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Pushing Against the Dark

April 19, 2012

As a nobody, Robert Dessaix says, the facts about his life “were hardly worth chronicling for their own sake. The public would have to be seduced into reading about my life by something else.” To be worth reading, a memoir or biography of a person who is not a celebrity or historical figure must be a work of art, in which the reader is coaxed inside another’s realm, and kept there, by artful storytelling, by something that seems like magic but is really sleight of hand.

In his Seymour Biography Lecture Dessaix is at his bewitching best, weaving the stories behind his books with insights into what makes a memoir or biography compelling. A well-told story of a life spirals like coils of smoke around an emptiness, giving shape to that void. As he writes, Dessaix sees himself as “pushing against the dark” (E M Forster’s phrase about Virginia Woolf’s language), “not just the dark that certain hidden selves [are] crouched in, but a more powerful dark  … [that] my gleaming spirals circle around. The act of writing is an act of resistance against the mortal condition … in the sense of deepening and magnifying the lived moment while writing. … I write to stave off time, to stave off nothingness.”

The lecture is reprinted in the April 2012 edition of Australian Book Review. Don’t miss it.

I’m also looking forward to reading Dessaix’s new Book, As I Was Saying, reviewed by Jane Goodall in the March edition of Australian Book Review.

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3 Comments leave one →
  1. May 2, 2012 7:11 pm

    You have provided two beautiful, insightful and thought provoking quotes in relation to a biography, Bryce.

    “a memoir or biography of a person who is not a celebrity or historical figure must be a work of art, in which the reader is coaxed inside another’s realm, and kept there, by artful storytelling, by something that seems like magic but is really sleight of hand”

    “A well-told story of a life spirals like coils of smoke around an emptiness, giving shape to that void”

    Poetry or pragmatism? Not sure and don’t really care, the words paint great pictures.

    Oh, and I will read Dessaix’s lecture.

  2. Bryce permalink*
    May 3, 2012 10:31 am

    Thanks Claire. I’m still trying to work out my own ideas on art and truth in memoir. Playwright Leigh Swinburne has a caustic letter to the editor in the May edition of Australian Book Review, criticising Dessaix for misleading readers: “In a memoir … we grant the writer some indulgence for the fallibility of memory and subjectivity, but we do expect that they have tried to remember their lives as truthfully as possible. Like Dessaix’s French translator, I was ‘flabbergasted’ to learn that a major figure in Twilight of Love: Travels with Turgenev had been completely invented. This significantly affected my recollected enjoyment of the book.”
    Reactions clearly differ; finding out that Daniel doesn’t exist didn’t trouble me at all.

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  1. Is the story all there is? « The Echidna and the Fox

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