Yarra Valley Writers Festival 2020 (Online): New Release Sundays: Robert Dessaix

YVWF Dessaix Logo

Back in May, I attended several sessions of the Yarra Valley Writers Festival (YVWF), a COVID-19 bonus, as most of you know. The Festival also runs two regular events, a weekly New Release Sundays and a monthly Bookclub. I haven’t managed to attend any, until today, which involved Festival Ambassador Michael Veitch speaking with Australian novelist, essayist and journalist, Robert Dessaix. I read Dessaix’s memoir, A mother’s disgrace, before blogging, and I used to love his ABC RN radio shows, Lingua Franca, and Books and writing (which he did for a decade.) Today’s session was about his new book about growing older, The time of our lives: Growing older well.

The session’s promo described the book as “a wise and timely exploration of not just the challenges but also the many possibilities of old age”. Given I have had nonagenarians, and now a centenarian, continuously in my life since 2004, and given my own aging, this topic interested me.

The conversation

Robert Dessaix, The time of our lives: Growing older well Book cover

Michael Veitch started, of course, by introducing Dessaix, telling us that The time of our lives is Dessaix’s 10th book. He described the book as “joyous”, but hard to define – not a novel, not short stories, not a guide. More, he said, a kaleidoscope of impressions, spiritual and intellectual.

Dessaix liked that image, saying that kaleidoscope describes how he lives: he takes shards from what happens around him, shapes them, and hopes “a beautiful pattern will emerge”.

Several themes ran through the conversation, kaleidoscope being one, plus there being “bulwarks” against the ravages of age, the importances of having an inner life, the value of curiosity, and the idea of dance. The book begins with a dance (“Voulez-vous couchez avec moi”!) and ends with a Javanese dance, which nicely encapsulates his transition from loving Europe to being interested in Asia (particularly India and Indonesia.)

Later in the conversation, Veitch mentioned the death of Dessaix’s partner’s mother, Rita. It seems that she was the (or a) major impetus for the book. She was living in a retirement village – “village” being the wrong word Dessaix felt for such homogenous places – until she had the fall that resulted in her moving into aged care. I’ll return to this later …

Veitch read an excerpt from the book describing the inner life. This definition included that it’s like “a cherished piece of music [that is] shaped by our our individual memories”. (This is a tiny part of the full description, so please don’t quote me!) Dessaix said his aim is not to shut out the outer world, but simply to keep certain things in. The inner self is a conversation, and is something that “holds us together against nothingness”. Hmm, that sounds more like the time of Sartre and TS Eliot than now!

“of course, I’m curious”

Anyhow, Veitch moved onto the idea of curiosity, suggesting that it drives the book. Dessaix agreed, saying “of course I’m curious”. We are only here for a short time!

Dessaix went on to say that a major interest as he’s grown older is other people. How do people cope with what the world has served up to them? He loves to visit India, but not for the sights, which are purely background. He likes getting close to people, to understand their lives. Women, he said, are easier to become close to.

During this conversation he said something that spoke to me, which is that coping is “such a difficult thing to do”. We think, he said, that it will be easy. that we follow the path – get a job, marry, having family, etc – and that it will all just fall into place. I remember thinking that in my angsty teen years. But, he said, it’s not like this, “we have to cope every day with something”. He described the world as “an abattoir”, which is a strong image for what is apparently not a dark book.

This led to a discussion of friendship, but there was nothing particularly new here (for me anyhow), so let’s move on. He did, though, comment that the older you get, the things you care about become less. Now he will say what he thinks, and “take negative responses on the chin”. Around here, he commented that in the 1960s, we (and I became a teen in the 1960s so I was with him) believed everything would get better, but that euphoria of has evaporated into nothing. So sad, because we really did think we were on the way to becoming kinder, gentler, fairer.

“a stupid foreginer”

Veitch asked him about his current interest in Asia. Dessaix replied that Europe started to become tedious. He wanted to go somewhere where he would be a blank, “innocent”, so he started with India, and now visits (except this year) Java. Being in a place where he feels “not at home” stimulates him “to have important conversations with himself”.

He admitted that he is granted liberties because he’s “a stupid foreigner”; he feels open to saying things he would not say in Paris or Berlin.

Veitch read another excerpt which, if I got it correctly, described a secret door going from the formal European gardens of Dessaix’s younger days to the more riotous gardens of places like Java. He said he was humbled to discover he had shut out these intricate civilisations and now he’s too old. These are sensual places. Europe preens, and positions itself as sexy, but is not sensual.

“play and discipline”

Dessaix equated the inner life with a dance, the tango, which he said combines “play and discipline”. It is sexy, sensual, beautiful but also demands discipline. His aim is to hone these two – play and discipline.

At this point, the conversation turned to the aforementioned Rita, who died during the writing of the book. She, Dessaix said, did not have an inner life (though how he really knows, I’m not sure). Born in 1922, she, Dessaix suggested, was one of those women “crushed by the men they lived with”. He believes she did not feel she was worthy of having an inner life.

Veitch wondered whether you have to learn how to have an inner life? Dessaix thought yes, but that class is also involved. Rita was told she was a “stupid woman”. She was, he said, bored out of her mind. Dessaix said her aged care home “smelled of boredom”. This could be a judgement from someone not there yet, though I’m sure boredom does exist in aged care. Dessaix doesn’t feel he will be affected because “there is too much going on inside”.

Now, here’s the thing … many aged care places (here in Canberra, anyhow) offer many opportunities for residents to be engaged and mentally active, but it depends on one’s brain staying healthy, and on hearing and sight being good. Father Gums has quite an inner life. I know, because he tells me about the things he thinks about, but time can, nonetheless, hang heavily, because sight and hearing difficulties make it difficult to partake of opportunities offered to feed the mind.

“happiness & contentment”

The discussion turned to the difference between happiness and contentment. Dessaix initially saw little difference but refined his ideas as the book progressed. Fortunately, what he came up with is how I see it, because I’m bothered by the focus on “happiness”. Contentment – a sort of inner comfort – is what we aim for, he said, but it can never be complete, while there is suffering in the world. Happiness, on the other hand, can be complete, but it “drops on you”. There is no mystery to it. As Veitch said, happiness falls on you, while contentment settles on you.

Continuing this theme, Dessaix said that he doesn’t like “tranquility”, preferring “animation”. For this reason he likes the god, Ganesha, who dances! Apparently, grief guru Elizabeth Kubler-Ross said at the end of her life, “I wish I’d danced more”. I love it!

There was more, including a discussion about attitudes to death. Mainly, though, the conversation reiterated in different ways the main theme of continuing to “play” and engage in life actively, and of accepting ageing without fear. Ever the writer, Dessaix equated life with sitting on your own “Persian carpet”: it is beautiful, has repetitions, and is different from the one next to it.

However, he did add an element of reality, which I approved. Life, he said, is about maintenance – your eyes, your ears, your … well, you get the picture.

Dessaix said he found ageing liberating, meaning that things he had hoped for – like the Catholic Church disappearing – won’t happen, and he no longer cares, because he has his inner life. He is more tolerant now, accepting that some things can’t be changed.

As you age, said Dessaix, you can still be happy: there’s a shrinking list of things to be happy about but that happiness can be deeper.

Veitch concluded the session by saying that the book is not a dark book, and is more about life than age. He liked, he said earlier, that the book is called “growing older” not “old”.

Overall, a good session about a book I’d like to read, but it is clear – and he would probably admit it – that Dessaix is a privileged person for whom ageing and an inner life will come easier than for some.

From Yarra Valley Writers Festival 2020 (Online): New Release Sundays
1 November 2020, 4:00 – 5:00 PM

28 thoughts on “Yarra Valley Writers Festival 2020 (Online): New Release Sundays: Robert Dessaix

  1. So often these books about ageing gracefully, however it gets defined, are written by people who still have the health and independence to enjoy it.
    I don’t think there’s much that’s original about any of it… what we all fear is the last phase when the senses and the body fails.

    • I don’t know Carmel as I haven’t read it either. My guess is not -or if he does , in passing – because the whole discussion seemed to be suggesting it was about living as you grow older and not about death at all. We’ll have to read it, or find someone else who has.

      • I’m so glad to see Robert Dessaix being discussed Sue – I love, love his books I have a bookshelf full of them!

        Dessaix has a knack of making the reader think they;re part of the erudite, witty, and sometimes annoying conversations he is having with friends in his books, and it’s a charming technique that he is masterful at. This book is like that. I hardly put this one down and read it in one day… but yes it is very much a white, Western, privileged conversation.

        I don’t think he comes to any firm conclusions except that cultivating an enquiring mind and a broad range of interests are a help in negotiating the loneliness that can come with old age and infirmity. He’s critical of aged care homes and would prefer to see older people engaged in the community and family but how to do this in our society is a tougher question he doesn’t really confront.

        It’s a great read if you want a conversation that is interesting, clever, thought provoking and a pleasure to read, but Dessaix is not out to deal with such things as assisted dying. This book needs to be taken as an entertaining and also thought provoking look at the topic of getting older, but Dessaix doesn’t pretend to have much in the way of practical answers to the many problems the aged face.

        • Thank you for your analysis, Sue. I really appreciated that. And yes, the important part, aside from the pleasure in the reading, is the stimulation of discussions.

        • Thanks very much Sue … you’ve described very well what I felt was probably the tone and goal of the book. It’s good to have that confirmed. The conversation clearly got it right (for me anyhow). I love your love of Dessaix!

          I don’t know what Aged Care home his partner’s mother was at, but of course I agree with you that it’s best if old people can remain engaged in the community. I think most would agree with that? However, with the very old or very ill there can come a point where they are physically and/or mentally unable to be engaged and to be independent (even with decent help). My goal is to stay in the community for as long as I can, but when I become too dependent I plan to graciously move into aged care (as did my MIL and now my Dad) and hopefully a decent one. I would feel it unreasonable of me to not be prepared to do that if I live to that point.

      • Sue, yes, it’s more about how to live a full life so you have memories and interests to help sustain you when life becomes more “contained”, as Dessaix puts it, due to age and infirmity. Dessaix lets his reader eves-drop as it were on his discussions with various friends. Ever the Renaissance man, his aim is to provoke thought while offering a stimulating and enjoyable read – it’s not a “heavy” book – perfect to read as I did, sitting outside on a lovely afternoon with a cool drink and a good book!

        Carmel thank you – I wrote a full response last night and it was somehow deleted when I hit the Reply button! Dessaix loves a good conversation and that’s what this book is – a pleasure to read & one which provokes a good discussion as well.

        • Thanks Sue … I like Renaissance Man. He called himself Enlightenment, but I reckon the Renaissance is good for him too!

          Re sustaining ourselves as life becomes more constrained, I reckon that for our generation, keeping up with technology will be a way to do this too, though in the end, it can get to the point where you only have what’s in your head because your eyes and ears are not up to a lot! So, you’d better have a lot in your head!

          (Interestingly, I’ve been thinking that COVID-19 has possibly shown what happens when you don’t have an inner life? I wonder whether those who have bucked most against restrictions are those who don’t have a lot of inner resources to fall on, who need external stimulation to maintain their equanimity? This isn’t the only reason for bucking restrictions, I realise, but I wonder if it is the case for some.)

  2. I would be interested in his thoughts on assisted dying. I recently purchased this books as I have followed him for years. I attended a country bbq that he attended several yrs back and he spent much of the afternoon apart from the crowd staring into the distance alone. He thinks a lot about all manner of topics. I have read several of his books and once even recommended a type of yogurt in the grocery store he and his partner were deliberating about. Lol. I enjoy hearing his thoughts though I think there are times you can think too much and prefer moving forward out of those thoughts probably faster than he does. 🤠🐧🌷🍷

    • Interesting Pam. One thing he did say in the conversation that I didn’t include – the post was getting long enough as it was –

      I enjoy hearing his thoughts too, and would like to read more of his books. Veitch asked him about whether it was a conscious decision not to refer back to the past in this book. He said that it wasn’t “quite a conscious decision” but that he “writes books to forget”. In other words, the past is done. Each book, he said, is an attempt to leap across “a chasm” that he then leaves behind, The current chasm was ageing. Probably, when you say him at that gathering he was pondering his current chasm or, deciding which is the next chasm to confront! I probably should have included this in the post but there, I’ve documented it now!

  3. Thank you for your summary of this talk. I have Robert Dessaix’s new book from the library but haven’t started it yet. I agree with you, and apparently him that contentment is what I aim for – happiness is elusive and temporary.
    Many years ago I was at a Melbourne Writer’s Festival session where I think he was speaking, probably about A Mother’s Disgrace, and soon after he had revealed that he was HIV positive. By that time the drugs had been developed to enable the HIV positive to live long lives but they hadn’t been around long to see how they worked.
    A young woman got up during question time and asked him how he felt about possibly dying very soon, there was a collective breathtaking from the audience but he managed to control his voice to say words to the effect that he was looking forward to whatever time he did have left.

    • Thanks very much Carrie for commenting – and thanks for sharing that story. What a gracious response from him to such a tactless question!

      And yes, I agree with your characterisation of happiness as “elusive and temporary”. I’ll try to remember description!

  4. A further thought about his importance of having a bountiful inner life Sue – my grandmother was a highly articulate, politically aware, well read woman who had had a fulfilling career, but when we were forced by her state of health to place her in a retirement village she found herself intellectually frustrated as the other residents had no interest in such matters – she tried to hold talks with invited speakers but nobody would turn up. She found herself isolated and only the mobile library (thank Heavens for that!) and our visits seemed to give her any relief from the monotony of the days. I guess fewer women obtained much education back then so she was something of a rarity.

    I wonder if things would be better now. I would not be able to afford a top of the range aged care home, so that does make me anxious! You’re probably right about how wonderful technology is thank heavens. My Nan would have loved the internet!

    As Carmel said above, what’s important is that Dessaix’s book starts these discussions. I’m so glad you posted abut it!

    • Are you talking Retirement Village or Aged Care? They are very different. Certainly, my experience of Retirement Villages through my parents, my husband’s mother, and others a decade older than I am, is that many of them have intellectually active groups. My MIL’s one had a resident-led poetry group, for example. In Retirement Villages, a lot of these things are resident-led so I guess it depends on where you are. Canberra is probably likely to find residents happy to oranges and listen to speakers.

      Aged care is a bit different, with residents tending to be less able to organise things. However, my mother had a friend in aged care home here, a decade ago – she was older than Mum and died about a decade ago. She ran a little discussion group. Each week she’d distribute a paragraph or article from the newspaper for the members of the group to read before they came together to discuss it. My MIL’s aged care place had discussion groups too – I’d see the signs on the noticeboard for them. At my Dad’s place, I notice that there are resident talks (about their lives) but I’m not sure about other stuff. My Dad’s hearing is so poor that he’s not interested in engaging so I haven’t chased them up. However, I do know that the recreation people are active in finding things that the residents want to do, and using technologies to aid this where appropriate (like Moove and Groove: https://www.mooveandgroove.com.au )

      • Yes I hope things have improved since my Nan’s time Sue, it was a long time ago now and she didn’t fit with any of the other residents – that was a retirement village in Sydney. I think she was unusual for her time in that she was poor as a church mouse but very politically aware and very involved with Indigenous Australians…the other residents had no interest in speakers coming to them, or in reading.

        The mobile library, and the wonderful staff who ran it, was a saviour for her.

        I just dread the thought of being stuck with things like bingo or card games!

  5. Pingback: 2020 Word for Word Non-Fiction Festival, 21/11/20 | ANZ LitLovers LitBlog

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