What Days Are For: A Memoir by Robert Dessaix
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
In 2011, Robert Dessaix spent two weeks in a Darlinghurst hospital after a severe cardiac episode. Rescued by an angel in a profane t-shirt, and vouchsafed by a cautious receptionist, he was shipped off to hospital and saved, though not without a certain amount of bleeding and partner-summoning concern.
The writer’s drift in and out of memory on the wings of pharmacy’s finest is recorded in What Days Are For. The title is cribbed from a Philip Larkin poem, though Dessaix ascribes more levity to the poet’s work than most.
A key concern is happiness. While in the ambulance, the author is asked how his day has been; there’s no thoughts of grand doings, of the achievements of life, but instead the almost-end is faced with mundanity. So it spurs a journey. We’re taken on a pilgrimage, of sorts, through Dessaix’s life – as a young, adopted Lane Cove kid who pursued touch-typing and the vision of love in a summer soundtracked by the Beatles; as a bowl-smashing theatre-bod; as a gay man in the generation before Grindr; as a Russian fanatic, a lover of Turgenev and of the vodka tongue, inspired by stamps; as a relentless traveller and searcher, a mover through sacred spaces in pursuit of something incompatible with belief. Each aspect of his life, and its bystanders and participants is lovingly drawn.
There’s not a huge amount of structure outside of the names of days. Thematically we jump around, idea leading to idea, in the way of the medically-befuddled mind. What days are for here is for marking the passing of time, rather than the application of rigour. This back-and-forth is a little unsatisfying, but it does seem to gel rather well with my own experience of hospital delirium.
I know this review isn’t hugely long, but it would seem to me that to dig overly through the organs of the work would mean that there was less for a future reader to discover. I don’t rate this as my favourite Dessaix, not at all, but it is perhaps one of his more directly personal works. He’s deeply fragile here – slipping out of his body as he abuses racist roommates in a public ward, experiencing the small joys of the smell of food, the attentions of a Russian nurse. It’s touching, and conveys the feeling of something that had to be written, rather than something planned. The fact that its author is alive at all is down to strangers and synchronicity, and I feel the book is a stab at making sense of that – and of one’s stumblings towards happiness.
This is worth reading if you’re familiar with Dessaix’s other work. I wouldn’t start with it, but if you know his deeply emotional, human writing, this is a brief memento mori which should interest.