What Days Are For: A Memoir

Robert Dessaix

What Days Are For: A Memoir
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What Days Are For: A Memoir

Robert Dessaix

One Sunday night in Sydney, Robert Dessaix collapses in a gutter in Darlinghurst, and is helped to his hotel by a kind young man wearing a T-shirt that says FUCK YOU. What follows are weeks in hospital, tubes and cannulae puncturing his body, as he recovers from the heart attack threatening daily to kill him. While lying in the hospital bed, Robert chances upon Philip Larkin’s poem ‘Days’. What, he muses, have his days been for?  What and who has he loved - and why?

This is vintage Robert Dessaix. His often surprisingly funny recollections range over topics as eclectic as intimacy, travel, spirituality, enchantment, language and childhood, all woven through with a heightened sense of mortality.

Review

What unit of time best measures life? A year? A lifetime? A moment? Rushing to treat his patient for a heart attack, a paramedic asks Robert Dessaix if he’s had a good day. ‘A good day? I give a muffled laugh, batting away the pain blossoming in my chest.’ Nobody asks if he’s had a good weekend, let alone a good life. The banal question becomes surreal, nearly portentous as Dessaix hurtles through the night to St. Vincent’s in Darlinghurst.

As in Dessaix’s fictional Night Letters, this memoir is shaped in the shadow of illness. From his tenth floor hospital room, Dessaix looks out at the city of his youth. Born down the street at the women’s hospital, he grew up in North Sydney over the bridge, lusted on Oxford St, and recorded his Sunday-night book program ‘just over there, where the Harry Seidler building now slices up into the sky in its queer, twisted way.’ Transfiguring the dailyness of ‘days’ into an original narrative conceit, the memoir weaves themes of intimacy, travel, faith and desire into a recollection that feels spontaneous, propelled by charming association and allusion. The narrator drifts in and out of the company of sickbed visitors, shuttling back to scenes of adolescent beach-longing, back to the streets of Jaipur and Palmyra, and back to the literary company of the likes of Austen and Turgenev, no less dazzling for being imagined.

‘What are days for?’ asks Philip Larkin in a poem the narrator chances upon during his recovery. With lucidity, humour and some characteristic audacity, this much-loved Australian writer and broadcaster thinks through questions of mortality, restoring optimism to the view of life as it unravels. More than a memoir, What Days Are For is a beautiful study of the life of the imagination as it animates and mythologises the life borne along by the day-to-day.


Lucy Van is a freelance reviewer.

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