Cambridge scholar and a literary critic who just so happened to be the first to take the droll humour of modern Australia to the wider world.
And how did he do this – this man who studied the classics, in Greek and Latin, no
less? Well, he turned his critical eye to the emergence of television in the 1960s, and the frustrated novelist and academic found his niche.
People would wait all week to read his TV columns for his ‘dingo lingo’, and his disdain not for rich or poor, but for those who praise mediocrity.
Week after week he made the Poms laugh into their breakfast bowls due to an honesty they weren’t quite ready for. And he decided a memoir was the perfect place for his humour to be fleshed out in greater detail.
He was the son of a WWII fighter pilot who never returned home, and therein lies the kernel of trauma that drives the young kid to find out who he is, and to work out the odd Australian culture he grew up in.
And it’s funny, not laugh out loud funny, but beer coming out your nose funny, as young Clive moves into the sweep
of a strange world, like a turtle hatchling making its way from the nest to the ocean, commentating as he goes, from sexual misadventure, awkward self-appraisals, broken dreams and broken hearts.
As the Sydney Morning Herald explains: It is a book of embarrassment rather than humiliation.
The reason Unreliable Memoirs just gets funnier and more powerful as the years tick over, is because real honesty and failure have become the last taboo.
Especially with today’s focus being to take photos of one’s self, and to ‘humble brag’ in only the most conceited ways.
Honest self-appraisal and self-deprecation were once the most endearing hallmarks of Clive’s native country. Hopefully we’ll shake off this glitch and get back to being honest about our real lives. Bring on the embarrassment!