Oct/Nov 2001 Book Reviews


Robert Dessaix
Picador, Macmillan, (August 2001) 346 pages
ISBN: 0 330 36278 X

reviewed by Ann Skea

Although this novel was inspired by the life of Australian writer and actor, Kester Berwick, the Narrator is as fictional as the characters he encounters.

This needs to be said at the start, for one might understandably, and unwisely, take the narrator of Corfu to be Robert Dessaix. He has Dessaix's love of things Russian; he has something of Dessaix's intelligence and his broad knowledge of literature; he speaks in the first person about a man who actually lived from 1930 to 1992; he is Australian and he is gay. The narrator's "voice," nowever, is not the voice Dessaix's readers have come to know. And, initially, I must admit that I didn't like it. It was only when I learned that the narrator was an actor, that the camp tone, sly wit and catty comments fell into place and I began to enjoy it.

Dessaix's narrator, who is never named, is on his way home to Adelaide but, like Odysseus, he ends up on Corfu: "Greece, as we all know, is full of foreigners who were once on their way home from somewhere and got stranded there. They wash up on the beach while floating past, disappointed by something or other..." The narrator is disappointed in love. So, too was Kester Berwick, in whose house the narrator resides for a couple of months. The house and its contents arouse his curiosity about Kester and he does a bit of snooping. He reads Kester's letters and books, looks at his personal photographs, and gets to know his friends and neighbours, all of whom are suitably odd, even if only because they choose to live as foreigners on a Greek island.

Art reflects life. And between Kester Berwick and the narrator there are many parallels. Both are actors and writers; both are restless and away from home; and both, it transpires, have some sort of ongoing relationship with William, a young, cocky, feckless Australian, who is like some figure from Ancient Greek poetry. But it is Chekhov more than the Ancient Greeks who links this book together, although Homer, Tolstoy, Sappho and Cavafy also play their parts.

Homer, Chekhov, Tolstoy, Sappho, Cavafy and Kester Berwick make unlikely bedfellows but the common ground of their "literary landscapes" is to be found in the narrator's musings. On The Cherry Orchard, for example, which Chekhov calls "A Comedy in Three Acts":

...we read through Act III. Such a painful act - the stupid party Renyevskaya throws while her estate is being auctioned off, while she's losing everything she loves and ruining everyone, its an orgy of humiliation and despair. And terribly funny, according to Clive [the Director], an expert on all things Russian. "Remember its vaudeville with feeling," he said to us as we were about to begin.

Chekhov, the narrator eventually concludes, is funny, and also entirely relevant to life in North London and Corfu and elsewhere, because his characters fill their lives with the trivia, just as we all do: "Any fool, as Chekhov himself said somewhere, can deal with a crisis--it's day-to-day living that wears us out."

Meandering around Corfu, Lesbos, London and Adelaide in some vivid journeys, with some vivid encounters, the narrator ponders literature, friendship and love, exile and home, and life in general.

I was entertained. And surprised, when I had finished, to realise that I had just enjoyed what could well be classified as "gay fiction." But to classify it as such would be as limiting as to describe it as "travel writing," which is also possible. Like Jeanette Winterson, Dessaix deals interestingly with ideas, art and literature.

Peter Craven, in a review of this book in the Australian Book Review (August 2001), praises Dessaix’s writing, generally, for its "wiriness and intellectual intensity," and for the "integrity and purpose" which he habitually displays "under all that lavender carry on." This is true. I can't say I have ever noticed the "lavender carry on" before, but there are certainly elements of it in Corfu, a book which Craven dislikes and calls "maddenly campy," and purposeless. Yet, considering all the narrator’s musing on purposelessness in Chekhov, this is perhaps the whole point of the book.

In any case, Corfu is a novel, and Dessaix is surely allowed to have fun in his fiction writing, even if it does conflict with conservative views of the way a "national treasure" (Craven's words) should behave. Does it really matter if the journey is purposeless? The narrator’s company is entertaining, his travels are exotic, and his adventures, like those of Odysseus, are curiously full of strange encounters. It’s definitely not gloomy enough for Chekhov, but Homer might well have been amused.


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