Heart of the in­ef­fa­ble

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Agnes Nieuwen­huizen

ROBERT Des­saix ar­rives in Syd­ney from Tas­ma­nia for a pro­duc­tion of his only play, A Mad Af­fair, based on a one-hour ren­dezvous on a train be­tween 60-year-old Rus­sian writer Ivan Tur­genev and a 25-year old ac­tress. Des­saix adores the Rus­sian lan­guage, has lived in Rus­sia, taught Rus­sian and is a noted trans­la­tor from Rus­sian. No one knows what tran­spired on that train in 1880 but Des­saix has long been cap­ti­vated by the pos­si­bil­i­ties of the en­counter. He is also cap­ti­vated by love, long­ing, af­fairs, flir­ta­tions, in­fat­u­a­tion.

“... in­fat­u­a­tion. That’s what this play volves around,” he writes in this mem­oir, Days are For.

Des­saix misses see­ing his play (it’s a suc­cess and later trans­lated into Rus­sian), but com­ing to Syd­ney prob­a­bly saved his life. On the street out­side his ho­tel he col­lapses. Nowhere is “heart at­tack” men­tioned. Two peo­ple come to his res­cue: “a spikey haired young Chi­nese man in a T-shirt with F..K YOU em­bla­zoned on it” and the night porter who calls an am­bu­lance. He almost dies twice, on the way to hos­pi­tal and later from mas­sive bleed­ing caused by an al­ler­gic re­ac­tion to med­i­ca­tion. The para­medic in the am­bu­lance with “the glossy, mus­cled fore­arm” asks Des­saix “Have you had a good day?” Des­saix de­cides he has had a very good day.

When strong enough to read, Des­saix finds Philip Larkin’s poem Days in David Lodge’s novel Deaf Sen­tence. Snap: life is all about days, rather than weeks or months. Larkin’s bleak poem asks: “What are days for?” but it cat­a­pults Des­saix into this joy­ful, teas­ing, of­ten hal­lu­ci­na­tory jour­ney ex­plor­ing what days are for.

Of Larkin he writes: “He skew­ers, pricks, amuses, lances, stuns ... All we can do, from Larkin’s per­spec­tive ... is to rue­fully en­dure.” Des­saix en­dures but never “rue­fully”. The poem, novel and his ill­ness lead him to ask: “So how can I spend my days in or­der to make them worth valu­ing as they pass?” Worth pon­der­ing, don’t you think? As Des­saix might ask.

Des­saix is caus­tic (and funny; he can be hi­lar­i­ous) about vogu­ish­ness. “It’s ... been vogu­ish for a long time now to talk about ‘liv­ing in the mo­ment’. I can see why gold­fish might take to this idea but it strikes me as a wit­less ap­proach to pass­ing time for hu­mans.”

He con­tem­plates the in­ef­fa­ble. “Ob­vi­ously the in­ef­fa­ble can’t be ra­tio­nally ex­plained or it wouldn’t be in­ef­fa­ble, but you can at least try to bring it to life.”

As for spir­i­tu­al­ity: “No­body could care less about this sort of thing nowa­days when bush­walk­ing or a bit of home­opa­thy are about as ... reWhat No, not love, but sud­den, un­re­quited long­ing. While it’s love that tends to hog the lime­light th­ese days (and not just Great Loves, ei­ther, but any kind of sex­ual en­tan­gle­ment), it’s in­fat­u­a­tions, crushes and fleet­ing ob­ses­sions that are usu­ally much more mem­o­rable — at least in my ex­pe­ri­ence. What Days are For: A Mem­oir By Robert Des­saix Knopf Aus­tralia, 240pp, $29.99 (HB) ‘spir­i­tual’ as most peo­ple seem to get ... The word ‘spir­i­tual’ seems to have bro­ken free of any se­man­tic teth­er­ing at all.”

There is a longish med­i­ta­tion on re­li­gion: “or­gan­ised re­li­gion cramps the imag­i­na­tion, but the masses don’t want imag­i­na­tion, they want fa­mil­iar folk tales, may­pole danc­ing and sor­cery ... Why did I ever imag­ine that truth and re­li­gion could be brought back to­gether again?” Des­saix comes to un­der­stand that he is an un­be­liever, non-croy­ant, rather than an athe­ist.

For the more lit­eral minded it may be tricky to fathom how the lay­ers of this book came to­gether across four years. As Des­saix lies barely present and float­ing, “pix­il­lat­ing woozily” be­tween life and death on the 10th floor of St Vincent’s Hos­pi­tal some­time in 2011, he prods past ex­pe­ri­ences, large and small events and ideas: in­ti­macy, beauty, idle­ness, travel, trams (“EM Forster was fa­mously and pow­er­fully smit­ten on a tram in Alexan­dria”), re­li­gious be­liefs, ob­ser­vances, tem­ples, gods, shrines and churches in In­dia (he is fas­ci­nated by the fe­ro­cious power of the god­dess Kali), Malaysia, Europe and Syd­ney’s Lane Cove where he grew up: “I sus­pect we con­fused Chris­tian­ity with nice­ness. Was Je­sus nice? Not re­ally, when you read be­tween the lines, not in a Lane Cove sense.”

Des­saix con­tem­plates lit­er­a­ture and read­ing (he is an un­abashed Enid Bly­ton fan), the­atre, au­thors, es­pe­cially Jane Austen and the great Rus­sian and French ones in­clud­ing An­dre Gide, around whom he shaped the mar­vel­lous and gor­geously de­signed 2008 travel-mem­oir Arabesques. Doesn’t one read nov­els “in the hope of a trans­form­ing an­swer to your par­tic­u­lar ques­tions?’’

Con­ver­sa­tion and friend­ship are of in­tense in­ter­est and im­por­tance, as is time and how to think about it. He re­alises that many sem­i­nal events in his life oc­curred not far from this hos­pi­tal, and on Sun­days. It was on a Sun­day not far from St Vincent’s “half a lifetime ago” that Des­saix met his part­ner Peter Timms, “Peter who had an­swered my bit of cheeky puffery amongst the per­sonal ads ... in Cam­paign mag­a­zine ... Peter who turned [my] rather run-down, sor­did world ... into an en­chanted realm”.

It is re­fresh­ing to read some­one so un­com­pro­mis­ing and opin­ion­ated, but never about mat­ters that war­rant deep thought and anal­y­sis. He is mer­ci­less about golfers, watch­ers of Chan­nel 7 and re­al­ity TV, and about “All that talk, all that tweet­ing and hook­ing up and lik­ing on Face­book, but ... no in­ti­macy”. He ad­mits: “I’ve been ac­cused of rig­or­ous snob­bish­ness.”

The plea­sure and el­e­gance of all Des­saix’s writ­ing is in the lan­guage, the eru­di­tion, the del­i­cate, of­ten un­ex­pected and lovely con­nec­tions, and the in­ti­mate, con­ver­sa­tional voice. Any­one who lis­tened to him dur­ing his decade as pre­sen­ter of the ABC’s Books and Writ­ing pro­gram will im­me­di­ately ‘‘hear’’ him.

What Days are For is an il­lu­mi­nat­ing com­pan­ion to A Mother’s Dis­grace (1994), which re­counted Des­saix’s child­hood as a much-loved adopted son, his early stud­ies and trav­els, but mainly his sense of empti­ness un­til he finds his birth mother and a new iden­tity. He notes: “I would like to move hearts, not just minds.” And he does.

Robert Des­saix, left, and part­ner Peter Timms, ‘Peter who turned [my] rather run-down, sor­did world ... into an en­chanted realm’

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