Monday, 14 July 2014

Book review: To Begin To Know, David Leser (2014)

Australian literary journalism has its lights but ever since I studied journalism at uni, beginning in '06, when this blog was established, David Leser has been one of the leading ones. For me this book stands as a turning point in that history: a thrilling and insightful, and deeply human, portrayal of a man's life. Because while it's ostensibly about David's father the book is more correctly a memoir. It might be that there was just so much to tell - David clearly loves his father very much, and the feeling is reciprocated - that the only way to do it justice was to include the whole shebang.

For me particularly there were furthermore many points of commonality. The executive father, the private school, the housewife mother, the help in first jobs, the exclusive postcode, the interest in journalism. For others there will be similarities in the late-30s stumble, the broken marriage, the striving for success - these are probably almost universal things that we all share. But for me there was so much I could identify with that I actually started to be both moved and enthralled at each point of turning.

David Leser's sophisticated style also made this an easy book to read. Unlike so many boring biographies, David does not just start with birth and go on from there. Things are introduced when they're needed. There are radical shifts in perspective and large jumps in time and space. These things are needed if you want to make sense of something as complex as a life - in a sense, two lives, those of both David and his father, the publishing magnate Bernard Leser. And there are certain times in life when certain things are accomplished: marriage for example. For David the puzzle became more complex when he started to have trouble sleeping. His life took a new tangent and the family relocated from Sydney to Byron Bay where he would live for the following 12 years. The place allowed David to explore the growth and flourishing of the counterculture within himself - the seeds that had been planted during his childhood through American popular culture. And then the decision to write the book - the seeds that had been planted during his sojourn in New Orleans when he had first read the works of Truman Capote.

I loved this book and would like to recommend it highly but I feel a certain hesitancy in doing so because the story feels to sit so close beside my own. But maybe this is the secret David Leser has uncovered. Whatever the case of the matter, I read through to the end hardly able to restrain myself from skipping ahead to the next paragraph, the next page. Which is hardly ever something you see used to describe one's reading of a memoir.

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