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Embracing A Fictionalized Memoir, 30 Years Later

Long before some best-selling memoirs were unmasked as heavily embellished fictions, the writer Clive James embraced the concept.

James was, and still is, among London's best known wits — dashing off literary criticism and satirical verse, writing novels and appearing on TV. 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."

And now, his Unreliable Memoirs has been rereleased in America.

Fueled by a deep appreciation for the absurd, James recounts his youth in an unpromising postwar suburb of Sydney. It's a boy's life filled with death-defying escapades, first love, self-abuse and the casual cruelty of children.

That action and humor sustain the memoir, but James' story is rooted in a tragedy.

At the end of World War II, after surviving years in a Japanese war camp, James' father was killed when the plane carrying him home crashed.

James tells NPR's Renee Montagne that his mother was not prepared to take on 5-year-old James by herself. "It's quite remarkable that I did not become first a delinquent, then a felon and then a prisoner. ... Luckily, I had a certain gift for the English language, a knack, but without that I would have been a real problem."

James was smaller than the other boys, and it was his ability to tell a story in a pinch that helped him survive, he says. "As long as I could keep the audience entertained, they wouldn't attack me, and I supposed that basic impulse worked with me all through show business."

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