Five questions with Robert Dessaix

Ahead of his online event, Robert Dessaix sat down with us to discuss art, self, the life of the mind and his new book about growing older well, The Time of Our Lives.

You’ve referenced feeling richer than you’ve ever felt before in your older years—you explore this further in your new book, The Time of Our Lives. What are the many possibilities of old age and ageing that are often neglected when people talk about growing older?

With reasonably good health and a mind in good working order, there are not only pleasures and satisfactions in being old, but even some advantages – not a multitude, I admit, but quite a few. No longer obsessed with achievement, you learn to let time pool around you, easing yourself out of the conga line of clock-time dancing towards death. You play more—and for the pure sake of it—conversing, creating, dallying, off the hook at last—and care deeply about far fewer things than you used to. You can certainly afford to take yourself less seriously. You realise at last that you don’t much matter, and there’s an invigorating freedom in that.

It’s bearable, though, only if you have an active, choreographed inner life. In fact, your inner life when you’re older, if you have one, deepens as its boundaries shrink. At your core you become a sort of highly focused connoisseur, which is always a pleasure—of azaleas, haiku, polar bears, the human heart, anything. It is a time to flower, I think, not finally to get things done.

You’ve written three novels and nine autobiographical and nonfiction books, but you’re also fond of saying that you blur the lines between each by ‘playing about in the borderland’. How do you know which form your next book is going to take, and does your approach to writing fiction and nonfiction differ?

This book began the day I wrote down: ‘Rita fell over again today.’ Which she did. But I had to keep writing to find out how I would expand on this event, how I would tell you about it. Why on earth would you be interested?

In the misty borderland between reporting on what I know about the world (or at least have seen on YouTube) and kaleidoscoping all those shards of perception into art (something no policeman would recognise as evidence of anything), I am not concerned with what did or did not happen (although something did), only in plausibility.

I am an interpreter: I interpret the outside to what is within me (my heart, really, where feelings and the intellect overlap) and then I interpret my inner world to the outside (you). The resulting conversation (or dance) with you is my book. So I don’t really ‘decide’ on a form, I do not ‘choose’ between fiction and non-fiction. Something in the ‘landscape’ strikes me—an old woman I’m close to falls over, I meet my mother for the first time, I have my portrait painted, I go to Corfu, I drop dead in Oxford Street—and a voice starts interpreting it aloud. Sentences form. Another self is created. (Best to aim to create a self, not art. The art is the language.)

In a review of your book What Days Are For, Kerryn Goldsworthy writes: ‘Perhaps memoir is the natural genre, or mode, of the self-fashioner, the genre in which you can go on inventing and reinventing yourself indefinitely, and in which the book is a direct extension of the self.’ Why are you drawn to writing memoir, and what sort of questions have you resolved in writing each one?

I’m not sure why I’m drawn to writing memoir. I wrote an autobiography, A Mother’s Disgrace, when I was just starting out—well, you do. An autobiography is an account of the whole shebang. That book was saying: ‘Here I am, Mum, this is me.’ (She didn’t much like it—she said I’d have turned out better if she’d never given me up for adoption.) Yet perhaps Kerryn Goldsworthy is indeed onto something: perhaps that first self-portrait was actually a collection of memoirs (me and religion, me and meeting my mother, me and Russia, me thinking ‘gay’ sounded promising).

One of the points of A Mother’s Disgrace was that, not knowing your biological parents, you largely fashion yourself. And perhaps the ‘self-fashioner’ does indeed resort to reinventing himself or herself indefinitely in bursts. A memoir, after all, is a focused piece of reminiscence and cogitation, it has a bright, sharply delineated centre (an encounter, a love affair) and shadowy borders—me having a heart attack, for example, in the case of What Days Are For. Ideally, from a French point of view, a memoir, should contain at least one sensational incident (a cardinal caught in a brothel, for instance) and scurrilous innuendo, but these days it’s hardly worth trying to épater les bourgeois, so I aim for outlandish flourishes rather than scandalous ones.

Many of my books are indeed public conversations with myself about something that’s been agitating me—in the latest book, how to grow old well, in The Pleasures of Leisure, India, among other things. Writing each book certainly puts my thoughts in order (particularly about religion, friendship, my sexual life, time, why I love to travel and how to live in the face of death), but I doubt it has resolved anything. I hope not.

You moved to Hobart in your late 50s, mirroring many Australian writers who have moved away from the big twin cities of Melbourne and Sydney. How has living in a smaller town shaped your writing and, more broadly, your life?

On reflection, I don’t think living in a smaller town at the end of the earth has shaped my writing much, if at all. Each of my books opens or soon travels to somewhere far away (Cairo, Italy, Algiers, India, Java, Russia, or at the very least, Sydney) and then I start coming home. It’s quite Odyssean in that sense. I don’t really write much about ‘home’ itself —a few words about my partner and the dog (following in Homer’s footsteps), but not much else. I am at home in Hobart – I don’t want also to write about it. Nothing happens at home—that’s what we like about it. What interests me when I write is the unhoused self and what it gets up to.

I doubt that moving to Hobart at such a late stage has reshaped my life radically, either—it should have, but it hasn’t. It was primary school that profoundly reshaped my life (not high school or university), along with a change in sexual orientation, not Hobart. I like living in a big village, it feels just right now that I’m older, daily life is less competitive, less look-at-me, than it is in the city (which is still fun for half a day occasionally on the way to Asia). I enjoy living well in beautiful surroundings without being wealthy, and I see the natural world more clearly now than I ever did, from close up—I see the sky for the first time, for instance—and, living part of the time deep in the bush, I feel more rounded, but I moved here too late for any fundamental transfiguring of the self.

You’ve written about and expressed the importance of having had a good day. What is a good day to you?

What indeed … and what an excellent question. It puts me on the spot. You can easily be high-minded about a ‘good life’, but a ‘good day’ is much more down to earth, and, as you age and your horizons narrow, of more immediate concern.

The short answer, which I hint at in The Time of Our Lives, is a Ganesha day—that is, a dancing day, a playful day, a day with some ancient roots to take pleasure in, a contented day with bursts of happiness.

A longer answer, bearing in mind my previous book, The Pleasures of Leisure, is a day that is in part made up of doing nothing (contemplation, sitting looking about, reading, listening), in part devoted to nesting (housekeeping, cooking—going to the tip is best, but you can’t do that every day), and in part given over to play (taking a tango lesson, learning Indonesian, exploring Darjeeling—some might add football or an affair). Covering these three bases makes you feel richly human, it makes you feel you’re in flower. If you can also discover something new—a new best friend, a new kind of orchid—before drowsiness sets in, it’s an almost perfect day.

Complete contentment is obviously impossible while others are suffering, but eruptions of happiness are usually within our grasp.

Don’t miss Robert Dessaix in conversation this Wednesday 7 October, 6.30pm via Zoom.

The Time of Our Lives is available online at readings.com.au