An Australian arrives on the Greek island of Corfu. The year is 1987. He’s fled the stillness of Adelaide in search of art, history and adventure. He rents a cottage belonging to a writer he’s never met, and begins to ponder his life and his choices.
There’s a man, William, who he’s been traveling with, abruptly left behind in Rome, theirs a relationship always on the cusp of happening, always sabotaged by insecurity and the elusive nature of intimacy.
There’s a man, Kester, who owns the cottage but is absent for most of the story. The narrator pieces together Kester’s life from his belongings and from the stories he’s left behind in the expat community that languishes in Corfu.
I’m drawn to books in which queer men set out to find a way to live, a way to be, looking for answers in other people’s lives, in art and literature, in exile. The queer man’s reality of not belonging – especially in 1987 – is a constant search for home, “the place where being what he is will matter.”
Written twenty years ago, Robert Dessaix’s novel is a meandering meditation on how some of us form our sense of self, not through by ourselves into life, but through detached observation. The narrator seeks in the lives of others clues as to how he might live his own.
There’s young William and old Kester, forever out of reach. There are the expats on Corfu, in their middle years, “that not uninteresting in-between age when you know at last what it is you want and also know you’ll never have it”. There are the characters of three Chekhov plays in which our narrator performs. There are the Mediterranean writers whose existential interrogations mirror his – Homer, Saphho, Cavafy - and whose work is explored in inspired tangents.
It’s all a little ponderous and serious and self-indulgent, yet erudite and thoughtful and loaded with insights that hit home. Dessaix defines the difficulty of intimacy, the mystery of how we step into the space between the self and the object of our desire. He beautifully describes the meaningful detours we sometimes must embark on to find our way home, lured off the beaten path by art, travel and desire.
Corfu by Robert Dessaix is published by Picador Australia and Scribner (UK).