Book review: Always Unreliable

Always Unreliable.Always Unreliable by Clive James.
My rating: 5 of 5 stars.

After Clive James died, I figured it was time for me to read his autobiographical sometimes-fiction Unreliable Memoirs collection. Here, there’s three books under one title, which is bad news for my Goodreads challenge numbers but pretty good in terms of entertaining stories per book.

It can safely be assumed that any writer who gives you a record of his own life is nuts about himself.

It’s a little strange to refer to these works as autobiographical when almost all of James’s work features a certain level of autobiography. His travel writing, his television reviewing, his poetry – all these things feature a level of personal revelation and engagement, because in all his work James presents places and experiences through the lens of himself.Where this collection differs however is that there’s elements that have been fictionalised. Not changed, not exactly – but maybe one character stands in for a number of others. Stuff has been buffed in order to be more palatable. As the author says in the introduction, while most first novels are disguised autobiographies, this autobiography is a disguised novel.

Unreliable Memoirs, the first of the three books here, was first published in 1979 and was one of those books I remember hanging about home when I grew up. Not so much because James was a big cheese overseas in the days when that was a remarkable achievement (though that was true) but because his book captured something of the wildness of growing up in the 1950s.

Part of the appeal of this book is that while my parents could look at it and see parts of their experience reflected, I could read it and see parts of mine too. The movie-trip lollies, the heat of the summer. The carelessness with which children treat their parents, and the desperation with which they want their peers to like them. It’s all in there. And fuck it, it’s nice to go back sometimes, to feel that twin pull of delight and pain that come from regarding the past; a place we can never again reach except through the window of memory.

The first book contains a huge amount of possibility. As we transfer into secondary education and university life – a lot of the descriptions of Sydney University hadn’t changed from James’s stint to mine – the drive to do something, largely because James is thrust into a world he’d never expected to be in, becomes apparent. What will it be? Fuck knows. But the temptations of opportunities is enormous.

The following two books, Falling Towards England and May Week Was In June cover the author’s journey to England, to a series of catastrophic jobs and even worse flats, but also to his discovery of Europe, of culture, and of university life with the Footlights crew. Poet, writer, man-about-campus. Hanger-out with Germaine Greer, Eric Idle and such. They’re not as immediately engaging as the initial book, but there’s enough here to keep anyone with an interest in 1960s culture on board.

(I learned a lot more about the author’s wanking and vomiting habits than I ever needed to know, though. And, a fair bit about how to treat your girlfriend horribly.)

I’ve seen a fair few comments that indicate that James is full of himself. I don’t know that this is anything near a surprise, though: it’s pretty obvious throughout the text that the author has a pretty good regard for his own learning. However, it’s a bit much to suggest that he’s unaware of how he comes over. He’s someone who went to university thanks to a grant due to a father killed in WW2, rather than by dint of his own intellect: the twin motivations of impostor syndrome and the infectiousness of learning are never far away.

Having a character that consists mainly of defects, I try to correct them one by one, but there are limits to the altitude that can be attained by hauling on one’s own bootstraps.

Much like Morrissey’s autobiography, James’s writings are full of perilously small self-regard. This seems at odds with his boorish, seemingly confident (and yes, of-the-time to a certain extent, though this excuses none of his romantic shitbaggery) behaviour, but extraverts are often the most self-lacerating. You could heap shit on the guy, but it’s fairly clear that throughout – particularly in the writings bookending this collection of works – that he is exactly aware of all his failings, and of the horrors his younger self visited on others. The thing that came across for me was an almost neurotic self-criticism, a consistent playing-down of any attractiveness, and an increasing of his faults. Indeed, this was James’s stock-in-trade – for very few of his TV audience can he ever be remembered as something other than a wildly grinning, sometimes sweating bald fat bloke who seems to struggle against laughing at his own jokes.

I rather liked the idea of being thought of as a shit – a common conceit among those who don’t realize just how shitty they really are … Excessive conceit and deficient self-esteem are often aspects of each other.

And yet there’s the turn of phrase. That wonderful turn of phrase. Honed by an omnivorous consumption of everything except the texts his university courses required him to read. The sort of wit developed to combat shyness, sharpened by a finishing of travel and languages learned through painstaking word-level reads of books in the original. The sort of wryness that, when it strikes home, makes a point the more personal because the reader feels something. The sense of a being in the making. One can be a prick – and at various points, James is one (and would not argue with the nomenclature) – and still write wonderfully. Hell, throw a rock and hit a poet.

Rilke used to say that no poet would mind going to gaol, since he would at least have time to explore the treasure house of his memory. In many respects Rilke was a prick.

In the end, if you’re familiar with James and find his writing engaging, you’ll be into this. If you’re Australian, or are interested in that whole Push group that shunted off overseas to make their names – Humphries, Greer, Hughes et al – then there’ll be something in here for you. For me, a fellow arts grad with a self-esteem problem decades in the making, I found a great – though not untroubling – read from someone who felt a bit like a kindred spirit, in some respects. But what kept me there was the voice. When a writer strikes upon the most apt phrase, there’s fewer things more delightful, and James hits the target a lot more than most.

My Goodreads profile is here.

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