I’d like to thank Random House for inviting me to review Robert Dessaix’s latest memoir.
I came face to face with Robert Dessaix in the early nineties when he came to speak to us about ‘Night Letters.’ What he had to say was engaging (more European than Australian in directness and flair) and witty in a candid, self-deprecating way. He reminded me of nobody else.
Conversational and derisory, this latest memoir is both playful and reflective. It’s a style relished by keen readers of his works. Each of the thirteen chapters is assigned a day of the week, playing into the title and line of Larkin’s poem ‘Days’ and tracking his recovery after a massive heart attack. When a semblance of rational thought returns it ignites ideas of the spiritual.
What, he muses, have his days been for? What and who has he loved – and why?
On the third day, Wednesday (Chapter 3), he rises again, and whether this is fact or fiction it is such a delicious nod to the Bible for a writer like Dessaix. He is thinking of things spiritual, after all, as he regains consciousness, at the same time grooming us for one of his customary forays into a foreign land,
‘..in my case there is usually a kind of Shinto side of travel. Although I know nothing about Shinto.’
Of course, he knows a lot about Shinto when he goes on to talk about his ‘torii’ as his front door where his ‘sando’ begins, but undercuts this knowledge in self-parody.
‘(goodness me, I nearly said ‘spiritual’)…restoration.’
Dessaix mentions that some people find him ‘pompous’ and suffering from ‘rigorous snobbishness.’ This might be evident in lines like…
‘…India is awash with comfortably-off Westerners decked out in crumpled dhotis and shalwar kameezes like down-and-out Bollywood extras, ecstatically pretending to be what they patently are not.’
Observations like this, and there are many, could just as easily be seen as funny, even hilarious and true. They certainly represent one side of Dessaix’s writing prowess. He seems to take great delight in creating these tableaux in which he pokes fun at Asian spirituality, bureaucratic torpor and veiled criminality (the light-fingered magician). Later, you can feel him squirming when he receives ‘a poem about a goddess’ from his friend, Prakash, then renders the situation humorous in the act of it being ‘emailed.’ This juxtaposition of the exotic against the pedestrian makes for entertaining reading and while he is often blunt he is never cruel, recognising folly as necessarily or inherently human, perhaps.
Occasionally, we are yanked from Dessaix’s meanderings and dumped back, unceremoniously, to his hospital ward where the inmates smell ‘strongly of takeaway’ and are glued nightly to Channel 7 punctuating the air with,
Nurse! Nurse! Nurse! Nurse! Nurse!
At quieter times the language is pared back as he considers the big questions.
‘I can feel my old eagerness to learn more and more about love falling away.’
And ….’there must be good ways, and also how to die, what days are for, in other words, when you’re old and death is in the offing.’
These moments are well placed in the narrative and give the text gravitas which balances the more Baroque aspects of his writing.
In an interview with Gail Bell in ‘The Monthly’ in 2012 he says of his own writing,
‘Anyone who reads a large number of my books gets used to this kind of spiralling shape, and so I just take my time, and I just spiral around. I try to mention the main things I want to talk about in the first chapter, and then I spiral and come around and talk about them from a different angle again later. That’s what I’m doing.
There is more than spiralling around going on in this memoir. A linear narrative is played out at two levels below the circuitous.There is a chronological path as we witness Dessaix’s recovery in days and chapters and, alondside the anticipation of opening night of his first play, and which he will undoubtedly miss. The presence of the play adds another stratum to his story where it’s hard not to think of Shakespeare’s ‘Tomorrow’ speech and man who struts and frets. Through clever segues between one vignette and another Dessaix shifts cannily from death to life.
Along the way we are in the august company of Jane Austen, Francis Bacon, Dario Fo, Alan Bennett, Samuel Johnson, Hilary Mantel, Voltaire and Turgenev, often in quotes or scenes from their works which convey a point and add yet another layer to his embroidered text.
Taking his title from a Larkin poem, which means he was actually reading a Larkin poem, I was curious to read in this memoir that he states he does not like poetry, so little moves him. Given his breadth of reading this is hard to believe. He certainly writes poetry because every word, every phrase has been carefully crafted to maximum effect and frequently an elegant symmetry.
‘ from glowing nub to glowing nub, joining what’s Western about me to what is Eastern…’
Over the course of thirteen days/chapters we travel with Dessaix outwardly to India then back in time back to his childhood, always the return to his enduring relationship with Peter. In this way the memoir functions as a tribute to the longevity of this union while pondering spirituality, love, infatuation, intimacy and what matters in the end.
What matters to Dessaix in the face of death comes back to simple things expressed in prose which can teeter on the sentimental, but juxtaposed against the down-to-earth is reined in, giving the reader time to pause for breath.
‘I smell rain. I smell wet wool. I open my eyes, It’s Peter. He’s back. My continuance. My wholeness. His happiness at being here again fills the room. ….
‘You flew again,’ I say
‘And what about the dog?’”
This is the kind of memoir that speaks to me; exotic yet familiar, colourful, philosophical and ultimately life-affirming.