Grab-bag of thoughts on road to dis­cov­ery

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Gil­lian Wills

OUR pe­cu­liar­i­ties, your frail­ties and quirks, your im­po­tence ... your old wounds, your creak­ing bones . . . are your stock in trade,’’ writes Robert Des­saix about the es­say, which he con­sid­ers to be an un­der­val­ued, mis­un­der­stood and naked form.

A good es­say can take many forms and is tricky to de­fine. In this chatty col­lec­tion, the Tas­ma­nia-based writer and broad­caster pours out a rip­pling tide of heart­felt, eru­dite, gos­sipy and philo­soph­i­cal dream­ing, cross­ing in­ter­na­tional borders and voic­ing in­ti­mate con­cerns.

Many suc­cess­ful essayists ei­ther cul­ti­vate a per­sua­sively wise tone or make chal­leng- ing, funny propo­si­tions. Des­saix favours the first of these op­tions, oc­ca­sion­ally edg­ing to­wards the sec­ond.

As I Was Say­ing is metic­u­lously em­broi­dered from his public talks, print jour­nal­ism, ra­dio broad­casts, au­to­bi­og­ra­phy ( A Mother’s Dis­grace), non­fic­tion ( Twi­light of Love: Trav­els with Tur­genev) and nov­els ( Corfu and Night Let­ters).

His fic­tional char­ac­ters, cul­tural he­roes (in­clud­ing Michel de Mon­taigne, An­dre Gide and Alain de Bot­ton) as well as past and present in­ter­na­tional and na­tional lu­mi­nar­ies add colour and deft fields of mean­ing.

The tone is capri­cious, light and feath­ery in one mo­ment, arch, ten­der, crow­ing or prick­ling in the next.

This is a teas­ing grab-bag of thoughts, mem­o­ries, anec­dotes and ef­fron­ter­ies that achieves lux­u­ri­ous co­her­ence.

A lyri­cal re­flec­tion on idle­ness; the ‘‘ brouhaha’’ over John Howard’s de­sire to write ‘‘ mate­ship’’ into the Con­sti­tu­tion; the ca­nine’s ca­pac­ity for ‘‘ an un­hur­ried ap­pre­ci­a­tion of the mo­ment’’; a trib­ute to the nose; a spin on post­mod­ernism and an in­ter­pre­ta­tion of swear­ing as a ‘‘ labio­den­tal frica­tive’’, a ver­bal throw­away as the mind reaches for what to say next, all pique in­ter­est.

As a sea­soned global ad­ven­turer and for­mer res­i­dent of Rus­sia, Des­saix’s in­sights on travel sparkle and yet can sting. Do we re­ally jour­ney to get a bet­ter grasp on who we are in the mir­ror of a greater hu­man­ity?

Trav­el­ling cooks ply­ing chilli in Thai­land, English ad­ven­tur­ers Stephen Fry and Griff Rhys Jones and the gar­landed ex­plorer Richard Bur­ton all rate a men­tion.

Travel is dis­sected in­sight­fully. The de­sire for par­adise, the search for height­ened

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