Heart of the ineffable
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’