RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
Long before some best-selling memoirs were unmasked as heavily embellished fictions, the writer Clive James embraced the concept.
In the preface to his first memoir, written 30 years ago, he proclaimed most first novels are disguised autobiographies. This autobiography is a disguised novel. Clive James was and still is among London's best known wits, dashing off literary criticism and satirical verse, writing novels and appearing on TV. And now his autobiography, "Unreliable Memoirs" has been re-released in America.
Fueled by a deep appreciation for the absurd, he recounts his youth in an unpromising post-war suburb of Sydney, Australia. It's a boy's life filled with death-defying escapades, first loves, self-abuse, and the casual cruelty of children. Among his many hair-raising adventures: engineering a line of go-carts down a surprisingly steep hill into an angry woman's flower garden.
Mr. CLIVE JAMES (Author): And the way I wrote all this down, it's got the action and the timing of a Tom and Jerry cartoon. In real life it's not quite like that, so you could say the events are edited for action.
MONTAGNE: Still, Clive James' story is rooted in a tragedy. At the end of World War II, after surviving years in a Japanese war camp, when his family thought he was finally safe, Clive James' father was killed when the plane carrying him home crashed.
Mr. JAMES: That was the cruelty of it, was my mother had waited all that time, then she'd received notification he was alive after all, then all that was taken away from her when the plane crashed on the way back.
But I didn't know any of that. You know, five-year-old boys know nothing, and I just didn't know what was going on. I just knew that my mother was unhappy, and that's always unsettling.
MONTAGNE: Well, as it turns out, she was in some senses unprepared to be - to take you on as a project.
Mr. JAMES: It's quite remarkable that I did not become first a delinquent, then a felon, and then a prisoner, because I had absolutely no qualifications for ordinary life, except luckily I had a certain gift for the English language, a knack. But without that I would have been a real problem.
MONTAGNE: You start out with a propensity to have near-death experiences.
Mr. JAMES: Yes, for example, if there was a broken milk bottle somewhere in the area, I would find it with my foot. It was just uncanny. And I was always coming home or more often being brought home bleeding. And my mother spent a lot of time just repairing me.
MONTAGNE: Your mother did make you a little superhero costume at one point.
Mr. JAMES: I was a big fan of the movie serials. We used to go to the movies every Saturday, all my bunch of kids, and you'd see 16 cartoons and about half a dozen different episodes from different serials, "The Lost City of the Jungle," "Batman." I wanted to be one of these people, superheroes.
And I invented a character of myself called the Flash of Lightning, and in this outfit when dusk fell, only after dark, I would suddenly appear silhouetted against the stars on the back fence, ready for my progress from yard to yard along street. But I almost killed myself then too, 'cause I was coming home one night, quite late, and climbing our back fence, and I slipped and fell and the little piece of rope that held my cape around my neck caught in the top paling of the fence and I was hanging there strangling. And that would have been the end of me if the rope hadn't broken and I hadn't fallen straight into the cabbage patch.
But that was the biggest adventure the Flash of Lightning ever had. He hung up his cape after that. But he's still in my mind. I'm still him in a way.
MONTAGNE: There's also a moment when you're a young adolescent - you describe yourself as a kid who hasn't matured as fast as the other boys around you, who loves girls but, you know, they don't even glance your way because you're going to be one that doesn't shoot up.
Mr. JAMES: No, I never did shoot up. No, I inched up.
MONTAGNE: Well, you got there eventually…
Mr. JAMES: Yeah, but it's a very, very typical scene for someone my age in that position, 13 or 14, when you're actually envious of kids whose faces are weeping with acne because your face isn't, you know.
But, no, I tried to put in all the weaknesses and indeed the horrors of being a little boy. There are very few memoirs that confess to the terrible games that little boys get up to, especially when they're together and in competition. I tried to put all that in.
I had noticed that one of my favorite writers about childhood, an American, Booth Tarkington, the young boy goes out on adventures too, and he's the terror of the neighborhood and so on, but he's very, very clean.
It's basically sanitized, and I didn't want my book to be that. I wanted to bring in the realities. Little boys are disgusting little people. They should be avoided if possible or disciplined harshly.
MONTAGNE: One thing you found, and it served you, as it turns out, all of your life, which is you figured out and had a knack for it, very young, as a young adolescent, that you could entertain people.
Mr. JAMES: Telling stories was crucial to my existence and indeed to my survival. I was actually the kind of boy who was born to be picked on. I was snotty and know-it-all and I was ganged up on and chased and ragged until I hit on the scheme, when I was being chased, of suddenly sitting down and organizing a discussion group and telling stories.
And I would tell very tall stories. I told stories about my wartime service. Strangely enough, I was always fighting with Rommel in the Africa Corps, 'cause the wrong side seemed more glamorous.
They were real fictions, the stories I told. But as long as I could keep the audience entertained, they wouldn't attack me. And I supposed that basic impulse worked with me all the way through show business.
MONTAGNE: Just to circle back in a way to the person who loomed quite large in your life, is your mom…
Mr. JAMES: Ah, yes.
MONTAGNE: …and she was, by your description - hopefully not entirely accurate -your mother was long-suffering.
Mr. JAMES: She had a lot to put up with from my behavior and also from history, from circumstances. It was a cruel deprivation, my father being taken from her when she thought that he was safe. And life was hard, and she was very, very diligent, very honest.
She had all the moral qualities and she was always there, but she didn't really quite understand what I did next, because neither did I. The fact that I would go on from school to university and become some kind of artist or writer, all that was quite strange to her. She didn't have that kind of background. So she didn't really get what I was going to do next.
And that went on like that all my life, and finally when Sydney University gave me an honorary doctorate almost the last year of her life, and I got her brought in from the nursing home in a limousine and she was there in the hall along with all the graduates, and finally I walked towards her, magnificently in my ermine(ph) cap and my flowing robes, the Flash of Lightning rides again, you know?
And the look in her eyes, I knew exactly what she was thinking. She was thinking, at last he's got his qualifications. He's safe.
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MONTAGNE: Thank you very much for joining us.
Mr. JAMES: Oh, you're too kind.
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MONTAGNE: And you can read an excerpt of Clive James' "Unreliable Memoirs" at our Web site, npr.org.