Essay: Kerryn Goldsworthyon Robert Dessaix

Rolling downhill: What Days Are For by Robert Dessaix

We experience time in both circles and straight lines, which would be less dizzying if we did not have to experience both at the same time, as though trapped in a runaway barrel, or spreadeagled like Leonardo’s Vitruvian Man in a rolling hula hoop. And when I say rolling, I mean rolling downhill. Sundays, for example, come around and around again like carousel horses as we proceed, in a straight line, towards death.

Robert Dessaix is acutely conscious of both the circle and the line in his most recent book, and with good reason. Death and Sundays are both, perforce, on his mind. Sunday, he says, always seems to be the day of the week upon which he is struck, or perhaps in this case the better word is stricken, by some life-changing event. What Days Are For relates the immediate aftermath – most of which takes place inside his mind and memory – of an almost-fatal heart attack one Sunday evening in the bleak midwinter of 2011, when he was left to lie dying on the footpath of Sydney’s Oxford Street ‘amongst the cigarette butts and streaks of vomit’ (sooner or later, everyone who writes about Sydney ends up sounding like Patrick White) until rescued by a young man in a t-shirt bearing the legend FUCK YOU. This seems facile irony in excess, until one recalls that Oxford Street is not an ordinary street; that the Good Samaritan on that night might not, in fact, have been exhibiting contrary impulses as he recalled that we are indeed our brothers’ keepers, for perhaps the message FUCK YOU on a t-shirt in Oxford Street might be taken pleasure in, as a joke: an ambiguous and doubly ironic expression of desire.

Nor did Dessaix’s ordeal, which could in another light be seen as a sequence of lucky chance rescues, end there: the man in the statement t-shirt got him to his hotel, where the night porter, about to hand him his room key, made a decision:

if the porter had handed me that key, I’d have gone up to my room and been found dead on my bed by the maid the next morning. Instead he called an ambulance. And the ambulance arrived in minutes and whisked me off … ‘So, how are we going here?’ I ask affably at one juncture, unaware that I’ve already had to be resuscitated twice and am now bleeding to death.

Written in the first person and the present tense, What Days Are For has a diary-like tone and structure, covering the twelve hospitalised days immediately following what Dessaix calls ‘the emergency’. There is nothing artificial-seeming about this, either; some chapters are given the names of days, others are headed ‘Saturday night’ or ‘Friday night’, and still others have a number but no title. It is as though he wishes not only to record the first stages of his recovery in an orderly fashion, but also, at the same time, to re-create the state of mind one is in when mortally ill and heavily drugged, surfacing to full consciousness only at irregular intervals and sometimes not knowing what day it is: the book’s tidy structure of days is used as a container for the bursts of reflection and lucidity that illness and hospitalisation can produce, but not in a regular or predictable way. Hospitals, as everyone who has ever spent any time in them knows, construct of necessity a daily routine that is almost a parody of itself, from the arrival of the dinner trolley in what seems mid-afternoon to the arrival in the small hours of the nurse who wakes you up to offer you a sleeping pill. But this can also be a comfort – ‘I live for these cups of tea with two biscuits’, he says – in that it offsets the internal and often external chaos of the whole experience.

For, in hospital, the mind wanders and gropes and hallucinates. The sick, untidy, unruly body flaps about uncontrollably, spills the matter it ought to contain, and sometimes manifests alarming disorder: ‘I am shitting blood.’ Other people’s bodies, visitors, and conversation are all inflicted at inescapable close quarters and at all hours of the day and night – and inflicted not only on oneself, but also, sometimes, by oneself:

Here they are, these three men, possibly coming to the last of their     succession of days, and of their own free will they’re spending them watching Channel 7.

‘Fucking refugees,’ I hear Stan mutter, eyes glued to the screen. ‘They’ve got the whole country by the balls.’

The ward goes silent. Then someone starts barking at Ziggy and Stan. He’s yapping and ranting like the voices on Ziggy’s radio. … I seem to be floating above my bed observing this small, gaunt figure under the covers below me flapping his hands and hurling abuse at Ziggy and Stan … ‘You’re morons, both of you,’ he’s yelling, ‘gobbling down that crazy shit they feed you every day, you’re brain-dead lumps of stinking …’ Oh, no, I’m definitely going into cardiac arrest again here. I can’t think of an appropriate noun to go with ‘stinking’. I can’t breathe. ‘… scum!’ I shout. (Can you have ‘lumps of stinking scum’?)

‘You sound just like my daughter,’ Ziggy says morosely.

One of the funniest things about this scene – apart from Stan’s sweet-natured acceptance of Dessaix’s mumbled apology: ‘End of story, mate. End of story’ – is the preoccupation, even when mortally ill, with precision of word choice and appropriateness of metaphor. Dessaix’s style is contagious but can drive a certain kind of reader (as Helen Garner once said of Thea Astley) up the wall. Like Astley’s, it is mannered almost to the point of self-parody, though in a different sort of way. The Publisher’s Preface to his first book A Mother’s Disgrace (1994) reveals that Astley had a hand in its creation, right at the beginning of his post-broadcasting career as a writer:

During his mid-forties he had undergone a life-changing experience – he had met his biological mother for the first time. He felt this event, along with the years preceding it, would surely constitute a book – and yet inaction initially followed. It wasn’t until fellow author Thea Astley     suggested she would write Robert’s story if he didn’t, that he finally put pen to paper.

Astley loved baroque metaphors and obscure cultural references, especially if they had anything to do with Latin, music, or Catholicism; Dessaix also quite likes some of these things, but what he loves best, if this book is anything to go by, is the making of digressions, asides, incidental amplifications, and assorted references of the kind usually relegated to tiny typeface on the edges of the page, to footnotes and to margins. In What Days Are For, he gives full play to this embroiderer’s or lace-maker’s attitude to language – and more specifically to writing, but also, paradoxically enough, to a dramatist’s creation or re-creation of voice and talk. He loves parentheses and dashes; he loves italics and capitals; he loves the smallest nuances of difference in function and form between, say, a semi-colon and a comma, or a colon and a full stop. He is a master of the use of typography to convey conversational tone – eagerness, scepticism, parody, doubt, irony, lack of irony – and always has a genuine curiosity to know what his reader thinks about all this. His prose is peppered with courteous interrogation. ‘Isn’t it?’ ‘Don’t you think?’ ‘Why would I?’ ‘Did I drift off?’

Older readers will remember this as Dessaix’s verbal style from his days as a national broadcaster on ABC radio’s Books and Writing, which he presented from 1985 to 1994. His interviewees then, like his readers now, would be drawn in and then drawn out by this apparently nattering, inviting, open-door style, forced in the nicest possible way to consider and then take a position on whatever was being discussed. Even when he is the interviewee himself, which has happened frequently since he became a full-time writer two decades ago, the puzzled interviewer might at any time find herself the target of a gently interrogative humming noise, unexpectedly obliged to bare a little patch of her own soul.

On 30 January 1999, Robert Dessaix was in my home city of Adelaide on business to do with the portrait that his namesake, the South Australian artist Robert Hannaford, was in the process of finishing. We had met at various literary events over the years, and I had done a few reviews and interviews for Books and Writing; knowing relatively few people in Adelaide, he had called me earlier and we had arranged to meet for coffee. But I’d had to ring him at his hotel the previous day to say that my mother was unconscious in hospital after a brain haemorrhage, that we didn’t yet know the full extent of the damage or what the prognosis was, and I didn’t want to cancel our coffee plans but wanted to alert him to the possibility that the next day might collapse into chaos.

Let’s cancel, he said, let’s cancel, you will want to be with your family. My impulse, successfully squashed, was to reply ‘But I might never see you again, either.’ These words were not said, but I felt them crawling down the phone line. For he was very fragile himself: he had been diagnosed as HIV-positive in 1994, when it was still generally regarded as a death sentence, and had been looking down that barrel for five years. He was now on new and powerful drugs that, as with chemotherapy and cancer patients, seemed sometimes to be making him wonder whether the actual illness could possibly be worse than the cure.

By the next morning it was apparent to everyone that my mother would die, as, four days after that, she did. But I went to the café, and I thought of this day years later when I read something his friend and fellow-writer Drusilla Modjeska had said about him:

The thing I love about Robert is he is so utterly himself, so unlike anyone else. In times of [his] great physical frailty in the past, one was always conscious of the big person, the big intellect being active and present. He  is a good interlocutor, he takes things seriously and is prepared to stay with it and go into it. One has a sense of his emotional reach, his intellect, his reading, all present in the moment, totally attentive …

As we sat in the café on that horrible morning four days before my mother died, he looked me in the eye and spoke to me about dealing with death, in a way that shored me up and helped to keep me going through to the end of that seemingly endless time. I can’t remember anything he actually said – perhaps the brain, in extremis, temporarily loses the capacity to form new memories – but the fearless, clear-eyed strength and openness of his conversation lent itself to me and helped to get me through the worst week of my life. I didn’t know him well then and I don’t know him well now, but I have known him for a long time and we have never had a bad or a boring conversation. With Robert Dessaix, I don’t think anybody does.

The opportunity to self-fashion might be regarded as one of the consolatory aspects of being an orphan or an only child, with none of the oppressions and suppressions of family lore or genetic inevitability. ‘I’ve never felt particularly born, after all – I’ve always felt invented,’ he says. ‘Even now I feel largely thought-up.’ He enlarges on this thought in a 2012 interview with Lee Gutkind, the man who made ‘creative nonfiction’ part of the vocabulary of the contemporary literary world:

When you’re adopted and an only child, you do not feel any obligation, from the moment you are conscious, to be anything you don’t want to be. You don’t have to be like your parents or Uncle Harry or anyone else in the family because no one knows exactly who you are. You can reinvent yourself.

Dessaix was taken from his young unmarried mother Yvonne shortly after his birth in February 1944 at the Crown Street Women’s Hospital in Sydney and chosen for adoption from the nursery there by a decent, ageing, childless couple who brought him up in the quiet Sydney suburb of Lane Cove, a couple with the unremarkable name of Jones. (Many years later, he says, he was hailed in a Sydney street by a woman he didn’t recognise: ‘Smith!’ she called out accusingly. ‘I knew you when you were Robert Smith!’) He has written and spoken about self-fashioning, about ‘making himself up’, several times over the years and he writes about it again in What Days Are For, recalling that when he was a small child he invented his own language and his own land. After he grew up, he followed a direction that few Australian-born citizens have chosen, the academic study of Russian language and literature, and gave himself a new name. As the presenter of Books and Writing, his was a voice that listeners could not mistake for anyone else’s. ‘I don’t have an Australian accent,’ he says to Gutkind,

but it’s not an American accent, nor a Canadian accent, not even an English accent. It’s just my little accent; it’s got French in it, and it’s got Russian in it, and so forth. Those sorts of things make me a bit different, but it’s not a stance. It’s just the way I am.

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. In Dessaix’s case, what this seems to have produced, paradoxically, is a unique kind of personal authenticity: as Modjeska says, ‘he is so utterly himself, so unlike anyone else’.

What Days Are For begins with ‘the emergency’, its opening paragraph describing the face and forearm of the paramedic who fits the oxygen mask after the arrival of the ambulance:

‘So, tell me, Robert,’ he says gently, somewhere high up there inside his dome of dazzling light – am I already dead? No, not yet, soon – ‘have you had a good day?’ … ‘You know,’ I croak, as if it were a serious question, ‘I have. I’ve had a very good day.’ And I have.

On the Friday after the fateful Sunday night, Dessaix finds himself well enough to be reading a novel whose narrator quotes the Philip Larkin poem ‘Days’: ‘… days. There’s that word again! … What are days for? Well, exactly! What indeed?’ Here as elsewhere the reader is provided with a fuller quotation, in the margins, of whatever poem, play, essay or novel is being talked about in a book so very much about reading and writing:

What are days for?
Days are where we live.
They come, they wake us
Time and time over.

A near-death experience and subsequent immobilisation in a hospitalised, semi-hallucinatory, semi-conscious and drifting mental state creates a kind of container for meditations on the answer to Larkin’s question. What are days for? Days are for walking the dog, talking to friends, reading, writing, travelling, are they not? Dessaix’s days have been rich in all these things, as the looping memories and reflections in this book make clear. And yet, he says,

I have largely failed to live in my succession of days … On the rare occasions when I have succeeded, it’s been because underneath the shopping, washing and cleaning … underneath all that dailiness, I’ve glimpsed cluster after meshing cluster of experience – whole chasms of them, down, down, down they go into the depths of memory … Layers, that’s the key, as I putter – indeed, sputter – towards death, I think to myself. Layers are the new geometry: thickly layered days in which I am my own master.

Perhaps not surprisingly in a book about a close encounter with death, a lot of What Days Are For is about gods, religion, belief and faith. This can seem strange in a writer who brings out his entire battery of synonyms for nonsense whenever a religious topic appears over the horizon; at various points in this book, otherworldly belief systems and objects of various kinds are dismissed as ‘crazed’, ‘daft’, ‘gobbledygook’, ‘hogwash’, ‘jiggery-pokery’, ‘mumbo jumbo’, ‘tommyrot’, ‘tripe’ (he seems to go in for mannered words from a bygone genteel England – from his favourite childhood author Enid Blyton’s England – words of a kind that would have been fun to say into a microphone back in his broadcasting days), as well as what seems to be his favourite word for nonsense: ‘humbug’. He means something quite specific by this word and has, indeed, written an entire little book entitled On Humbug (2009), in which he lucidly distinguishes his notion of humbug from the two things with which he thinks it is often confused: ‘Humbug is not quite the same thing as bullshit … and it’s not at all the same thing as what is indelicately called mindfucking.’ So much for Enid Blyton’s bygone genteel England.

It seems clear that Dessaix thinks any form of organised religion partakes of all three. And yet he keeps returning to the question of religious experience, dwelling repeatedly and in detail on gods and shrines, recalling his encounters with Christianity and the many other belief systems and pantheons he has encountered in what is now a long life of extensive, inveterate travelling. As though playing some solitary and self-second-guessing game, he will hold up a word or concept from the discourse of the sacred and then snatch it back from himself (or, perhaps, snatch himself back from it), questioning and qualifying his own words. ‘Goodness me, I nearly said “spiritual”,’ he writes, and:

Yet it’s woven into my soul … Since we’re talking about Russian, I’ll permit myself ‘soul’.

Recalling a nasty case of Traveller’s Horrors, he says:

Despite being moved in Kali’s temple in Kuala Lumpur, I don’t believe in her, not literally … All the same, the night Scott and I tried to leave India, some god or other grew implacable, the heart of some being beyond all understanding grew black.

This black-hearted being was indeed, they decided, the Hindu goddess Kali:

You could feel the swish of her sword coming closer, her lust for heads to fly. It was uncanny: after all, she doesn’t exist.

The ravening Kali, slayer of the demons of self-delusion – ‘out she leaps, enraged, swollen tongue bright red and craving blood’ – could not be more different from the skim-milky, bread-and-butter Jesus of Dessaix’s childhood:

at Lane Cove Public School … I suspect we confused Christianity with niceness. Was Jesus nice? Not really, when you read between the lines, not in a Lane Cove sense.

In the initial reaction to this book when it was published late last year, much was made of Dessaix’s stance on gay marriage, which he elaborates here at some length. He has been quite severely misrepresented as ‘against’ gay marriage and thus, by implication, not in favour of its legalisation. For a well-known gay man this would perhaps seem odd if it were true, but it is not: ‘Yes, yes,’ he says, ‘if gays want to marry each other, they should have the right to.’ What he can’t see, he says, is why they might want to. Even people who disagree violently would have to admit that his views are characteristically nuanced and carefully thought through, and his definition of marriage is quite close to an old-style left-libertarian feminist one:

marriage is a legal arrangement to keep breeding couples and their     progeny in manageable units for their own protection and the convenience of the state.

But the most engaging and energetic of the points he makes about marriage uses it to take another swipe at organised religion:

If it’s important to this couple or that to exchange vows in the sight of God, then nobody is stopping them … Dress up, don’t dress up, pledge, don’t pledge – it’s doubtful God or Allah or Hanuman the Monkey God will give a fig either way. After all, over the centuries all these gods have sat stolidly without lifting a finger through earthquakes, plagues, wars, the mass slaughter of innocents and the extinction of animal species by the million. Why would they give a toss about what name you use for the agreement you have with your partner?

Dessaix, who lives in Hobart, had flown to Sydney earlier on the day of ‘the emergency’ for an exciting purpose: the play on which he had spent ‘years of clandestine scribbling and rewriting’, A Mad Affair, was to be given a reading at NIDA twelve days hence, a reading that did indeed take place as scheduled, although he was not there to observe it. The play is about one of his literary loves, Ivan Turgenev, and the woman he calls ‘Turgenev’s paramour, his lifelong love, his passion, his inamorata’: the married Spanish singer and composer Pauline Viardot Garcia. He has written about this apparently chaste 40-year relationship before: it is the subject of his 2004 travel memoir – one way or another, most of what he writes is travel memoir of some kind – Twilight of Love.

And love, unlike religion, gets tender treatment in What Days Are For. Dessaix is all in favour of love, and it is love that he comes back to as he grapples at the end of the book with the effect that this latest brush with death has had on his ideas about what matters most in life. ‘For many decades,’ he says, ‘I was mostly trying to understand love in its many guises – affection, fondness, adoration, love-sickness, ardour, friendship, lust, tenderness …’ To this list he adds elsewhere – for love is also a subject to which he keeps returning – intimacy, infatuation, enchantment and crush. And at one point, discussing the beginnings of the relationship with his partner, he makes a number of fastidious, forensic distinctions between these various items in his taxonomy of love. ‘Romance no doubt has its place, as does the erotic adventure … But neither Peter nor I are naturally romantic in the traditional sense.’ At no point, he says, ‘did either of us turn to syrup, as the Russians say’,  and ‘We never get lovey-dovey on the phone.’

But it’s too late for such protestations, really, since he has already outed himself on page nine, as he lies bleeding in St Vincent’s: ‘I want every voice I hear to turn out to be his.’ And whether or not the arrival at his hospital bedside of this partner of more than three decades – having got the message at his Melbourne hotel, after a spectacularly rough overnight ferry crossing of Bass Strait, that he should call St Vincent’s Hospital in Sydney, where he was told by the person on the phone that ‘things are not looking good’ – whether or not that might be called ‘romantic’ is something readers will decide for themselves:

And so he spent all yesterday arranging to fly to Sydney. Flying for him is even more terrifying than crossing Bass Strait in the fiercest storm for fifty years. Yet here he is. He’s flown.


Gail Bell, ‘As Robert Was Saying,’ The Monthly (March 2012).
Robert Dessaix, ‘Nice Work if You Can Get It,’ Australian Book Review, no.128 (February-March 1991).
A Mother’s Disgrace (Harper Perennial, 1994).
Twilight of Love: Travels With Turgenev (Picador, 2004).
On Humbug (Melbourne University Press, 2009).
Lee Gutkind, ‘Robert Dessaix: Interview,’ Creative Nonfiction, no.46 (Fall 2012).