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The Remake by Clive James: A book that proves if you you're still laughing, you'll live

Culture comforts: In a new weekly series, Irish Independent writers share the books, films, and songs that they turn to in troubled times. This week, Features Editor Liz Kearney on the Clive James novel The Remake.

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Clive James. Photo: Jeff Overs/BBC News & Current Affairs via Getty Images

Clive James. Photo: Jeff Overs/BBC News & Current Affairs via Getty Images

Clive James. Photo: Jeff Overs/BBC News & Current Affairs via Getty Images

In the summer of 1996, my parents decided that it would be a good idea if I spent a month with a French family, in the hope I'd have an outside chance of passing my Leaving Cert paper the following year.

At 17, I couldn't think of anything I wanted to do less than spend four weeks in a faraway land, separated from my friends, who were busy planning a long summer of endless partying and general high jinks.

But we reached a quid pro quo - if I agreed to the French sojourn in July, I could go on holidays to Magaluf with my best friend in August. So a homestay in the Medoc was duly arranged. How bad can it be, reasoned my dad? You're going to the home of the world's most famous wines!

This was meaningless, as teenage me would have opted for a pink grapefruit-flavoured Woodies over a Chateau Margaux any day. And anyway, it wasn't a vineyard I was headed to, but a chicken farm.

The tone was set when I got off the plane at Poitiers and was greeted by a totally empty arrivals hall. Eventually, after nearly three hours, flustered-looking madame rushed through the door, explaining that she'd got lost. She was a petite, pleasant person, with a terrible sense of direction, so we duly got lost again on the way back home, with the result that the thirty-mile journey in her battered white Renault took us several hours.

Far from being a rustic French idyll, the farm, when we eventually arrived, was depressingly parched-looking in the midsummer heat. And all the time I was there, I never saw any actual chickens, though everyone talked about them incessantly, as though we were on a phantom poultry farm.

The family were kind, but soon grew tired of my increasingly desperate attempts to communicate with them in strangled Franglais. After a day or two, the two smaller children, a little boy and girl, were dispatched to summer camp, leaving me behind with the perpetually pouting teenage daughter, Virginie, who was a year younger than me, and a dead ringer for Kate Moss.

Virginie had far more interest in her French boyfriend, a local surfing instructor with sun-kissed blond hair and biceps like an action hero, than in the Irish girl who'd been parachuted on to her farm to ruin her summer. To be honest, I didn't blame her.

Every morning, madame would drop us off at the beach nearby and Virginie would hook up with the boyfriend and an assortment of other gloriously tanned, usually topless French teenagers who would spend the rest of the day smoking, swimming and snogging one another, while blaring Silverchair records on their ghetto blasters.

They were all preposterously good-looking and cool. By contrast, I felt like a Moomin, white-faced, pasty and over-sized, with no means of communicating other than with occasional grunts.

I did my best to join in the group conversation, but after 20 minutes of fierce concentration, I'd lose the thread of it and invariably end up with a headache.

Thankfully, I had a book to retreat to, a hardback edition of Clive James' The Remake, which I'd borrowed from the local library back home. In the 90s, James was mainly famous for his newspaper columns and his TV programmes, but I'd loved his autobiography, Unreliable Memoirs, about growing up in Sydney and had picked up his novel with interest.

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The Remake is not what anyone would describe as a great work of literary fiction - James himself admitted that no one read it - and neither is the plot especially memorable: it centres around a down-on-his-luck academic being kicked out of home and going to stay with his far more successful friend, and the various romantic entanglements that ensue.

But the plot wasn't the point. The point was that the story was riotously funny. It was packed full of gags and one-liners that made me howl with laughter in exactly the way that I would laugh with my friends back in Ireland.

It was a strange feeling to be surrounded by teenagers and not be able to share a joke with any of them, and I realised with a pang that was what I was missing most about my friends at home. I wrote them long letters filled with homesickness and boredom. On one particularly bad day, when I'd finally tired of Virginie's endless pouting, I nicked her bicycle and cycled off into the woods with only Clive James for company. I spent the day reading and wandering and counting the days til I was home again.

There was one problem. When I got to the end of the novel, I realised I'd only brought the one book with me. The local library in the village, unsurprisingly, had only French books in it and my French, also unsurprisingly, had not improved sufficiently to read them.

So I went back to the start of The Remake and read it again. And then I read it again, and once more for good luck. There were so many jokes, you could find a new one each time. I have never been more grateful for someone's infinite sense of humour.

James died last November. Not long afterwards, in the library with my kids, I spotted that same copy of The Remake I brought to France all those years ago. When I opened it, I was astonished to find tiny grains of golden sand still embedded in the book's spine.

For a second, I was transported back to that sun-bleached summer, and reminded that no matter how bad things get, if you're still laughing, you'll probably live.


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