Monday musings on Australian literature: Spotlight on Robert Dessaix
Last year, I published a guest post by Annette Marfording, who was, for many years, the Program Director of the Bellingen Readers and Writers Festival. At the time of this post, she had just self-published her book, Celebrating Australian Writing: Conversations with Australian Authors, containing a selection of interviews she’d conducted over many years with a wide range of Australian writers. Rather than review it, I’ve decided to use it for an occasional series within Monday Musings. I won’t be quoting large slabs of the text, or giving away all the content of the interviews. Besides the fact that that would break her copyright, I’d like to see people buy the book because not only is it a good read but Marfording is generously donating the profits (see the end of the post). My plan is to use Marfording’s interviews to springboard brief discussions about some writers who interest me. OK?
I won’t necessarily discuss my selected authors in the same order as Marfording’s book, but I am starting with the first author, Robert Dessaix. I haven’t reviewed Dessaix here because I haven’t completed any of his books since I started blogging. However, I have read his first book, the critically acclaimed memoir A mother’s disgrace (1994). I’ve also dipped into other books, including his collection of essays and articles As I was saying (2012), and I have enjoyed his thoughtful, engaging contributions on language to ABC RN’s old Lingua Franca program. He also presented, for many years until 1995, ABC’s Books and Writing program. Language and literature, as you’ve probably gathered, are his passion
So, who is Robert Dessaix? Wikipedia describes him as a novelist, essayist and journalist, but it would probably be more correct to call him an essayist, memoirist, journalist and novelist, because novels – of which he’s written two – form the smallest part of his output. He reminds me, in this regard, of writers like Drusilla Modjeska and Helen Garner (though Garner does have a good number of novels under her belt as well as other writing.) Anyhow, for a better bio than that provided by Wikipedia, it’s worth checking out his own website. He was born in Sydney, adopted as a young child, and was married, but now lives with a male partner. Much of this story is told in A mother’s disgrace. Here is an example of his writing from that book:
There’s something deeply comforting, after all, about the promise of a linear narrative: birth, school, university, marriage, family, career, onwards, upwards … the autumnal years a bit misty, perhaps, the phut as the fuse runs out, best not thought about too graphically but on the whole not a bad way to live out a sequence of years. The trouble is that, once you’ve set out on that alluringly straight track, it’s hard to swerve off it or come to a standstill. It’s hard to live what I’d call swoopingly.
I have tried to swoop and veer. I didn’t have the wit to veer away from marriage, I had to be sent packing. But I did curve away from teaching Russian literature to university students into working at the Stables Theatre in Kings Cross and then in radio, I did swerve sharply away from Canberra to experiment with being a Sydneysider again, I did deviate (after a messy start) from the heterosexual straight and narrow to try more fulfilling, multifaceted ways of loving …
But now, to Marfording’s interview. Marfording clearly researches her subjects and asks questions specifically relevant to each of her interviewees, rather than rely on a standard set of questions. She talked to him about some of his specific writings of course, and a bit about his writing practice. She also talked with him about travel, which features in much of his writing. He has some interesting things to say about what he looks for in travel, and how that has changed over time. What he now looks for, he tells Marfording, is conversation. It’s also one of the topics in As I was saying. He writes:
‘The grand business of our lives,’ the novelist Henry Fielding said, ‘the foundation of everything, either useful or pleasant’ is conversation. It’s quite a claim. His contemporary Samuel Johnson was hardly less emphatic: ‘There is in this world,’ he said, ‘no real delight (excepting those of sensuality) but the exchange of ideas in conversation.’ They were eighteenth century English gentlemen, so their enthusiasm is not surprising: the eighteenth century was the heyday of conversation in England …
He goes on to discuss those with opposing views. The Hebrews, he suggests, cared little for conversation, neither did Jean-Jacques Rousseau who saw it as “frivolous”, and Presbyterianism, he writes, “has never been good for animated intercourse”. He concludes by analysing the art of conversation then and now – but that’s a discussion for another day, because …
The part of the interview that particularly interested me stemmed from his contribution to the Little Books on Big Themes series (from which I’ve reviewed Dorothy Porter’s On passion). Dessaix chose his topic – On humbug! I enjoyed this section of the interview because it got into discussing truth and facts. He shares two of his epigraphs. For A mother’s disgrace, he used a line from Jeanette Winterson, “I’m telling you stories, trust me”, and for Arabesques, it was “When I invent things, it is to make the truth clearer”. He explains:
I try to distinguish between fact and truth […] things can be broadly speaking true without being absolutely factual, if you know what I mean.
Yes, I do, Robert! Marfording then questions him about his review of Helen Garner’s The spare room, a raw novel based on her experience with a friend who had terminal cancer. Dessaix, and he wasn’t the only one, said that it shouldn’t be described as fiction because it’s based on fact. Yet, Marfording questions, putting him on the spot, Dessaix’s own novel Night letters is also based on his life. Dessaix’s answer is that his was “partly fictionalised” and that he “changed the order”, implying that Garner hadn’t. Indeed he suggests that she simply publishes her notebooks and that “she should come out and admit what she does”. Hmm … all this said, the interview does conclude with Dessaix talking about his favourite books and writers:
I do actually love Helen Garner’s writing; I love Michelle de Kretser’s writing, The Hamilton case and The lost dog; I was very taken with Thea Astley at the time, I mean I haven’t read her for years, but I just read book after book of Thea Astley’s …
His very favourite books, though, are the 19th century Russians.
Dessaix is an interesting, erudite – dare I suggest, Renaissance – man who’s well worth reading. Thanks to Marfording for an excellent interview.
Celebrating Australian Writing: Conversations with Australian Authors
Self published, 2015