October 2020

by Helen Elliott

‘The Time of Our Lives’ by Robert Dessaix
The memoirist’s latest, surprisingly unsettling instalment

The 1980s, when the droll Paul Hogan seduced an entire culture into yobbism (short shorts, big boots), were desolate for anyone who wanted more. But there was Robert Dessaix. Dessaix had an hour on ABC Radio each week called Books and Writing. He reviewed new books from overseas and had expansive interviews with the authors. It was high culture, a unique breathing space for many.

In 1995, Dessaix left broadcasting after the publication of his first book, the excellent A Mother’s Disgrace, relating the circumstance of his birth and adoption. An academic, a linguist with a particular interest in Russian and French literature, an intellectual addicted to travel, Robert Dessaix was brought up as Robert Jones in suburban Sydney and didn’t meet his birth mother until mid life. Since A Mother’s Disgrace, Dessaix has now written three formal autobiographies and further travel and essay collections. His readers follow Dessaix’s life with the same intensity he lives it. Despite the genre, Dessaix’s subject is always himself, and The Time of Our Lives: Growing Older Well is a commentary on what it is for him to be nearing eighty.

Devoted readers, and there are many, will be ageing along with Dessaix and will be keen to know how he’s doing it. He is the learned, curious tour leader. He always delivers. This time he is on Java at a wellness spa, mastering Indonesian, although he interrupts with reflections on visiting his partner’s dying mother in an aged-care home back in Tasmania. Dessaix has extreme sensitivity to geography and even more sensitivity to himself in it. He enjoys seeing himself as a playful child, as those without responsibilities like to do. Twenty-five years ago, he was wandering the Greek islands following the scent of Russian aristocrats or tracking André Gide through Algeria and riffing on the culture. And the sex. Now he sits at the poolside admiring the young male waiters, which leads to a discussion with a handy friend about elderly lust and the improbability of sex. Later he climbs to a famous monument and is as merrily informative about the guide as he is about the monument. His style is dandyism and digression, a pleasure when the reader is in the mood and the writer is as erudite as Dessaix. He is a unique camera onto a circumscribed world. There is nothing he refuses to look at.

Yet for all the pleasures Dessaix’s readers will discover here, The Time of Our Lives reveals something striking, unsettling. The new book arrives in a new world, a year of pandemonium, and suddenly these infinitesimal circular thoughts, this leisured travel, these carefully dressed people “pondering” themselves in the light of their privileged history, seem as distant as the rococo camp of the writing. Self-absorption, even the most exquisite, can court irrelevance. Performance dates.

Constructing a self is an exhausting, perpetual vigilance, and Dessaix seems not to have the patience to develop empathy, that quality the biographer Richard Holmes calls “the most powerful, the most necessary and the most deceptive of all human emotions”. Dessaix loves philosophy and is learned about Nietzsche, but unbidden emotions that cannot be intellectualised confound him. He is a significant and valued figure in the Australian cultural landscape, but this latest reiteration of his self-search called up impatience from me. The narrow road to high culture is unforgiving.

Helen Elliott
Helen Elliott is a literary journalist and writer.

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