When journalist David Leser moved to Byron Bay some years ago, the move was the start of some major changes for the writer renowned for his insightful profiles. Candida Baker reviews his latst book, a memoir which explores his life, and his relationship with his father.
If there’s a style of writing for which David Leser is admired in his chosen industry of journalism, it’s his rapier-like profiles. Who could forget his skewering of Pauline Hanson, or Alan Jones, or his more philosophical, but nonetheless searing insights into Oriana Fallaci or Helen Garner?
So it’s with a journalist’s somewhat prurient interest that I started to read his memoir To Begin to Know. Was it possible, I wondered, for Leser to turn the blowtorch, or more gently even, to shine the torch of illumination on both his father, Bernie Leser, the legendary magazine publisher, and himself?
I personally knew for that Leser could be, on occasions, not the easiest person to work with – as deputy editor at the Good Weekend under Anne Summers, on occasions I had to broker a truce between the two – who simply would not speak to each other. And, let’s be honest, there’s a certain frustration in asking a writer for a 3,000 word story, being delivered 8,000 and then having to negotiate the editing of every sentence!
When Leser originally began this book, he intended it to be a biography of his father, Bernie Leser – founder of Vogue Australia, and managing director and chief executive of Conde Nast in the UK for many years. Certainly, Leser senior on his own is worthy of a biography – his story of the family’s almost miraculous escape from the Holocaust, and his subsequent rise and rise up the slippery slopes of publishing to a position of both power and fame, where the family hobknobbed with some of the most famous, powerful (and often beautiful) people in the world, is a rich vein to tap. But at some point, Leser recalls in the introduction, ‘The Desert Places’, he began to find the straight-forward path from beginning to end difficult to grapple with and gradually began to introduce himself into the story – in an attempt to understand not just his complex relationship with his father, but also his somewhat complex relationship with himself. For me an extra layer to this book is Leser’s exploration of his Jewish heritage, and his gradual realisation that being Jewish carries a certain sensibility. He brings to this memoir the same humour and vulnerability that Philip Roth or Howard Jacobsen have explored so well in fiction.
During the course of his career Leser has also been a courageous journalist, spending some years in the Middle East, (he is sympathetic to Palestine) and never shying away from either difficult subjects or situations (a different kind of bravery perhaps was his feature story on a nudist camp with legendary photographer Tim Bauer, where both of them arrived at the interview vulnerably naked to find their subjects fully clothed!) and he brings this bravery straight into the pages of this book.
Who would have thought, for example, that the hard-hitting journalist would have undertaken the Path of Love – a Byron Bay based personal development process, or that he would explore tantric sex, or, for those of us that admired his marriage and family life from afar, leave his wife, art curator extraordinaire Merran Morrison, to, as they say, ‘find’ himself. Leser’s marriage to Morrison, in which he writes: ‘the battlelines were drawn right from the start’, is in, itself a story. How do ambitious men and women handle their lives as a couple? Why is that men still do not do what women consider their fair share? Or is that the wrong way to look at a relationship? Leser has no answers for the male/female, father/daughter themes he explores, but rather it’s in this rich complexity of his subject matter, and how well he writes about it, that the pleasure of the book lies. Leser has an ability to embrace it all, and tell it all – his deflowering at the hands of a ‘Mrs Robinson’ and his description of his impersonation of the great Russian dancer, Mikhail Baryshnikov during a week-long writing retreat are as hilarious as his description of his family’s holocaust history are moving.
When I asked a friend of mine who was reading the book what she thought of it, she said, “I think it’s very good – but I wonder if it isn’t a bit self-indulgent?” Well, in fact, it isn’t just a bit self-indulgent – it’s wildly, gloriously and unashamedly self-indulgent. And in his embracing of and attempt to capture the ‘male’ spirit of both his father and himself, he allows us an insight into the world of men, that is perhaps rarely shown – warts and all. It’s all here – the ego, pride (often wounded), libido, misogyny, selfishness that women often believe lies at the base of male behaviour, but here too is amazing vulnerability, and an emotional courage to show us the ‘journey’ from child, to adult, to fully-formed human being. From son, to father, and in one heart-warming family reunion dinner, complete with utterly wonderful circular conversation, to son again.
To Begin to Know
Allen & Unwin 307pp $32.99