A Review of Robert Dessaix’s Corfu

 Corfu: A Novel is an ambitious work, which uses a range of literary techniques such as complex time sequencing, incorporation of other texts, and mise-en-abyme, or a series of stories within a story, to convey its meaning. The narrative moves forward and back, providing us with clues from the past which occur as moments in the present: “in the blink of an eye I’m in North London, looking back at Leila on the waterfront in Molyvos through a spyglass across months and even years.” Each chance encounter brings up another story, and takes us to another moment in time, until as with Chekhov, the story becomes a whole, and the ordinary details of this unimportant life, suddenly take simultaneously a greater, and more intimate meaning.

Reviewed by Magdalena Ball

Corfu: A Novel
By Robert Dessaix
Picador, 2001
ISBN 0 33036278X

On the simplest level, Corfu: A Novel, is the first person account of an Australian actor who arrives on the Island of Corfu, rents the home of a writer he has never met, and begins to slowly put together an image of this person, whose life becomes a kind of minor obsession for him. The narrative of Corfu is not simple however, with a number of sub-stories working smoothly together. There is firstly a love story, between the narrator, a middle aged actor, and William, the young Australian set designer he met on the set of Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard during a London production. The dance between the actor and William is a delicate and difficult one, raising issues on what love is, and isn’t, and how we aim for intimacy, and space, beauty and longing, which is mirrored in the works of Sappho, and in the writer Kester Berwick’s novel Head of Orpheus singing. There is also the story of exile and home, conveyed in a classical sense through the poetry of Homer’s Odyssey, and Cavafy, along with the individual stories of the other exiles whom the Australian actor encounters and befriends while on Corfu. As many of the exiles on the island are Australians, William, Greta, the actor, and Kester Berwick, there is also the story of what it means to be an Australian, and Australia as home, or Ithaca. Finally, the story is about how we define ourselves, or make meaning of our lives, in a literary sense, from the things we leave behind, in our absence, and in the relationships we develop.

There are enough parallels between the narrative voice, and Dessaix’s own for him to have felt the need to make clear that the narrator is a fictional one, and that the characters, aside from Kester Berwick, the real life actor on whom the story is based, are also fictional. The tension between life and literature, is one of the major threads running through the story. For each major theme, there is a literary parallel. There are three full productions of Chekhov: The Cherry Orchard, Three Sisters, and Uncle Vanya, each performed in different locations, under differing circumstances, but with linking cast members. The actors and their characters interweave their lives, picking up on the truths between them; “making friends”. The narrator even begins to call the actors by a combination of real and character names, Sonya-Bernie; Helen-Prue. In all three plays, the actors fight against the initial dullness, broken conversations, and stilted conversation to find the “transfiguring ‘truth’ of it” under the surface. At the end of Uncle Vanya, the audience grows exulted in the face of the transfiguration from deeply unremarkable to extraordinary at their sense of a common humanity; an understanding of the human condition, and its beauty. Similarly, The Cherry Orchard brings its first night audience in Moscow to its feet in “crazed joy at this spectacle of blithe desolation”, by irradiating “the humbly trivial – the sneezes and waiting in bus queues with the lofty, and at the same time cherish above all in the lofty those things that nourish you here, today, in all your ordinariness?” Three Sisters picks up on theme of love and intimacy, with the “overlapping triangles” of the characters as they try to bridge the gulf of ourselves and others: “to make a space in which to play with their deeper desires”. This is paralleled in the triangle that the narrator is trying to make with William as they move back and forth between desire and inaction.

This elevation of the ordinary is also picked up in the perfect poem of Sappho, which cannot be translated from the Greek, but which captures with its trickling syllables the sound, and sensations of being alone in such detail that it becomes something much greater – the complexity and beauty shining through: “Something has to shine through the haphazardness, the happenstance of our characters’ lives.” It is the ordinariness of William which makes him appealing; the sense of shared longing; of understanding. This is a hard concept to convey, and at times, Dessaix struggles to do it with his clear analytical prose, but the reader knows what he means, taking their hints from the literature being referenced, and from their own epiphanies.

In Berwick’s novel Head of Orpheus Singing, the narrator finds a continual search for this kind of shared understanding, sympatico, or “utter intimacy”: “the feeling that you are seeing straight through something to a life being lived right to that very instant – the real one”. Strangely though, the narrator only has these moments of transparency while alone: while leaving William in Rome, or passing an Indian restaurant in London. It is as if this sense of unity really only occurs within oneself, rather than under the gaze of another person. And perhaps that is one of the things which draws the narrator to Berwick, who looks everywhere for intimacy and transparency or understanding, but always ends up disappearing, and dies alone. It is pure solitude which really produces this transparency: “untethered again. Panic and pleasure. I shuddered. Suddenly, from the top of my head to my toenails, I was totally, electrically alive.”

Another major theme is the idea of the exile and home which is picked up in the citations from The Odyssey and the poetry of Cavafy: “Homer was telling the truth, I think, about going home, about pining, all my days, to travel home and see the dawn of my return”. This longing, not necessarily for a physical home, but for a sense of belonging, or finding a place where one fits, is part of what all of the characters in Corfu are looking for. Greta in her exile; the narrator himself, even William, who is still wandering. The narrator tells us that Odysseus was not a “great traveller or restless explorer – all Odysseus wanted to do was to go home”, and states that every person is a traveller on his own path, and that everyone is looking for the place “where being what he is willmatter. That place is home.”

Dessaix’s characters are well written, particularly his narrator, whose penchant for endless analysis may be a little tedious at time, but is realistic enough, bridging the gap between narrative exposition and the art of the novel, allowing the reader to participate directly in the process of working through the meaning of our lives through the words we read or the personal characters we adopt. His attraction to Berwick’s life which provides a “perfect counterweight” to his, is an interesting one, as there are many parallels between the two of them, in their quest for the holy grail of intimacy, combined with their sociability, and ultimate need for solitude. Kester Berwick, the one non-fictional character is a kind of absence in the novel. He is critical to the plot, with the characters linking together through him; his house; his novel; his past; his house; his papers, and his landscape, although he never actually appears, except for one brief moment of transparency while passing on the train station. They are two strangers with coincidentally concurrent lives. There are other Australians on Corfu, whose lives also parallel that of the narrator’s. Greta is permanently in exile, elegant, wry and also tragic with her sad marriage, and lonely life of minor social graces and acquaintances. William, the good looking, talented set designer is still wandering, looking only for a good time, but also holding onto to his solitude. These are strangers, but also intimates, exiles in common, all searching for some form of belonging. Other characters are less well developed, intentionally, as they provide only brief moments of friendship for the narrator, such as Leila, who tells a large part of Berwick’s story while on Molyvos; Sisi, the Empress of Australia, whose garish palace “hopelessly adrift on dreams of Homer”, hints at a combination of vanity, and as the narrator says, a wish for ordinariness. However, the novel really belongs to the narrator, the real subject, not Berwick. The narrator’s voice speaks to the reader in such a personal, intimate voice, that we could be whispering to ourselves, making our own overly literary self-analysis on the meaning of our lives, and the choices we make. Or it could be a kind of diary, which we are peering into, and obsessing over in much the same way as the narrator himself obsesses over Berwick.

There are times when the intellectual analysis fights with the plot, providing mini-lectures on Tolstoy, Chekhov, Sappho, Homer, Cavafy, Japanese Noh, and other literary forms. At other times, Kester’s story seems too much of an aside, with its characters Raymond and Alan Harkness, too far removed from the main narrative. There are also moments when the story seems a little too light, as the narrator describes the way hotels bring out his libido, or how flights make him excited, but these are minor faults, and in some ways the result of an attempt to produce a work which is simultaneously informative, entertaining, intimate, gossipy, fun, but still profound. Corfu: A Novel is an ambitious work, which uses a range of literary techniques such as complex time sequencing, incorporation of other texts, and mise-en-abyme, or a series of stories within a story, to convey its meaning. The narrative moves forward and back, providing us with clues from the past which occur as moments in the present: “in the blink of an eye I’m in North London, looking back at Leila on the waterfront in Molyvos through a spyglass across months and even years.” Each chance encounter brings up another story, and takes us to another moment in time, until as with Chekhov, the story becomes a whole, and the ordinary details of this unimportant life, suddenly take on simultaneously a greater, and more intimate meaning. This complex narrative is handled smoothly, and provides a tension that works in terms of the narrative themes and characterisation. Corfu: A Novel is a serious, thoughtful, and enjoyable book, which is both moving and down to earth, as well as being ethereal and erudite. It probably won’t be appreciated by those who don’t want to be reminded that they are reading a literary text, nor by those who are used to a straight forward, and fast paced action oriented plot. However, anyone who is interested in a complex novel of ideas which uses art to elucidate personal meaning, will enjoy this book.

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