Review - Unreliable Memoirs, Clive James

Review Written By
Karen Chisholm

In 2015 I wrote a short review of UNRELIABLE MEMOIRS:

Many years ago I remember being given this book for my birthday with the comment "thought you might like this, he's the sort of droll smart-arse commentator that should appeal to you". The presenter of this present knew me well, although I think that they did a massive disservice to Clive James.

The first of a series of books he's subsequently written as memoir there is nobody in these books that James picks on more than himself. He has a wonderful, dry way of commenting on the obvious, of drawing out the reality of the comedy of life.

Everytime I read anything written by Clive James I'm reminded of the beauty of sparsity, of the power of the gaps between the lines. I'm also reminded that this is the first of a series of novels and James could be seen to be holding back a little. Really looking forward to reading the next of the series now.

It's one thing to know that a favourite commentator, reviewer and poet is going to die, the announcement of Clive James' illness coming many years ago now, and yet another to get the news that the inevitable has happened. We lost an intelligent, wry, acerbic, deeply thoughtful person from this earth when he died, in what seems inevitable timing for these things - just when you felt we needed him most.

But it was the ultimate reminder I needed that a good re-read was required, so I went back to UNRELIABLE MEMOIRS and I've been moving slowly through the group of memoir novels, interspersed with dips into some of his poetry, all the while returning to listen to his reading of JAPANESE MAPLE ( Such a poignant poem, sad and reflective, all the while tempered with the knowledge that James did, indeed

Come autumn and its leaves will turn to flame.
What I must do
Is live to see that.That will end the game
For me, though life continues all the same:

And I can't help but think how much he would have reflected on living past the end moment of the tree itself, but I digress.

Re-reading UNRELIABLE MEMOIRS five years on from the beauty of sparsity comments above, what struck me this time was the manner in which James writes audibly. Every scene, every moment of his life is described beautifully, but in a particularly aural manner. From the sound of the click of the lid of the nightsoil man's tin, to those little moments as a kid in the Australian summer, digging a network of tunnels in the backyard, everything about this man's writing is indeed dry, sparse, littered with moments where reflection is invited, peppered with observations that make you cry with laughter. There are quotes aplenty from these books available to those that search. My advice would be to read the books. Read every single one of his books. Re-read them.

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.

Book Number (in series)

'I was born in 1939. The other big event of that year was the outbreak of the Second World War, but for the moment, that did not affect me.' In the first instalment of Clive James's memoirs, we meet the young Clive, dressed in short trousers, and wrestling with the demands of school, various relatives and the occasional snake, in the suburbs of post-war Sydney.

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