Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Craft: Jokes, jokes, jokes: Clive James #4 - travel memoir

"As an Australian expatriate I had grown used to the fabled English sense of humour but preferred to steer clear of it when possible, for fear of laughing too hard." (16)

This uncharacteristically blunt sarcasm comes at the close of paragraph 2 of May Week Was In June, the last in Clives James' memoir trilogy. By the same point in the story, James has established in very thorough fashion that, on the day he arrived in Cambridge, it was foggy:

  • "I could see nothing except a cold white October mist."
  • "For all I knew, Cambridge was receiving me with open arms."
  • "The white opacity came all the way to my eyeballs."
  • "I couldn't see the station and I could barely see the suitcase."
  • "I had to climb the memorial to find out what the direction was."
  • "At first she snarled at me, perhaps because I had located her partly by touch."

That is, roughly three gags about the fog per paragraph. And it continues in paragraph three:
  • "I found, by stepping into it, a gutter the size of a small canal."
  • "...to check the texture of the building with my carefully extended right hand."

The travel memoir, or at least the travel memoir in which the memoir bit dominates, relies less on exposition and description than on personality and personal impressions, with all the irony you can throw at them: the genre presents a narrative first and culture in slow second, with the first person point of view not only carrying your character but the character of the work as a whole.

The second set of jokes centres on Abramovitz, James' neighbour in college, who:
  • "...appeared suddenly beside me with a silence made possible by monogrammed leather slippers."
  • "At least five years younger than I, Abramovitz carried on as if he were fifty years older."
  • "I asked him if he was going to be Prime Minister."

Then, dinner:
  • "The [food] proved only useful as a discussion point. The entrée wasn't tender enough to be a paving stone and the gravy couldn't have been primordial soup because morphogenesis had already taken place."

The students/social gatherings:
  • "Five minutes after shaking hands with [the Tutor] I found myself left alone with an Iranian biochemist whose name sounded like a fly trapped against a window."
  • "It struck me on the spot that if the English had spent their lives preparing to fit into one of these places, then the only smart thing to do was not to bother about fitting in at all, and I can honestly say that from that moment on I never wasted any time trying."
  • Of Delmer Dynamo: "His pear-shaped head, I could now see, was situated on top of a pear-shaped body, which his black gown caused him to resembles a piece of fruit going to a funeral."

And on it goes. (We are only up to the fifth page of the memoir.)

Of course it works, but if you can write like this - that is, with wit/a pen dipped in vitriol - note also that it works in memoir in a way that won't necessarily work in travel writing. Even in memoir, you have to be able to keep it up, and pace it evenly. (The moment sharp wit loses its energy, the personality behind it loses its hold on the reader, because we glimpse the hands that are holding the jokes together. And, at that point, we stop laughing and start pointing back.) But in James' travel writing, the wit comes as part of a broader range of interests, and his narrative and point of view are used in ways that often merely enliven rather than structure the content.