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Don Watson Stephen Sewell Robert Dessaix Anna Funder Liz Jensen


Robert Dessaix : A Writer's Profile

Robert Dessaix is a writer, literary commentator, translator and broadcaster. Having taught Russian language and literature for many years, he was ABC Radio National's weekly 'Books and Writing' presenter from 1985 to 1995. Acclaimed among his books are the autobiography A Mothers Disgrace, the novel Night Letters and a collection of essays and short stories (and so forth). A full time writer since 1995, Robert Dessaix currently lives in Melbourne.

If a writer's work is said to represent the sum of many parts, those parts, in the case Robert Dessaix, surely reflect the life of an intriguing, engaging and somewhat enigmatic man.

Known to many readers as the erudite and charming-voiced former presenter of ABC Radio National's Books and Writing program, Robert Dessaix recently published his second novel, Corfu , in he wake of his critically acclaimed Night Letters.

While the subject matter of both novels remains apparently poles apart, a number of underlying themes inform Dessaix's fiction and non-fiction. Accordingly, the themes of ordinariness and extraordinariness, travel, intimacy, the 'mundane' and the 'exotic', form many of the undercurrents which Dessaix draws heavily upon.

In Corfu: A Novel , Dessaix's ninth book, the obscure life of Kester Berwick (1903-92) - Australian expatriate, theatre aficionado, founder of the Ab-Intra Theatre Company, and author of the obscure novel Head of Orpheaus Singing - is richly woven amongst an exotic backdrop of Corfu and Lesbos, observations on life, and various meditations and embellishments drawn from literature, art and history.

For Dessaix, both Corfu and Night Letters - in their own distinctive ways - represent an exploration of the twin themes of ordinariness/extraordinariness that have preoccupied Dessiax's writing over the past few years. Thus, part of Dessaix's quest, whether conscious or unconscious, has been to explore aspects of, as the French term it, un belle vie , or the notion of a 'beautiful life' well lived.

Aside from an exploration of these recurring themes, notions of intimacy and the pursuit of intimacy, both in life and literature, form another aspect of Dessaix's work as a writer. While Kester Berwick's life outwardly appears to have been "a flop" in terms of his achievements, Berwick's pursuit of deeper more intimate relationships is something that captivates Dessaix and motivates him to explore questions of intimacy and what gives life substance; thereby deepening Dessaix's own exploration of the idea of what makes for a truly 'beautiful life.'  

Undoubtedly Dessaix's writings are informed and shaped by many of his own life experiences that have challenged notions of the mundane and the exotic. His middle-class suburban life growing up as an adopted child in the Sydney's Lane Cove, is later juxtaposed with his adventures as a student at Moscow State University in pursuit of his masters degree in Russian literature. Accordingly, a sense of the mundane and the exotic thus looms large in Dessaix's personal story. Indeed, his sense of rootlessness and fierce independence undoubtedly lead to the potential for exploring the world without the many of the traditional family attachments, " ...a sense of not being anchored...left me free to imagine living anywhere I liked, being anything I's a wonderful beginning in life."

While Robert Dessaix's recent achievements as a fiction writer have solidified his reputation as an emerging force in contemporary Australian fiction, his autobiographical work A Mother's Disgrace , was undoubtedly an important personal turning point in his emergence as a writer. It was this book that allowed Dessaix to break from his work as an academic writer and move to find his voice as a writer of broader non-fiction, and later, fiction works. Told with an almost brutal honesty, A Mother's Disgrace describes Dessaix's journey towards self-discovery, the search for identity and origins, his fascination with Russia and his travels from Kashmir to Peru on various study trips.

Despite the confronting notion of revealing one's life before an ever-inquisitive public, Dessaix felt no need whatsoever to hold back in his telling even the most personal aspects of his own story, "... I simply had things that I wanted to say and had very little shame [in telling them]... shame comes from a strong sense of family and I don't have a strong sense of family...In general I'm not ashamed and so I will tell you what ever needs to be told..."  

Yet another side of Robert Dessaix's work that is perhaps less well known to many of his readers, is his work in translation of a number of Russian works into English including Turgenev: A Quest for Faith and Chekhov's plays for performance by major Australian theatre companies. Indeed, Dessaix speaks in almost ecstatic terms about the process of translation as by far the most personally satisfying and rewarding process connected with the art of writing, “... translating is the most amazing experience, particularly poetry."

In spite of his acknowledged critical success as storyteller and writer of fiction, Dessaix still feels somewhat tentative about his voice in telling epic tales. Thus, he is a novelist who sees himself not as one given over the telling epic tales in the Tolstoyan tradition, but one who is a keen observer of themes within his immediate grasp. As Dessaix himself suggests: "I know that my voice is not good at telling an extended story or a saga. I feel very insecure about the idea of telling a great tale over 300 pages..." Consequently, he sees himself more as a painter of portraits than a photographer of close-up detail. Moreover, he is a writer that likes to feel close to his reader in the sense that the reader feels very much 'incorporated into' the storytelling process, "...I try to write non-fiction and fiction as if you are part of the story telling process...[so that]...people feel invited in."

For Dessaix, writing also involves making sense of things that he is anxious about: "I usually write best when I am anxious about something, when I'm confused about something, when I'm desperate to find the right words for something and I haven't been able's like a really honest conversation with yourself."

So what inspires Robert Dessaix to begin a novel or a sustained writing project? In his words, it's a form of 'electricity' that comes over him, a feeling that 'here is a story worth telling' and one that captivates and hold his attention, "... an electric current [comes over me]'s a story that will embody the things that I'm actually interested in." Indeed, he further emphasises that this 'electricity' must also flow "...between something inside and something outside."

Part of the process of engaging this 'electricity' also involves consulting a large collection of notebooks that he has collected over the years. "Before I start I go through all my notebooks and type up on the computer things that might provide illumination for the book...and usually I will theme it."  

While Robert Dessaix is now firmly established as a writer, there was never really a defining moment or decision on his behalf to become a full-time writer. In a sense he drifted into it having received Australia Council literature grants in the writing of both Night Letters and Corfu.

So what lies ahead for Robert Dessaix? He is currently in the process of leaving Melbourne for Tasmania where his is looking forward to new scenery and new creative horizons, " I'm hoping in Tasmania I'll be a little bit more attracted to history [in my writing]...although I'll still have to wait for that magic moment before I write...We'll just see."

                                        Interview and Story by Marcus Niski, Copyright 2001.

  Robert Dessaix: The Interview...

2001-2016  Marcus D. Niski