As Robert Was Saying
In conversation with Robert Dessaix
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Robert Dessaix refers to the heart attack that almost ended his life in July 2011 as “the emergency”.
“I’m not interested in the physical details of what happened,” he says, breaking my gaze to watch the playful nosings of his dog, Polly, on the back terrace of his Hobart home. “If I wrote about it, I might not even give the emergency a name, just as I didn’t when I wrote about AIDS in Night Letters. I didn’t use the word once.”
When the chest pain struck, Dessaix was walking on a Sydney street, a block away from his hotel. He’d travelled north to attend readings of his play, A Mad Affair, which was in rehearsal at NIDA. “But of course I never saw it, I only saw the DVD later.”
Instead, the then 67-year-old writer, broadcaster and translator was in an ambulance, hurtling towards St Vincent’s. En route, his heart stopped.
It’s clear that Dessaix would rather talk about the central idea underpinning his play (how and why infatuation must be differentiated from love), or his collaborations with director Aubrey Mellor at NIDA, or indeed anything other than the “ghastly realities of dying twice”, once in the ambulance and a second time when he “almost bled to death” after an allergic reaction to an emergency room drug.
When Dessaix repeats, “I don’t really get frightened. I wasn’t at all afraid,” I wonder if he really means it.
“Oh, I do. Lying in the ambulance with everything going on and the clear sense that life was ending I remember the paramedic asking, ‘Have you had a good day?’, and being struck by that simple question. Yes, I thought, I have had a good day.”
The emergency coupled with the paramedic’s simple question dramatically altered the temporal emphasis of Dessaix’s life. “I had failed to value time. I was good at months and years, the shape of a whole life, but passing time? No.”
Reading later in hospital he happened upon a reference to the Birkenau letter of Chaim Hermann in David Lodge’s Deaf Sentence: “Better to dwell on life, and try to value the passing time.”
“It’s an idea that Lodge was obviously smitten with. As I was.”
Dessaix also quotes the first two lines of Philip Larkin’s poem Days: ‘What are days for? / Days are where we live.’
“When you are starting to count your days, and perhaps you only have two left, you become interested in days. I want to get out a magnifying glass and examine each one. I want to find my own answers to the question: is this a good day? It’s not as easy as it seems, it takes you down a peg. A day doesn’t have to be grand. I don’t have to be writing a ninth symphony, I can be patting my dog.”
Dessaix has been threatened with death ever since he was diagnosed with HIV in 1994, but this is not why he adjusts so easily to a frank discussion on private philosophies and feelings around death. He welcomes the kind of exchanges he once enjoyed as a student in Russia in the 1960s. He writes in A Mother’s Disgrace:
In Russia, I used to feel, perhaps wrongly, that you could turn to the person next to you on the bus and say, ‘What do you think about death, then?’ And get into a very interesting conversation, probably with the whole bus. You couldn’t do that in Australia. I rarely had conversations like that with my friends at home. I never seem to have them now.
But there is a caveat. Dessaix, the self-proclaimed aesthete, chooses to float these discussions in the thin air of metaphysics. He makes much of his preference for mental events over the random disappointments of the flesh. “My way of coping is not to talk about physical things, as if I’m something special. Other people have heart attacks every day. I’m not special.”
So, what does he have to say on the question of personal extinction? “There is no ‘I’ after death. There is also no ‘there’. Someone asked me, was there anything there when I died. Or was it a blank? No, I said, a blank implies a space. We have made a mistake in thinking there is a thing called ‘me’. Me is a verb, an event that keeps happening until it stops happening.”
He will admit to one deathbed fear, the only instance that rattles his composure: saying goodbye forever. “I just can’t cope with a final goodbye.” He has chosen to adopt a Canadian friend’s coping mechanism, the French phrase à demain, with its promise of a tomorrow.
Friends figure largely in Dessaix’s life. “A friend is going to discover sides to you that no one else will, and they will nourish, cherish those discoveries and make sure they’re well tended.” Having a near-death experience honed Dessaix’s appreciation of the empathetic aspect of genuine friendship. “It becomes clear who your friends are, who is actually thinking, I don’t want to lose this man in my life. How many people are going to do something that shows they are horrified at the thought of not having you around? So, there’s a kind of sorting out that occurs. There are those who write a note saying, ‘How terrible, and by the way do you have such and such an address?’, and those who will undertake a journey to come and sit by the bed to show that you are irreplaceable in their life.”
One such friend was the director of A Mad Affair, Anthony Skuse. “He came in every day [to the hospital] and talked to me as if nothing had happened. I asked him what movies he’d seen.”
A Mad Affair draws on Dessaix’s longstanding interest in Ivan Turgenev, in particular the sudden kindling of an infatuation between the 60-year-old Russian writer and a 25-year-old actress, Maria Savina. “After a year of rendezvous, visits to the theatre to see her perform and letter-writing … Savina told him that on 28 May she would be taking the train from Moscow to Odessa,” he writes in Twilight of Love. Turgenev was permitted to join her for one hour of that trip between two designated stops. “No one knows what happened on the train journey – although Julian Barnes [in his essay ‘The Revival’] thinks he knows – all we really know is that they kissed.” Turgenev was balancing potential humiliation against his infatuation, backing himself in the end to take the risk. Dessaix doesn’t care if the meeting involved fumblings or foreplay or even a quick copulation; the point is to acknowledge that in any long-term relationship, such as Turgenev’s with Pauline Viardot, one or both partners may find themselves “struck by the urgent desire for intimacy with somebody else”.
“Certain infatuations are so vivid. They are carved into your memory with a steel scalpel. They are always one-sided, always excruciatingly painful, and there is always a price to pay.”
Convalescing in St Vincent’s, on the tenth floor with a “fabulous view”, he could watch the city become real out of the darkness. “At 5 am the skyscrapers gleam, the sky goes green.” In a twist that still delights him in the recollection, the nurse who took his hourly ‘obs’ turned out to be Russian. “She came to check if I was still alive.” She would ask him, in Russian, “With whom are you conversing?” to which the Russophile and former Russian language teacher replied, “I am conversing with you, [her name].” In the spirit of his travel writing, he transforms his convalescence into a journey to the land of ill health, making enquiries along the way – where do you come from? – sharing jokes, growing irritable with television noise from other beds, and interesting himself in ward hierarchies.
Drusilla Modjeska got to know Dessaix during the editing of Night Letters. “The thing I love about Robert is he is so utterly himself, so unlike anyone else. In times of great physical frailty in the past one was always conscious of the big person, the big intellect being active and present. He is a good interlocutor, he takes things seriously and is prepared to stay with it and go into it. One has a sense of his emotional reach, his reading, his intellect, all present in the moment, totally attentive to the subject, whether it be love or politics, whatever it is.”
When my ancient but previously reliable recording device dies in the first minutes of the first day of conversation, Dessaix shows a polite interest. “I once interviewed George Steiner for ‘Books and Writing’. I was petrified of course, and was put on notice that if I didn’t get the recording down there would be no second chance. He would not do it again. He lived in a beautiful house in Cambridge. As soon as you see people with vases of flowers everywhere you know they’ve got a lot of money. Either they’ve got someone who picks them, or they go to the florist and we all know what flowers cost.” As I scribble and eye off the treacherous machine, I wonder if I, too, am on notice. “Isabel Allende is one who lets you know that she’s very wealthy by saying that every morning she has a vase of fresh flowers put on her desk, then she looks out the window and writes her masterpiece. It’s a signal. You will notice there are no vases of flowers in my house. We’re terribly middle class. We grow vegetables.” I am grateful for this entertaining papering-over of my embarrassment. Though I later dash off to the shops and purchase a modern and infinitely superior recorder, I needn’t have worried. There is always a second, third, fourth bite at the cherry when your interviewee believes that being challenged through repetition makes for an interesting discussion.
Robert Dessaix is still “neatly put together and smooth-skinned” as he described his younger self in A Mother’s Disgrace, even if, as he puts it, “my face is collapsing”. The famous large green-hazel eyes compel attention and the voice, of course, with its untraceable accent, its attentive vowels and swooping cadences, signals a passionate and questing interest in connecting. Historian Maria Tumarkin, who observed Dessaix in conversation with Orlando Figes at the Melbourne Writers Festival in 2008, wrote, “There was an alertness about Dessaix, an axis of concentration connecting his eyes to his body, as if he knew deep down that every public event, however well groomed, has a kernel of chaos inside it and he was ready for chaos, looking forward to it even.” Readers familiar with Dessaix’s writings will recall that, as a child, he mentally inhabited a private universe of his own making in which he made up histories, languages, and rehearsed conversations with real and imaginary friends. His public utterances are well served by these early rehearsals. Dessaix is never short of the felicitous phrase.
He also has good taste in socks.
At our first meeting, I sensed that he was striking a pose, positioning himself in soft light under a large and vivid painting of a dream animal (something like a lion, but not), one slender leg crossed over the other to reveal fine ankles encased in cobalt-blue yarn.
“At my age, one strives for effect,” he laughed when we spoke by phone a week after the interviews. “The painting? Oh, it’s a Graham Smith. I used to have a gallery in Paddington, Wilson & Dessaix. We sold primitive art, from Indonesia and the Pacific Islands. Then Ray Wilson died and that was that.”
Since his first book, A Mother’s Disgrace in 1994, Dessaix has been a full-time writer, although writing was not his original destination. Writing evolved as a result of a decade at ABC radio producing and presenting the show ‘Books & Writing’. “I always thought my job was to comment on other peoples’ writing. I had no particular desire to be a writer myself.” The first thing he learnt as a broadcaster was never to teach, a lesson that serves him well as an author. “I know how lethal teaching can be. I was told: the ABC is not the University of the Air.”
“What I am best at is giving my readers a sense of intimacy with me. I say, come and sit with me for a few hours and we’ll have a conversation in which I want you to talk back to me. I have a kind of ‘don’t you think?’ at the end of my sentences.”
His latest book, As I Was Saying (Random House, 256pp; $27.95), collects his musings on a disparate range of topics. It is the work of a seasoned writer at the top of his form giving us what we want – the way he thinks and feels in precise, evocative language that goes somewhere and, when the journey is over, means something. His friend, the author Michelle de Kretser, draws strength from Dessaix’s attention to precise language. “He takes writing seriously and therefore cares deeply about words. And he’s very funny. He has a lightness of touch that makes me laugh.”
In this new book, Polly, the brown mutt he rescued from the pound, the “fiercely present” addition to his life in Hobart, carries some of the weight of Dessaix’s musings on time and brevity: “Dogs know how to trick time, not fretting about the shortness of their lives. Death has not got them by the throat.” Cats, however, are not to his taste, so it is admirable to read several pages of cat justification (including songs of praise and poems) that show his mind at work, weighing the scales before arriving at the blunt declaration: “I want a dog.”
In a particularly enchanting chapter, which includes Rupert Brooke’s question, ‘And is there honey still for tea?’, the reader is persuasively led towards the transfiguring possibilities of beauty in the everyday, the domestic. “It was suddenly vital to my will to survive that I magnify the beautiful wherever I encountered it.”
Opposing all the beautiful things in his life – his partner of some 30 years, the writer Peter Timms; his charming yellow house in Battery Point; the view across Lower Sandy Bay; his dog; friends; travel; his readers (Dessaix fans are passionately loyal) – are the things that annoy him. Dessaix does not hold back.
Australia disappoints him. Similarly, Julia Gillard, the ABC, our “third rate” newspapers, the national addiction to sport, social networking (“technology has turned us into a vast flock of narcissists, squawking into the ether about the trivia of our daily lives”), gay-identification (“nobody cares about that anymore”), bogans and much more. “I thought Australia would turn out to be a more intellectually lively and interesting country than it has. As you may know I’m not a fan of multiculturalism, I’m in favour of cosmopolitanism. To me multiculturalism is all about immigration policy and making pockets of migrants immune to what else is going on in the country. Very little of their culture filters out, except their food. It’s trivial and superficial. I’m pleased there are Bulgarians living in Australia but I’m only interested if something about their history or culture or thoughts and ideas is filtering into our minds, and our way of thinking and feeling is filtering into the minds of Bulgarians.”
I put it to him that he is in danger of being mistaken for a grumpy old man.
Identity misreadings have been going on since the first weeks of Dessaix’s life when his adoptive parents, Tom and Jean Jones, brought him home to Sydney’s lower North Shore and a neighbour across the road speculated that he might be Aboriginal. In primary school, his olive complexion drew inferences that he was “woppish”. There’s also the splendidly vicious line from A Mother’s Disgrace: “Stand up, Jones, and show the class what ‘sallow’ means.” And then there are the photographs he has published of himself in Moscow as an exchange student, which he self-captions “the Pakistani look”, and others that capture the dreamy post-marriage years in Darlinghurst where he seems suddenly to fit in, and keeps on fitting in as he becomes in turn the recognisable ABC broadcaster, celebrated writer and, latterly, public intellectual.
In certain lights, his high forehead and robust white hair remind me of Beckett without the etched anger lines. The absence of visible anger in Dessaix’s face may be the result of his new “live for now” philosophy, just as it may be the genetic gift of those green eyes. Again, it is speculation and possible misreading. He has said himself that he’s getting older and cares less about offending.
“The thing about Robert is that he can shift,” says Modjeska. “He has strong opinions but he can back them up. One rarely feels he will get stuck in particular positions.”
Dessaix has another book in him, a memoir. He even has a title, ‘Time of My Life’, an allusion to where he is now. “The title’s ambiguous, it means I’m coming to the end, and it also means I’m enjoying my life. I always write about the same thing – what is a good life? Une belle vie, as the French have it. My last two books have presumed too much on what the reader might want. Why read about a Russian aristocrat [Turgenev in Twilight of Love], or about a French homosexual [André Gide in Arabesques] pottering about in North Africa, for instance? The new memoir will broaden out the things that fascinate me, all spiralling out from Darlinghurst where almost everything of significance in my life has happened.”
Travel in the particular – to Vladivostok, Damascus, Alexandria – and travel as “the grand illusion” (the fascinating ‘Chateaubriand syndrome’ where “once you’ve seen Niagara there are no other waterfalls”) are recurrent motifs in Dessaix’s work. The young boy who indulged in “vagabond dreaming” on the back verandah of his childhood home has fashioned a mature writing life out of his encounters with “somewhere else”.
On the final page of As I Was Saying Dessaix is packing for a trip to Portugal, making a few notes from his Portuguese phrasebook. He writes: “I doubt there’ll be much call for ‘I’m crazed with desire, darling’ but ‘Are you married?’ could be worth jotting down – so brazen, so innocent, it could lead anywhere.”
Over another cup of tea, and with the recorder turned off, I ask him questions about Lisbon, a city I hope to visit later this year. The men are very beautiful there, he tells me. Latin, Moorish, black African, all mixed in. Dessaix has often written and spoken about travel as the ideal setting for encounters with Eros, citing it as perhaps the real reason we leave home. Going abroad, or wherever “not home” may be, allows other versions of ourselves to manifest in ways only remotely possible in our too-familiar natural habitats.
“It’s a place where you can mislay yourself deliciously, as I am now ready to do,” he writes of Lisbon in As I Was Saying. “I think I’m going to find myself very interesting indeed.”