Monday musings on Australian literature: Spotlight on Robert Dessaix

Courtesy: Annette Marfording

Courtesy: Annette Marfording

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.

Annette Marfording
Celebrating Australian Writing: Conversations with Australian Authors
Self published, 2015
ISBN: 9781329142473

Note: All profits from the sale go to the Indigenous Literacy Foundation. You can purchase the book from its distributor,


14 thoughts on “Monday musings on Australian literature: Spotlight on Robert Dessaix

  1. I like the live life swoopingly idea. Sounds like a good interview. I am totally on board with the fact/truth thing but it sounds like he gets a bit picky in the application of it to other writer’s work. Or maybe he was just feeling pressed by the interviewer?

    • Yes, that’s a wonderful goal for life isn’t it, Stefanie.

      I didn’t get the sense he was being pressed by the interviewer on the Garner thing, but he could have been. She had just referred to the James Frey case which is quite the opposite, isn’t it.

        • And we’ve had some similar”fiascos” here, Stefanie, including Norma Khouri’s Forbidden love which she claimed to be true until a journalist outed it as false. these cases have muddied the waters in one way, but have also encouraged more thinking about the truth/fact/fiction issue which is a good thing I think.

  2. My favourite of Dessaix’s books is Night Letters, a beautiful book which I would recommend to anyone. I’ve got Twilight of Love – such a sad title – to read one day before long (and then I’ll have a review of something by him on the blog:)
    Re Garner: it was you, Sue, who told me that she tends to polarise opinions, and for me, while I felt a sense of distaste about her previous books, it was The Spare Room that really repelled me, and firmed up my decision never to read her again. Perhaps Dessaix, perhaps with a similar experience of caring for a close friend in extremis, felt the same way, as if a line had been crossed.

    • Ah, yes, Lisa, I haven’t forgotten your reaction to Garner and that novel in particular. Perhaps you’re right about Dessaix, though I expect he might have said so. My guess is that he’s saying what some others have said before him regarding Garner not writing “fiction”.

  3. Thank you, Sue, for writing about my book! My interview with Robert Dessaix was the longest – he gave me a whole hour and the tone throughout was friendly (even if at times friendly sparring, but he was never irritated) and at the end he kept thanking me for ‘the great conversation’, which greatly chuffed me because of his comment that what he likes best about travel now is conversation. As I love all his books, the conversation with him was one of the highlights of my life! Like Lisa, I used to think of Night Letters as my favourite – it is not his – but now I love his most recent one best: As I was Saying. Somewhat ironically, because it traces the week after a heart attack, where doctors didn’t hold much hope for his survival, it is his most optimistic and fun one – I literally saw the words dancing through my ti-tree – and has wonderful descriptions of places he visited in Syria – now all blown to smithereens…

    He also – like all the other authors – talks about writing, and Lee Kofman, for one, tells me she’s using quotes from my book when she’s teaching writing.

    Because of the disadvantageous exchange rate, I also want to mention that Celebrating Australian Writing is also available in Australia: in independent bookshops in Sydney (Glebe, Newtown, Leichardt, Paddington and the city) and on the NSW Mid-North-Coast – and online at

    And after the recent Closing the Gap Report, which singles out education as one area where indigenous people are still far behind, support for the Indigenous Literacy Foundation is as important as ever!

    • Thanks Annette – for filling in some background on the interview and for being happy with what I’m doing. Thanks too for adding more information about availability of the book.

      I did of course notice the sparring, but am glad to hear he wasn’t irritated. I wouldn’t imagine that he would be really, but this sort of nuance can be hard to capture in text can’t it.

      I won’t discuss all the reviews in the book but I will give the book more air over the next year or so. It deserves it.

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