Review: As I Was Saying, Robert Dessaix

My review for As I Was Saying, by Robert Dessaix, is now live on the Readings website. You can click on the link to go to it, or you can read it below:

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In a speech given by Robert Dessaix at the awards ceremony for the Calibre Prize in 2010, Dessaix pondered whether the art of the essay is dead. After all, he mused, nobody ever won the Nobel Prize for essays, even Michel de Montaigne, whose memoirs on happiness and travel can now be found resurfacing in the pockets of tweed-breasted university types. Wouldn’t one say in comparison that the essay, unlike a novel, is small? Far from it, cries this reviewer in reply. As I Was Saying, Dessaix’s fifth book of non-fiction, is by no means a ‘small’ gem of delight.

The book, of which the above speech is a part, is structured around an essay or speech, followed by Dessaix’s further musings on the subject. Most vivid and heartfelt of the essays proper are those about travel: in a single paragraph, an encounter with an imposing Russian is etched into awkward clarity; a few essays later, in the chapter entitled ‘Alexandria’, E.M. Forster’s first and only sexual feelings for a local tram conductor are blazed alight across several illuminating pages. In his linking essays, Dessaix is no less enlightening.

The book begins with a meditation on Dessaix’s tower from which he writes, and sparks a discussion of other tower lovers and their writing habits (these ‘turriphiliacs’ include Montaigne, Rilke and Vita Sackville-West); a comment about dogs leads to an examination of the idolisation of cats (which to Dessaix, appears to be quite baffling).

Other essays involve reflections on subjects such as swearing, the subjunctive and the smell of cities. Dessaix has always been concerned with the transformation of the humdrum into something more arcane; here, his essays can most definitely be considered, to quote the Japanese monk Myoe, as ‘making the normal supernormal’.