Unreliable Memoirs by Clive James


This one I read on the kindle and and loved being able to make notes at particular spots in the book.

I was not familiar with Clive James’ work, but was vaguely aware of the name when I heard him interviewed this summer about  his 1979 memoir that has long been loved in England where he lives and Sydney, where he grew up.  It was not popular when it came out in the U.S thirty years ago, but it’s come out again.  He is a literary critic, poet and novelist and has written in The New Yorker and other US publications.

It is “unreliable” in that he says it is full of exaggerations, but the emotions are exact.  And certainly it is unvarnished; he doesn’t try to put himself in the best light.

This is about childhood and coming of age in 1950s Sydney told in a style that makes you laugh out loud.  One page gave me two new words for penis (tonk and tossle) in describing an early teenage game resulting in injuries caused by running full tilt into a barbed wire fence at night.  Ouch.

When he began university studies, he learned how out of date he was and right away bought shoes called “brothel creepers.”  These had very long toes and he says, “it was hard to climb stairs in them without turning sideway, so my arrival in the office proper was somewhat crab-like.”

In one class, the Catholic girls would cross themselves whenever evolution was mentioned.  “Watching one especially pretty Catholic girl called Noeleen Syms thus delicately caressing her own breasts, I sucked so thoughtfully on my biro that I was favoured with a sudden, solid mouthfull of black ink.  For the next week I had lips like a silent movie star and teeth like the Mikado.”

He describes himself as a terrible student at the high school and college levels.  He must have done some studying since then, as the literary references abound.

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