I’d like to give a very warm welcome to Robert Dessaix who has joined me to speak about his latest Memoir, What Days Are For, which was published on the 3rd November by Random House.
Robert is a writer, translator, broadcaster and occasional essayist. From 1985 to 1995, after teaching Russian language and literature for many years at the Australian National University and the University of New South Wales, he presented the weekly Books and Writing program on ABC Radio National. In more recent years he has also presented radio series on Australian public intellectuals and great travellers in history, as well as regular programs on language.
His best-known books, all translated into several European languages, are his autobiography A Mother’s Disgrace, the novels Night Letters and Corfu, a collection of essays and short stories (And So Forth) and the travel memoirs, Twilight of Love and Arabesques.
In 2012 he published the collection of pieces, As I Was Saying.
A full-time writer since 1995, Robert lives in Hobart, Tasmania.
Please feel free to pull up a stump and get to know him and his writing a little better.
Before I continue though, I would just like to thank Random House, more particularly Lucy from their publicity department, without whom this interview would not have been possible.
Robert, it’s really great to have you here.
Thanks for inviting me to talk with you.
Can you begin by sharing with us some details on your early life (your childhood, where you went to school, what made you want to pursue your teaching career, etc.)?
What made my early life different from most children’s was being both adopted and an only child. Adoption is a gift like no other. It frees you completely to imagine who you are, it prompts you to search out intimacy with kindred spirits rather than with kin, it leaves you above all feeling chosen and inclined yourself to choose rather than to take direction. And so I imagined, searched for intimacy and chose – not always wisely, but not too disastrously. These themes are all touched on in What Days Are For.
School (public schools on Sydney’s lower North Shore) are a bit of a blur, except for the last two years of primary school. What could be more formative than those two years? I can remember little about high school, where I learnt four languages and was pretty hopeless at everything else (especially woodwork), but fifth and sixth classes at Artarmon are vivid. The book is dedicated to a friend I made during those two years and am still close to.
Teaching Russian, however, was something I barely chose. What was a sensitive young man to do at the beginning of the ‘sixties? Or even now? Go into the theatre? Like thousands of others, I graduated, I wrote a dissertation or two, I taught. It was as close as I ever expected to come to being creative – teaching others to come alive in another language, encouraging them to have many lives through reading one of the world’s greatest literatures, learning what fine writing could mean. I was fifty years old before I wrote my first real book.
You’re a writer and occasional essayist. Do you feel more comfortable writing novels or short stories or both? Why?
I feel most comfortable – that is to say, I feel as if the voice I perform with is at its most authentic – while pretending to be sauntering along city streets somewhere with my reader as companion. It’s a kind of flâneuring, a sort of promenading with a friend. While we’re walking, I tell you stories (in both senses of the word and regardless of what is on the title page – novel, memoir, autobiography, essay collection). I recount what happened and make things up. I am constantly distracted by things we see in the street, things I imagine you saying back to me, things my subconscious throws up. In other words, it’s a sort of reverie, especially in this latest book where I’m lying flat on my back in a hospital bed for the entire book. In this book we travel all over the world without moving an inch.
What compelled you to write What Days Are For?
I write best when something happens to me that I can’t really cope with until I’ve found the right words for it, until I’ve come up with the right stories to tell to deal with what I’m now confronted with. In my first book it was meeting my birth mother, in the second it was an HIV diagnosis – and so on. In this book it was collapsing with a heart attack in Oxford St in Sydney late one wintry night. By six minutes past midnight I’d died twice.
How did you come up with this title?
The paramedic asked me if I’d had a good day. I had, actually, up until that point, and said so. And then in hospital I came across Philip Larkin’s tiny poem, so simple it breaks your heart, called ‘Days’. The first line is: ‘What are days for?’ This book gives one answer to his question.
Could you give us a rundown on what we can expect from this Memoir?
Expect me to talk (more and more coherently – it was a battle at the beginning) about the things and people I had given my heart to not far from where I was lying on the tenth floor of St Vincent’s Hospital in Darlinghurst. Expect me to cogitate on what days are for, drawing on a long life not always lived to the fullest, but I’m starting to get my act together now. Expect me, as usual, to ruminate on friendship, love, infatuation, metaphysics, time, travel (especially in India and Syria), language, theatre, the heart … but hardly at all on illness or hospitals, which don’t much interest me.
What, if anything, are you hoping that your readers will take away after reading What Days Are For?
My task as a writer is surely to help my readers become convinced that they have led much richer lives than they sometimes have believed and prompt them to start diving into the well of memory and bring some of the lives they’ve led up to the surface. My life, of itself, is of little interest to anyone (I’m a realist in this regard), but reading about it can, I think, give my readers (my companions on my walks) a sense of how interesting and many-layered their own have been.
What are some of your favourite books to read for pleasure?
To be honest, I rarely re-read anything: I reach for some old favourite (A Passage to India, say, or Anna Karenina) and WHUMP! a wave of new books by writers I’ve enjoyed washes over me and Forster and Tolstoy (or, for that matter, Enid Blyton) are torn from my grasp. Favourite writers, apart from the Russians, at the moment include Elizabeth Strout, Alice Monro, Hilary Mantel, Michelle de Kretser, Joan London … why are there no men in this list, I wonder?
What writers have inspired or influenced you?
Writers we have loved do not always inspire or influence us, of course – we have just loved them. I love Tolstoy, for instance, but he hasn’t had the slightest influence on me. Nikolai Gogol has, though, for the same reason that Laurence Sterne has: they were both post-modernists before there was anything much to be post. (And if you haven’t read Dead Souls or Diary of a Madman, rush out and get yourself a copy today.) There’s nothing remotely post-modernist about me in the philosophical sense, but stylistically there’s a great deal. Which is rather post-modern of me. Apart from Gogol and Sterne, I can’t think of anyone much … Ivan Turgenev up to a point (his love affair with language) and perhaps aspects of André Gide’s work. I wrote books about both of them.
Where to next for you?
I have no idea. I must wait to see what sort of thing I need to find the words for – being old is one possibility (although I have written about from various angles before) and leisure (something I am hopeless at) is another. It’s not important. Living well is what is important.
Robert, it’s been an absolute pleasure having you here. Thank you so much for taking time out of your busy schedule to join me in giving your readers some wonderful insight into your life and writing.
“Witty, acerbic, insightful musings from Robert Dessaix, one of Australia’s finest writers.
One Sunday night in Sydney, Robert Dessaix collapses in a gutter in Darlinghurst, and is helped to his hotel by a kind young man wearing a T-shirt that says FUCK YOU. What follows are weeks in hospital, tubes and cannulae puncturing his body, as he recovers from the heart attack threatening daily to kill him.
While lying in the hospital bed, Robert chances upon Philip Larkin’s poem ‘Days’. What, he muses, have his days been for? What and who has he loved – and why?
This is vintage Robert Dessaix. His often surprisingly funny recollections range over topics as eclectic as intimacy, travel, spirituality, enchantment, language and childhood, all woven through with a heightened sense of mortality.”
What Days are For can be purchased from the following links: