By Robert Dessaix
Published by Knopf, 2014
I need to preface this review with a bit of context. I recently sat among the greying crowd of Adelaide Writers’ Week enthralled, amused and occasionally titillated (in that delightful way heterosexual women can be when gay men tease them with sexual innuendo). Robert Dessaix was being interviewed, and he was in fine form. He had just turned seventy one and the span of years was deeply etched across his expressive face, and obvious in the careful tread that took him from chair to lectern when asked to read from his book. But age has not wearied him, and when he read he was magnificent. A raconteur of the most theatrical kind, he would pause mid-sentence, look us over to ensure we were paying attention (as if it were possible not to) then deliver the final words as if each were a precious stone. And they shone, those words, as they rolled off his tongue, so when the performance was over I went straight to the book tent and bought his book.
What days are for is a memoir, ostensibly written during Dessaix’s time in hospital after having a heart attack. Amid the comings and goings of visitors, nurses and doctors, and in the company of three other patients and the constant drone of channel 7, Robert Dessaix found himself asking, what are days for?
It isn’t an original question; Philip Larkin asked it in his poem, Days, where he wrote, What are days for? Days are where we live. They come, they wake us time and time over. They are to be happy in: where can we live but days? Robert Dessaix has dedicated a whole book to the pursuit of an answer.
So what are days for? In this beautiful memoir Dessaix suggests it is the kind of question a child would ask, and as he lies in his bed on the 10th floor of St Vincent’s Hospital it strikes him as a more sophisticated question than the clichéd adult version, ‘What is the meaning of life?’ Well, it would wouldn’t it, when your heart has just failed and your hold on existence is via various plastic tubes connecting your body to bags of elixir and machines with a simulated pulse. Days come into their own when their numbers are threatened.
I have read a lot of Robert Dessaix, his personal essays are my favourite morning tea company. He is conversational in his writing, he challenges received wisdom and he is funny. I sometimes imagine being his neighbour and popping in on a dull Wednesday morning (Because nothing very interesting ever seems to happen on a Wednesday). He’d invite me to stay for earl grey tea and biscuits, and I’d ask about his latest travels, then sit back and listen. That is what this book is like; it is the recollection of days by someone who has lived them so well – childhood days, travelling days, days of infatuation, and days of love. None of us recall our lives in a continuous narrative, and so these days are scattered randomly through time. But their meaning is not random and their relationship to each other, or to the day Dessaix is experiencing on the 10th floor of St Vincent’s, is clear.
I finished What days are for, knowing a lot more about an Australian writer I have long admired. But perhaps the greatest gift of this book was an appreciation of days. As Robert Dessaix says, ‘Within the framework of a day, I can hope.’ And that is what we do, every time we open our eyes in the morning, we acknowledge the day’s potential and hope for something good to come from it.
What days are for will be pleasant company for any reader, and it will be a gentle joy for those who are interested in contemplating life. If you are a fan of Robert Dessaix, reading this book will be like meeting up with an old friend just back from a grand adventure. Whichever category you may fall into, your experience of this book will be a little more sublime if you have Dessaix’s voice in your head as you read. So find a recording online – the Wheeler Centre website is a good place to start – and listen to the way the words roll off his tongue. If nothing else, it will be a pleasant way to spend your day.
Produced and recorded for Radio Northern Beaches, Sydney