Ordinary Inspiration

March 5, 2001

Robert Dessaix, Corfu, Sydney: Picador, 2001

Reviewed by Neralie Hoadley

CorfuRobert Dessaix’s latest novel is a worthy successor to Night Letters. Like its predecessor, Corfu is structured around a trip. Out-bound and homeward travel provides Dessaix with the linking narrative for his ruminations on life and art. The central concern of Corfu is the way living may be seen as a worthy art form, with its own pattern and beauty, not always apparent to the observer or the participant. In his exploration of this idea, Dessaix is subtle and intricate but quite explicit.

Dessaix’s closing pages provide a memorable symbol of his central theme. He uses a photograph taken by Henri Cartier-Bresson in Serbia in 1965. “In the middle of a bare landscape (just a scruffy tree or two, some dusty bushes and a few unremarkable hills in the distance) a comically enormous double bass, slewed across the back of a man in a suit, is riding off down an empty, stony track away from the camera.”  Looked at from one perspective this image is pitiful or simply comic, quite risible in the juxtaposition of the ungainly instrument, the precarious bicycle, the rough surrounds and the carefully attired gentleman. However, Dessaix’s argument is that there is a breathtaking, double-layered art in it – the art of the man in the picture who is living a life which includes a beautifully crafted instrument in the midst of the ordinary. And the art of the man who photographed him – who could look at a scene where nothing is happening and see something extraordinary.  Clearly, Corfu is designed to function at both levels.

Corfu presents a dual plot line. The primary protagonist, the Dessaix character, is a young actor staying briefly on Corfu as respite from a relationship he is both attracted to and repelled by, and as a break in his journey home to Adelaide. The secondary story line concerns Kester Berwick, an Australian actor, writer and teacher whose house Dessaix rents during his stay and whose life he finds increasingly intriguing. The lives of the young actor and the older man reveal strange patterns and connections that both fascinate and unnerve the young man. This double story provides Dessaix with the opportunity for some unobjectionable didacticism about how a good life may be lived as the young man attempts to make sense of his circumstances by ruminating on the traces of the absent Kester he finds in Kester’s house and writings. The fictional character Kester Berwick has its basis in reality: He was born Frank Perkins in Adelaide in 1903 and lived in Australia, London and the Greek Islands. Dessaix is examining his life through the lens of fiction and thus, consciously emulating the position of Henri Cartier-Bresson as observer of the ordinary and as artist.

Dessaix uses Chekhov to provide this perspective also.  He presents the Russian playwright as able to look at the ordinary boredom and tangle of human life and show us something remarkable. Chekhov’s plays provide as much of the setting of the novel as the island of Corfu does. The Greek island offers the reader a sensory backdrop of colour, odour and texture, but it is Chekhov who provides the ambience of frustration, futility, and bewilderment. The Cherry Orchard, The Three Sisters and Uncle Vanya are all performed, the last one staged on Corfu, with Kester’s friends and acquaintances as cast. The stifled and adrift of Corfu in the late twentieth century, speak with the voices of nineteenth century Russia. This threatens to be a farce but on some level, it works. Both the audience and the amateur performers are moved by the sense that something truthful has been expressed.

The journey home is another major theme of Corfu. Homecoming is part of life, whether mundane or scintillating. Dessaix uses Homer, Sappho, Cavafy, Austrian Empresses and Greek miracle-working saints to inspire and guide his cogitations on the nature of home and how home may be approached. He manages to be both erudite and down-to-earth in his weaving together of these diverse strands into the fabric of his story.

However, there are parts of the book where the plot or the person is openly contrived to fit into the idea currently being explored. Undoubtedly, this will annoy some readers, particularly when new characters pop in because a certain perspective is required. One character perceives Kester as a skinflint and a bore so the next luncheon companion regards him as fascinating and saintly, his humble and niggardly ways evidence of the absence of materialism. Other characters come into the story to fill vacant positions in productions of plays. One of these, Maxwell Coop, personifies (as does Kester) some of the gender and sexuality tensions of great interest to Dessaix. It is a pity that he makes an entrance as an after-thought, his persona not developed deeply enough to escape caricature. Other readers may find Dessaix’s verbal mannerisms irritating. The book is written using Dessaix’s carefully modulated style. Every ‘actually’ ‘really’ ‘as it were’ and ‘of course’ is chosen and deployed with absolute precision and is recognisably his voice. However, it is also possible to be captivated by the ideas and to enjoy both the exploratory peregrinations and the manner of their expression.

Corfu leaves an overall impression of delicate profundity. Many of Dessaix’s ideas appear quite fragile and paradoxical. He asserts that life’s deepest truths may be accessible to us in the mundane surface of everyday life. This is ludicrous or inspiring, depending how you look at it.

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