Like the book, not the man


This month Pocket Bookclub ventured into memoir revisiting the first book by Clive James, Unreliable Memoirs.  It’s an old book now, first published in 1981. I am not sure if its age is a good reason to forgive Clive James.

Reading this book, you will hear James voice in your head. The rhythm of his speech is there in the written word, and there is no doubt he is funny. He’s dry and likes to exaggerate. We shouldn’t take him too seriously, as he says:

“Most first novels are disguised autobiographies. This autobiography is a disguised novel.”

Being raised 1950’s Australia, there is also the joy of nostalgia. Some of the Pocket Bookclub members’ remembered the dunny man and Jaffas in the cinema. At least one of us knows the Sydney he is writing about.

There are a lot of penises in this book. Looking at them, touching them, thinking about them.  Between the pages about penises, I see a privileged white guy who takes that privilege for granted.  For me, the most uncomfortable part of the memoir was not the penises, it was the women. Or lack of them. The only women in the book are mothers and girls Clive wants to have sex with or did have sex with.

Shirley was so passionate that she might have cooperated if one of us had seriously tried to seduce her. But nobody our age had the nerve. It was an older boy from another district who had the priviledge of taking Shirley’s virginity, which must have felt as clean and crisp as the first bite of a sweet apple.


…not even the beautiful, elegantly groomed, ineffably dumb girls from Frensham who had been sent along to acquire some elementary culture before resuming thier inexorable progress towards marriage with a grazier…

Girls only good for marriage.

Thigh stoking could only go on for a short time at one go, although the hand was allowed back again at a decent interval after removal. A really determined assault might have burst through…

Yes, he used the word assault.

Every acceptable girl on the ship was being laid by a crew member before the ship was out of the heads

Hence, a dull trip.

Perhaps I am being unfair. Let’s assume he was writing this in the late 1970’s and he was a boy in the 1950’s, it is a book of its times, right? I just can’t wash the conceited sense of entitlement out of my hair.

Some members did like this book. They enjoyed his humour and the nostalgia. None of us like the man.

4 thoughts on “Like the book, not the man

  1. Haha, Kathryn, “hence a dull trip”. Very good! I haven’t read this. I’ve quite liked James, but I haven’t read his memoir. What would Germaine have said? They went to uni together I think. “Every ACCEPTABLE girl”. I don’t know what to say.

    But you’re right, you can hear his voice here.

    I’m a bit younger than Clive, Germaine, Robert and co. I was a teen in the early 70s, albeit I went to a state school, and marriage was the last thing I thought I was heading for. A good job and an interesting life was my goal – men be damned! (Then again I did read The female eunuch pretty close to when it came out.)

  2. What would Germaine say! I think they had a relationship when he moved to London? I got all of his memoirs in one e-book and I am a little tempted to see the tone of the later ones.

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