A conversation with Robert Dessaix

I can’t tell you how how pleased I was to speak recently to  Robert Dessaix at Melbourne’s Wheeler Centre. It’s not just that his new book, What Days are for, is perfect. And it’s not just that his voice is singular – his knowledge, his wisdom, his sense of humour, his sharpness, his candour, his ways with languages and words –  it’s that I’ve had so many wonderful conversations with him over the years, I’ve spoken with Robert every time a book of his has published since the fateful moment in about 1994 – 5 when I took that baton from him with Books and Writing at Radio National, and he went off into the world of his own work rather than the works of others. Which is what I did too three years ago.

Here is the video of our conversation posted on the Wheeler Centre website. And here it is on YouTube.

And here below is one of the memorable conversations I had with him in 2008 when his book Arabesques was published

Ramona Koval: Robert Dessaix takes us travelling in his new book Arabesques, but travelling in the way that Robert does exceptionally well. ‘Languid’ is a word that comes to mind, that is slow and graceful in movement, luxuriating or voluptuous in idleness. These are travels and reveries, and in thinking about his literary companion, Andre Gide, he talks to us of love and sex and religion and place, about beauty and friendship and about getting older.

Robert of course is the author of A Mother’s Disgrace, Night Letters, Corfu and Twilight of Love: Travels with Turgenev. Robert Dessaix, welcome to The Book Show.

Robert Dessaix: Thank you, Ramona, it’s good to be here. It worries me that you say ‘languid’, it makes it sound effete…or don’t you think so?

Ramona Koval: No, I don’t think so. I just gave a definition there, that bit of languid, ‘slow and graceful in movement, luxuriating or voluptuous in idleness’. Don’t you think?

Robert Dessaix: Yes, those are all nice words.

Ramona Koval: There are dictionary definitions which sort of says ‘floppy’ but I’m not using those words.

Robert Dessaix: I’m not floppy, am I?

Ramona Koval: No, you’re not, no you’re upright, you’re sitting very upright there. Let’s begin with a reading.

Robert Dessaix: This is a little passage set in Sousse in Tunisia, a town of absolutely no distinction, popular with Ukrainians.

[reading from In the Rue… to …revelatory experience in the sand hills.]

Ramona Koval: So this place was important for Gide. Tell us what happened with Oscar Wilde and Gide’s experience, the life-shattering moment for him.

Robert Dessaix: Well, I think of it…

Ramona Koval: Well, expand it then.

Robert Dessaix: Yes, it was a kaleidoscopic moment really. I suppose that all through his youth he had felt that at some level he would like to touch some flesh but never did. He was a very strict Protestant and embodied love was something that he never experienced. At some level of his consciousness I think he knew that what he would like would be Ali. However, he really did nothing about it until he met Oscar Wilde. He knew Oscar Wilde. People of a certain class in Paris in those days did know Oscar Wilde. He went to the Casbah in Algiers with Oscar Wilde. At one point Oscar Wilde said to him in a Moorish café, ‘Dear, would you like the little musician?’ And after a lifetime of saying no to himself about everything, he said yes.

And so the experience with the little musician turned him from the path that he’d been on in another direction. He did of course go on to get married to his cousin Madeleine and he stayed married to her for 43 years until she died, but his basic affinity, his basic leaning was towards what we would call…I think one has to be very careful in these days of the Bill Henson furore…his basic leaning was towards youths, and North Africa was accommodating in that respect.

Ramona Koval: Was it a kind of sex tourism that they were all on?

Robert Dessaix: I don’t think really that he toured for that reason. I don’t think that it was sex tourism in the sense of going to Thailand to visit prostitutes, no, I don’t. But you see I think that a lot of travel is actually about Eros. People have written whole books about this. At some sort of level, we may not be looking for sex but we are looking for Eros, and that includes sex. I think it’s always been that. It’s been like that since the grand tour in Europe when young aristocratic Englishmen would go to the continent to educate themselves about all sorts of things but about love as well. That is simply one way that you could do it. On the continent things were different from the way they were in Manchester. It’s always really been like that.

Ramona Koval: And for you, tell us about this place for you and what it opened up for you?

Robert Dessaix: North Africa? Well, I first went there at about the same age as Gide did actually, in my early 20s. Again, it was an erotic experience, not a sexual experience, as it happens, but a highly erotic experience. Other selves appear in your consciousness in a way that just can’t in Kew or Lane Cove or Hobart, they just can’t really. In North Africa it’s special because you’re naked in a way you never are at home; you can’t speak the language, you don’t understand what anyone is saying, you don’t understand the music, you don’t understand the food, nothing, you are naked, you are nobody.

Ramona Koval: You could be like that in Finland though too.

Robert Dessaix: Oh the Finns are very like Presbyterians, it seems to me. The Finns are recognisable. I’ve lived in Finland as well. I’m very at home in Finland. Finland is not so different from Lane Cove actually.

Ramona Koval: Okay, well, I’ll have to think of somewhere else that you’re not very at home in.

Robert Dessaix: Well, western China or somewhere probably.

Ramona Koval: Well, would it have the same erotic frisson?

Robert Dessaix: Not for me, and it’s partly what books you read, I suppose, it’s partly the history of North Africa, the fact that North Africa was ‘the orient’ as they called it in the old days, although it was actually south. But it was only a couple of days away. You could get to Algeria in four days from England, you just took a train across France and a ship from Marseille. It was very accessible. And so that’s where many people from Northern Europe found the exotic orient, and so it has a history. It has a history in painting, it has a history in literature, and that’s why I went and why Gide went, and it just changes the way you want to live, I think, once you’ve been there.

Ramona Koval: You talk about the idea of travel as escape from something you feel a strong attachment to, not something you hate.

Robert Dessaix: Yes, I don’t hate home. This whole book is about home and away from home, it’s about the contrast between those two things, and it’s something that we live with all the time. We love home. Home is the most important thing to get right in our lives actually, but it only has meaning for us, it only has value if we’re also aware of ‘not home’. And so I travel for balance, and I think Gide travelled for balance. Home strangled him. He loved his wife more than life itself. It was a chaste marriage for the whole 43 years, but he loved his wife more than life itself, and when she died he was barely alive. Yet home is not enough. It’s everything but it’s not enough.

Ramona Koval: Let’s talk about Gide and Madeleine. You describe her as a hyper presence, his salvation. ‘Hyper presence’?

Robert Dessaix: Yes, it’s a word a French critic once used and I loved it. I pronounced it to myself in French, it sounds a little bit less cold, it sounds more elegant in French. I think that I have a hyper presence in my life, I think they’re wonderful things, but I think they’re difficult to come by. A hyper presence is like the sky, the air you breathe, it doesn’t judge you, it keeps you alive. A hyper presence loves you in an all-encompassing way but doesn’t worry about the minutia of your existence, just like a sky. A hyper presence protects you but enfolds you.

Ramona Koval: Is it a mother?

Robert Dessaix: For many people it’s a mother, for many people it is a church, it could be God.

Ramona Koval: But it’s not a living, breathing person, in a sense.

Robert Dessaix: Well, in Gide’s case he less and less had God. He started off with God but God dissipated during his life. I think Madeleine became his hyper presence.

Ramona Koval: But from Madeleine’s point of view, I have to say, that she didn’t seem to be a living, breathing woman with needs, as they say. I think we have to talk about this, Robert.

Robert Dessaix: Yes, we do. I have to agree with you. Some people feel very sympathetic to Madeleine; there she was in her castle in Normandy while he went to Moscow, the Congo, all around the world. She was there saying her prayers and polishing the furniture.

Ramona Koval: And they never slept together, they never had a sexual relationship together.

Robert Dessaix: No.

Ramona Koval: That can’t have been a lot of fun, Robert.

Robert Dessaix: It can’t have been, but then she started out like that…

Ramona Koval: Well, we all start out like that, don’t we? But we don’t expect to end up like that.

Robert Dessaix: Oh I don’t know, I don’t think that we all do. I think that for her…we may all start out virginal but I think her religious beliefs made it very difficult for her to emotionally engage with anyone at all.

Ramona Koval: I wonder whether she was just turned mad for religion because she wasn’t being enveloped and taken up as a woman by her husband.

Robert Dessaix: That’s a very modern way of looking at it but she wouldn’t have seen it like that and never spoke about it like that. She was traumatised when she was a teenage girl by discovering her mother’s affair with another man. This was in a very religious family and her mother left home and went off with the lover, and from my point of view (and it’s not just my point of view) she was in some sense redeeming her mother’s sin for the rest of her life. But we have to understand, some people are not particularly interested in a sexual relationship, they want an emotional or intellectual relationship or a combination of the two or the three or of the five or whatever it might be. There is no indication that Madeleine at any stage, apart from perhaps having wished she might have been a mother…there’s no indication that she wanted what you or I might think of as a normal kind of married relationship. There is no indication. Madeleine was afraid of the world. She was afraid of going to the next town.

Ramona Koval: Very different from her husband then.

Robert Dessaix: The opposite. But opposites often go well together. And all sorts of things about their union were wonderful, truly wonderful, but more and more she was not a good intellectual companion. She ceased reading anything but devotional literature and I think he felt more and more stifled. Yet she was central. I mean, I can understand, and I really feel that it’s not my place to judge either of them.

Ramona Koval: You think I’m being judgemental, don’t you.

Robert Dessaix: Well, I do, and I think it’s an easy thing to do. I have done it myself but I would like to draw back from doing it. But since I feel closer to Andre, for all sorts of obvious reasons, why wouldn’t I, I take his part more actively, I do.

Ramona Koval: You actually have your travelling companions in this book,Arabesques: A Tale of Double Lives…I’m a bit unsure about whether they actually exist, these travelling companions, or whether they’re reveries or not.

Robert Dessaix: Well, yes, they are reveries, that’s a very good word. They are reveries, they’re based on real people.

Ramona Koval: Who may or may not have been with you.

Robert Dessaix: Who were with me. There was always someone with me having this experience, but sometimes they’re not exactly the way I describe them. I paraphrase everything. That’s what writing a book is, it’s paraphrasing life, it’s what painting a painting is. So the Sri Lankan artist from Melbourne, for example, who’s name starts with M…

Ramona Koval: We can work that probably out. But you give them the chance to challenge you a bit. So the women you travel with, you let them perhaps say something that I might say; ‘Oh Robert, come off it! These white marriages between gay men and women can’t have been a lot of fun for the women.’

Robert Dessaix: That’s right, I thought I should do that.

Ramona Koval: I’m glad you did.

Robert Dessaix: I felt that I needed contrary voices to come in otherwise there I’d be just droning on. So the whole book is, in a sense, made up of dialogues. There are some monologues but a lot of dialogues, otherwise I thought that you’d just get my view of him.

Ramona Koval: I was interested to see that you say you were a Christian when you were a young man. I’m not quite sure…

Robert Dessaix: I put ‘Christian’ in the last census I’m here to tell you, I’m revealing this private information now on radio…

Ramona Koval: You didn’t put ‘Protestant’?

Robert Dessaix: No, I put ‘Christian’. I thought it’s the closest to what I feel I am. I’m not a Muslim, I’m not a Buddhist…

Ramona Koval: You’re not ‘nothing’ then.

Robert Dessaix: I’m not ‘nothing’. I mean, do I look like nothing?

Ramona Koval: No, you don’t look like nothing.

Robert Dessaix: And I thought the closest word is ‘Christian’, so I’ll put that.

Ramona Koval: I don’t know, you don’t look Christian either though, somehow.

Robert Dessaix: It must be my expensive haircut.

Ramona Koval: You say you are Christian from your point of view but perhaps not from the Archbishop of Canterbury’s view. But this Archbishop of Canterbury, the current one, is probably…

Robert Dessaix: I’m sure I’m not from his point of view. I think there’s a Uniting Church minister in Collins Street here in Melbourne who might accept me. But no…I don’t accept that Jesus is my saviour, I don’t believe in the Trinity, I don’t go to church…

Ramona Koval: And Christian then from the point of view of what?

Robert Dessaix: From the point of view that when I think about questions of transcendence and of ultimate reality, I tend (simply because that was the way I was brought up) to think about them in terms of the New Testament, using the vocabulary of the New Testament. And the Old Testament, but more the New Testament.

Ramona Koval: And Gide was a Protestant.

Robert Dessaix: He was a Protestant, I’m very Protestant, Gide was very Protestant.

Ramona Koval: And what does ‘very Protestant’ mean? I was interested in this idea of sufficiency, because of course it’s something that’s completely alien to me.

Robert Dessaix: Yes, Protestant, as I discuss it in this book, means that there is just Truth with a capital T, which can be replaced with God if you want, but there’s Truth with a capital T, and there’s text. That actually does sound quite Jewish, I’m here to tell you. There’s just Truth and there text, and nothing is sacred. There is no buffer zone, there is no church between you and Truth in which you may rest, which can redeem you, which can give you succour. There is just you and Truth and text. That’s all there is.

The only trouble with that is that texts multiply. You start finding other texts between you and Truth, not just the New Testament or psalms or Genesis or whatever it might be from the Old Testament. That’s the problem with Protestantism. So Protestantism tends to multiply and turn into many different kind of Protestantism. But we are happy with that, officially speaking. We do not ask for more than we are given. If we are given a lot, as Andre Gide was, he was given two castles in Normandy, for example, and an awful lot of money, that’s fine…

Ramona Koval: That’s okay, but you don’t ask for it.

Robert Dessaix: But you don’t ask for it, you see, you don’t seek for it.

Ramona Koval: Can you position yourself in an area that you might actually get it, or is that cheating?

Robert Dessaix: Of course you can, yes. I’m talking about the ideal position. But I come from a family where…well, my adopted father was a lapsed Catholic and my mother was Presbyterian, and from an early age I could see the difference in their mentalities. There is a difference in the Catholic and Protestant mentalities. I’m definitely a Protestant.

Ramona Koval: The idea of you being a Protestant and then just swanning about in North Africa seems to me a little bit counterintuitive.

Robert Dessaix: No, there are Protestants swanning about all over North Africa. In fact the Protestants are doing very well in converting Algerians at the moment in the mountains south of Algiers.

Ramona Koval: And what’s the attraction?

Robert Dessaix: I think it is probably liberation from certain restrictions that Islam imposes on the way men and women live their lives. It’s a very dangerous thing to do and throats are being cut, in fact they were being cut while I was in Algeria. But no, I think that you can still go out and love the world, you can go to the banquet that the world is, you just don’t gorge yourself.

Ramona Koval: You mentioned before about the topical interest in the young, and you mentioned Bill Henson before, and you say; ‘This sort of love, reviled to the point of hysteria in our society, was part of classical Japanese court culture.’ And you’ve got some pictures. It’s a very beautiful book, I must say, it’s wonderfully designed, it’s got lots of photographs that you’ve taken and some plates of Elsie Herberstein. I don’t know Elsie Herberstein.

Robert Dessaix: She’s an Austrian artist who lives in Paris.

Ramona Koval: And pictures of beautiful doors, half opened and closed and…

Robert Dessaix: Taken by my travelling companion, yes.

Ramona Koval: And some pictures of Roman statues of lascivious Pan and the young Daphnis, with and without flute. And I wondered whether the ladies who read you…there’s a lot of ladies who find you very, very wonderful…this is a much more frank book than other books that you’ve written and I wonder how they’ll respond to these Roman statues of Pan and the suggestion of this love that’s reviled to the point of hysteria in our society.

Robert Dessaix: Well, the national museum in Naples where these sorts of statues are on display is stuffed full of the sort of ladies who read my books thoroughly enjoying these statues. I don’t think there’s anything lascivious about my book. There may be something lascivious about characters in my book…

Ramona Koval: But it’s much more suggestive than you’ve ever written.

Robert Dessaix: Do you think so?

Ramona Koval: I think so, absolutely.

Robert Dessaix: Perhaps I’m more frank here.

Ramona Koval: Why are you more frank?

Robert Dessaix: Because I’m getting older and I care less. I’m more willing to simply say what I see, put it the way I see it. After all, my ladies and everybody else who reads me, they know all this, I’m just putting it into words. There’s nothing new in my book. They know all these things about how people travel, about classical art, about Greek shepherd boys, they know all that. The point about Gide was that he wasn’t, in our sense of the word, at all a paedophile. He would have called himself a pederast and he had no time at all for homosexuality, found it disgusting.

He thought he was Greek, he thought he was Socratic. His idea was to love and educate young men, and this would include erotic education. And then they would go on, as they did in ancient Greece of course, to join the army and to get married and to have children, and then in their turn they would also form, as you might say, other young men. It’s something that doesn’t interest me at all, I have to say, but I do think that we have become hysterical about this sort of thing in our society. I do understand that of course a society has to draw a line and say beneath this line one simply doesn’t encourage intimacy of that kind. I understand that perfectly well and that is so. But most of the young men that Gide was interested in would not fall below the line.

Ramona Koval: And the line was..?

Robert Dessaix: Well, in Tasmania the line is 16, I think. Perhaps in Victoria it’s 18, I’m not quite sure. But Gide was definitely interested in sexually mature youths. That was what interested him, not in children.

Ramona Koval: So this idea about hysteria in our society, what do you think is driving it?

Robert Dessaix: I think what is driving it, and this is to put it very simply, no doubt too simply, is the feeling that we as a society have lost our innocence, and particularly our sexual innocence. I notice ‘innocence’ is a word that occurs and occurs, the Prime Minister used it, for example, talking about the Bill Henson photographs. We’ve lost it. You just have to turn SBS on on a Monday night…there ain’t no innocence there. You see things that you can’t even spell on free-to-air television in your living room any night of the week.

We’ve lost our innocence. And so we’ve decided to make someone else the repository of it and we’ve chosen children. It’s quite inappropriate. I live quite near a school, I hear the way children talk, I hear them on the bus…they are all sorts of things, some of them charming, but innocent is not one of the things that they are. So I think it’s doing nobody a service. I think in fact it’s sexualising children, that is what is happening, to an extraordinary point. To the point, for example, I would never speak to a child.

Ramona Koval: That’s tragic, isn’t it.

Robert Dessaix: I would never speak to a child, even in the house of a friend, I would not speak to the friend’s children in case I was misinterpreted. They have been sexualised by this hysteria to such a dangerous point.

Ramona Koval: You said before that you were prepared to be clear and truthful and calling spade a spade perhaps, although you wouldn’t put it like that, because you’re getting older. And Gide is fantastic, I think, on ageing well. Tell me about Gide as a model for ageing well, the kinds of things he said.

Robert Dessaix: Gide’s ageing was good. Of course his ankles stiffen up and he gets aches and pains, but he had a serene old age, and I think it was largely because he refused to be neutered, and if you watch the sitcoms on Australian television you’ll see how anyone over…well, it seems to me over about 45 becomes grotesque and ridiculous if they have any kind of sexual feelings. You’re supposed to gradually become neuter, you’re supposed to become spiritual once you’re over 45. He refused. At the same time he had friends, another aspect particularly of male culture in our country which is undervalued. He knew how to make and to keep and the love his friends, and for me too friends are deeply important. I put a lot of time and energy into friends. He had friends, he had music, he had books. He thickened himself, I think is the word that I used, as he grew older instead of growing thin. And it’s that thickness which saw him through.

Ramona Koval: And you said that you don’t feel ageing so keenly in North Africa. How come?

Robert Dessaix: I didn’t feel that I was being categorised as old in my recent visits to North Africa in quite the way I am in Europe where being young is everything. I think in more traditional societies the old are valued for certain things, perhaps not all of them worth valuing, that they’re not valued for in our society here. You just have to look at any weekend magazine in a newspaper, go to the movies, it’s being young, it’s being beautiful that is important.

Ramona Koval: I love this bit where you say that…he says, ‘It is no more fitting to see in old age nothing but a decline,’ he wrote at the age of 59, ‘than it is to regard youth as nothing but promise. Each age is capable of its own particular kind of perfection. It is an art to convince yourself of this, to focus on what the years bring us rather than on what they deprive us of and to prefer gratitude to regret.’ That is fantastic. I’m so pleased that you introduced me to that.

Robert Dessaix: Oh good. But hard to live by.

Ramona Koval: Is it?

Robert Dessaix: I suppose it is hard to live by but you can try, can’t you.

Ramona Koval: It’s a fantastic, lovely book. Tell me about the design and the fun you had with these photographs.

Robert Dessaix: It’s a Melbourne designer, Trisha Garner who designed it. I just gave her my photographs, the photographs of my companion, Scott Millington who went to Tunisia with me, and old tickets and dockets and so forth that she could collage, and old books, old maps, old photographs that I’d kept from years ago. Then she arranged them in the book, and I spent a little bit of time with her saying yes and no and gradually we had this beautiful book. Even the paper is beautiful.

Ramona Koval: It is. The page of text has got a square around it…

Robert Dessaix: What do you think about that?

Ramona Koval: Well, I thought to myself; why had he done this?

Robert Dessaix: I didn’t do it, that’s designed…

Ramona Koval: No, but it’s your book, and I thought to myself, well, there’s a certain containment about it.

Robert Dessaix: Right. Is that a good word?

Ramona Koval: It’s a word.

Robert Dessaix: But do you think it’s good?

Ramona Koval: But I’m just thinking, why is it contained, why do I feel that this is contained? There’s a certain control over it, there’s a certain savouring of the text because it exists in this…it’s kind of tessellated as well, like these tiles on the front. So that’s what I thought. At first I wondered why you’d done it, and then I thought actually I liked it because it reminded me of all the beauty that you were looking at.

Robert Dessaix: There’s a lot of that going on in book design now and I think sometimes there’s too much of it. I think that some books are over designed and produced, particularly with that business of putting lines around everything.

Ramona Koval: So did you object to this when you were discussing it?

Robert Dessaix: No, I didn’t object to it at all, but I’ve never heard anyone express it the way you just have and I’m very pleased about that.

Ramona Koval: Well, I’m thrilled that you’ve approved of something I’ve said. The book is called Arabesques: A Tale of Double Lives, it’s published by Picador. Robert Dessaix, as always it’s been lovely to speak with you.

Robert Dessaix: It’s been great, Ramona, thank you.


Arabesques: A Tale of Double Lives
Robert Dessaix
ISBN-13 9780 3304 2405 9

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