A celebration of insights from a luminary of Australian letters, Abracadabra is part memoir and personal record. A work many years in the making, it is an engrossing collection of talks given around Australia and overseas on everything from biography and Enid Blyton to kissing. The brief journalistic pieces and one short story in the second half of the book, offer reflections on subjects as varied as Indian hill stations, dementia and connoisseurship reminding us of why we read: for pleasure, after all, as well as ideas. It is the work of a conjurer whose works dazzle.
‘Magical reading …Since those halcyon radio days, Robert has gone on to write books and become a much sought after speaker at festivals casting his magic orations on subjects literary and the and the world at large, certainly the quad squad of art, travel, culture and society. Some of that magic has been captured on the page in the aptly titled Abracadabra, a collection of talks and chatty journalism, which he calls his feuilletons … Silken, smooth, scholarly, seemingly, seamlessly, creating as he speaks, there is nothing stubbly in these pieces.
Reading these pieces triggers an audio book in one’s mind, such is the memory of his voice back in the radio days, and later on the festival circuit, you hear as you read, the tone unmistakeably Dessaix … [his] singular voice cuts through.
Cheeky and chiding, casually iconoclastic, comically caustic and always a pleasure to read.’
‘Dessaix’s writing is absolutely delightful and Abracadabra is a magical collection of short works, entertaining an audience of one. It can be taken anywhere and at any time it can be dipped into at random for your enjoyment.’
Robert Dessaix celebrates magic of reading in Abracadabra.
‘Erudite, intelligent, witty, provocative opinionated and fun to listen to (since he regards these writings as ‘conversation’), even when you disagree with him.
Abracadabra is probably best read a little at a time … Dessaix’s one-sided ‘conversation’, so full of ideas and opinions and changes of scenery, [make him] good company.’
‘Humorous, insightful, erudite and challenging and well worth reading …
Listening to Dessaix …makes you aware of just how much of himself he gives. Of who he is and what he is and how he got there and why. This frank, amusingly presented self-portrait very endearing. It strengthens his plausibility and makes you want to agree with him, even when you are not sure you fully understand what he is getting at.
What’s the key to the art of growing older well? Is it an art that anyone can cultivate? How should we confront dying and death in a secular age? What about sex when we’re older? What about loneliness? (And, for that matter, what about facelifts?)
At the height of his powers in this remarkable (and often witty) book, Robert Dessaix addresses these increasingly urgent questions in inimitable prose and comes up with some surprising answers. From Java to Hobart via Berlin, Dessaix invites us to eavesdrop on his intimate, no-nonsense conversations about ageing with friends and chance acquaintances.
Reflecting on time, religion, painting, dancing and even grandchildren, Dessaix takes us on an enlivening journey across the landscape of growing older. Riffing on writers and thinkers from Plato to Eva Hoffman, he homes in on the crucial importance of a rich inner life.
The Time of Our Lives is a wise and timely exploration of not just the challenges but also the many possibilities of old age.
‘Known for his scalpel-like wit, [Dessaix] dissects personal and community attitudes to old age… Beautifully written, often very funny and candid… a thoughtful, entertaining meditation on the joys and pitfalls of getting older.’ ★★★★★
‘Dessaix’s personality, wit and humour hold the book together… Time of Our Lives is, by turns, philosophical, down-to-earth, sad and funny.’
‘[Dessaix] wears his erudition like a loose gown… often juxtaposing the serious and the comic. Part travelogue… It’s confronting at times, as any book that deals with ageing and death will be.’
‘An eclectic journey through Western and Eastern literature, art, and thought, from Epicurus to the Japanese concept of yutori… from Borobudur to Tasmania; from Dante’s concept of hell to absurd contemporary visions of paradise; from Leo Tolstoy and André Gide to Diana Athill and Eva Hoffmann… Dessaix’s delightful cast of Virgilian guides impart skerricks of their hard-won wisdom… all these glorious, elderly women, whose gusto for living remains undiminished by shrivelling prospects…
Dessaix’s eminently quotable ruminations might apply equally to living well at any age: cultivate the ‘life of the mind’, the art of conversation, and, especially, friendship; non-sexual, intimate friendships, of a kind largely out of fashion in Western societies. Caring deeply for and about others is essential, too… take joy in your own company, and stay open to fresh sensation, Dessaix exhorts the reader.’
‘A genial, brilliantly stylish and possibly essential companion book for those of us who find ourselves in our 70s or 80s, and suddenly wanting to know what life might be about.
Dessaix’s special skill is to be able to ask the deepest and most complex questions while appearing to be chatting amiably with you, all the while performing for you the literary equivalent of an enchanting dance. By the end you don’t really want such a book to end, which I guess is the sign of a thoroughly well-judged work.’
In today’s crazily busy world the importance of making time for leisure is more vital than ever. Yet so many of us lack a talent for it. We are working longer hours, consuming more than ever before; technology erodes the work–life balance further; increasingly, people feel that only work gives existence meaning. In a world where time is money, what is the value of walking without purpose, socialising without networking, nesting when we could be on our laptops?
Robert Dessaix shows, in this thoughtful and witty book, how taking leisure seriously gives us back our freedom – to enjoy life, to revel in it, in fact; to deepen our sense of who we are as human beings. He explains how we can reclaim our right to ‘rest well’, and to loaf, groom, nest and play, as he looks at leisure from many angles: reading, walking, travelling, learning languages, taking siestas and simply doing nothing. The result is a terrifically lively and engaging conversation that reminds us that at leisure we are at our most intensely and pleasurably human.
Translated into Korean (게으름 예찬).
What Days Are For
First published in hardback as a Knopf Book by Random House Australia 2014
Winner of the Non-fiction prize at the 2016 Adelaide Festival Awards for Literature.
One Sunday night in Sydney, Robert Dessaix collapses on a pavement 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.
‘[a] joyful, teasing, often hallucinatory journey exploring what days are for … an illuminating companion to A Mother’s Disgrace … [Dessaix] notes: “I would like to move hearts, not just minds.” And he does.’
‘For two weeks Dessaix drowned in vivid dreams, moving in and out of his own thoughts, and this is a day-by-day account. But Dessaix uses his dissociated state to spin the book out into something much more: a meditation on life, love, infatuation, travel, religion, and friendship … Caressing and impeccable, his is a very particular voice, moving lightly across the page … sceptical and self-aware.’
‘Dessaix’s voice and literary personality are unique in contemporary Australian letters.’
‘ … [an] impressive, at times profound book.’
‘ … a passeggiata … an evening stroll through some ancient city before night comes down … Life does not have to mean anything necessarily. Life is. So there is humour, not self-pity; curiosity, not bitterness of recrimination. There are jokes and whimsy and old-fashioned camp. In that final journey across the Styx, Dessaix, you have to imagine, would make the most delightful (late) companion.’
The text of Robert Dessaix’s only play A Mad Affair, which has an important role to play in this memoir, is available through Australian Script Centre. A Russian translation (Безумная любовь) is also available: enquiries should be directed to
This collection of pieces written mostly for the radio is a swirling conversation with the reader on everything from travel to dogs and cats, from sport and swearing to the pleasures of idleness. Punctuated at regular intervals by talks Dessaix has given on a wide range of subjects, as well as by some of his most incisive journalism, the conversation invites the reader to join a leisurely guided tour of his chamber of curiosities, featuring pieces collected all over the globe from across the centuries.
Whether writing home from Vladivostok or Damascus, discussing what makes for good conversation or thinking aloud about the paintings, poems and books he loves, Dessaix always writes with an intimacy and attentiveness that beguile, entertain and make his readers eager for new discoveries.
‘This is a teasing grab-bag of thoughts, memories, anecdotes and effronteries that achieves luxurious coherence.’
‘Dessaix is one of perhaps three Australian writers whose every appearance in print is a not-to-be-missed event.’
The judge’s wig is humbug, according to Dessaix, as is calling Princess Di ‘the people’s princess’. By way of contrast, the pro-life campaign, like the war on terror, is bullshit, while Mormonism is mind-fucking.
One of the Little Books on Big Themes series, On Humbug is an eloquent extended essay, replete with Dessaix’s trademark wit and anecdotes, on what the author calls ‘one of the most widespread, and valuable, modes of lying, little commented on’ (namely, humbug) and the important difference between humbug, bullshit and mind-fucking.
One Sunday afternoon in a secluded valley in Normandy, Robert Dessaix chanced upon the castle where the 20th-century French writer André Gide spent his childhood. Recalling the excitement he felt when he first read Gide as a teenager, Dessaix sets off to recapture what it was that once drew him so strongly to this enigmatic figure.
On a magic carpet ride from Lisbon to the edge of the Sahara, from Paris to the south of France and Algiers, he takes us to the places where the Nobel Prize winning author, in ways still scandalous to modern sensibilities, lived out his unconventional ideas about love, marriage, sexuality and religion.
Featuring meditations and conversations with fellow-travellers on subjects as varied as why we travel, growing old, illicit passions, and the essence of Protestantism, Arabesques is travel memoir at its finest.
‘Magical and inviting … these arabesques afford the reader inordinate pleasure’
‘Surrender to the ravishments first, get lost, skid with thrilled indecisiveness across the mosaic tile of each page. Venture out with the author on the roads and dizzying crossroads he negotiates as he plots a course between past and present, old haunts and new horizons, in the lands of Araby …’
‘Arabesques is by turns anecdotal, profound, moving, challenging, funny, intellectually probing, informative – as readers have come to expect from this accomplished translator, broadcaster, essayist and novelist.’
Winner of Victorian Premier’s Award for Literature 2005.
Winner of the Margaret Scott Prize.
For forty years, until the day he died, Ivan Turgenev, one of the greatest novelists of Russia’s Golden Age, was passionately devoted to the diva Pauline Viardot. He followed her and her husband around Europe, even living with them amicably at times as part of their household. Yet as far as we know, the relationship with Pauline was chaste.
What then did Turgenev mean by ‘love’, the word at the core of his life and work?
In a truly remarkable work of memoir, literary biography and travel writing, Robert Dessaix has found the pulse that still quickened Turgenev’s age, but has failed in ours.
‘The most inventive portrait of a writer’s life and legacy since Flaubert’s Parrot’
‘A marvellous and unusual book’
‘Twilight of Love is a moving, melancholy, vastly informative excursion into the Russian mind. Dessaix’s exploration of Turgenev’s travels illuminates not only the great writer’s soul but allows us better to understand the mysterious relationship between the landscapes of geography and the landscapes of literature, and how page and place feed magically off one another. This is one of the best travel memoirs I’ve read in years.’
‘This is what Robert Dessaix does best: an amalgam of travel writing, anecdotes, reminiscences, cultural and literary commentary, with a dash or two of politics and history as well, all of it held together by a pleasingly discursive style.’
‘An elegant, witty and moving study of a beloved writer and, more deeply, of love itself. Twilight of Love would have delighted its subject.’
‘The language is superb at capturing landscapes, atmospheres, human vagaries and Dessaix’s own finely tuned reactions to everything he encounters: for example, the ‘new’ Russia, which he mostly hates’
Translated into French (L’Amour de toute une vie) and Russian (Сумерки любви)
‘House in Gastouri for rent for 2 mths. Occupant travelling. Reasonable rent.’
In a village on the island of Corfu, alone in the cottage of a man he’s never met, a young Australian actor pieces together the strange life story of the Australian writer whose house he’s living in. As he explores his surroundings and makes new friends in Corfu, his own life begins to appear to him like an illuminating shadow-play of his absent host’s.
Set in the physical landscapes of the Greek islands, Adelaide and the suburbs of London, Robert Dessaix’s second novel is about the nature of friendship, love, the ordinary and extraordinary. Yet at its core is a perfectly placed meditation on literary landscapes – Home, Sappho, Cavafy and Chekhov – and the part art can play in making our lives beautiful.
‘Robert Dessaix is one of Australia’s finest writers, as this sad, funny and moving novel proves, again’
‘Robert Dessaix is some kind of national treasure because he represents with a kind of Helpmann-like elegance and virtuosity the side of our sensibilities we publicly repress.’
Translated into Dutch (Korfoe), French (Corfou), Portuguese (Corfu)
A selection of short fiction, essays and journalism offering insights into the many selves at play behind the mask of the well-known broadcaster and author. Traveller, thinker, linguist and self-confessed dilettante, Dessaix muses in this pieces on an astonishing array of subjects from orientalism to Aboriginal spirituality, from Albanian tourism to adoption and the art of translation.
Underlying these finely nuanced conversations with the reader is a passion for language and for finding ways to write with simplicity about intricate yet vital things: intimacy, mortality, time, love.
‘Making things new is not my forte. Seeing things anew – from an odd angle, in an unexpected light, coloured differently – somehow suits my nature better. It comes naturally, I suppose, to someone who believes he’s living a completely different life from the one he’s actually in the middle of.’ (From the Introduction)
Winner of the Australian Literature Society Gold Medal.
Shortlisted for the Miles Franklin Literary Award.
Every night for twenty nights in a hotel room in Venice, an Australian man recently diagnosed with an incurable disease writes a letter home to a friend. In these letters, against a rich background of earlier journeys in literature, with Dante as his imagined guide, he reflects on what it means to live a good life in the face of death.
‘Dessaix writes with great elegance, with passion, compassion and sly wit. Literally, a wonderful book’
‘An absolutely unique book: intelligent, funny, rich, tender at the right moments, a plum pudding of stories, observations and discoveries’
‘Masterly … Written with sensitivity and insight, Night Letters is a story exquisitely told.’
‘Night Letters is exhilarating. The goads, the teasing, the question marks fired up into the atmosphere make any passive reading of it quite impossible.’
‘To come across a genuine literary masterpiece is rare, but Night Letters is the real thing.’
‘ … a quicksilver meditation upon death.’
Translated into Dutch (Brieven uit der nacht), Finnish (Kirjeitä yöstä), French (Night Letters: lettres de Venise), German (Briefe aus der Nacht), Italian (Lettere di notte), Polish (Jestem v drodze), Portuguese (Cartas de Veneza)
Also in Louis Braille audio
The dramatisation by Susan Rogers and Chris Drummond is published by Currency Press (2004).
Shortlisted for the Association for the Study of Australian Literature Gold Medal and the Victorian Premier’s Literary Awards.
Highly commended for the FAW Christina Stead Award, the Age Book of the Year and the National Book Council CUB Banjo Awards.
Adopted as a baby towards the end of World War II, Robert Dessaix grew up haunted by ‘a shaft of silence’ surrounding the question of his natural mother’s identity, and of his own identity and sexuality. In this touching memoir, he recounts the story of a most unusual childhood on Sydney’s North Shore, of his fascination with Russian and the years he spent studying in Cold War Moscow, and of his restless wanderings around the world.
‘One of the most intelligently moving autobiographical narratives I have ever read. A book that is fascinating, engrossing … And a book that invites challenge.’
‘A journey of identity by a virtuosos in language and master of narrative control … a brave, moving, funny, enthralling book – all the way’
‘This book had me too absorbed to turn out the light.’
Translated into Dutch (Schande), French (Une mère et sa honte)
Also in Louis Braille audio (unabridged) and ABC audio (abridged)
Other titles for the curious
Robert Dessaix has published a number of other books which are no longer in print and, with one or two exceptions, little known.
Collectors of publishing curiosities might be interested to know that his first publication, in 1970, was Guide to Modern Russian Speech Etiquette, written together with L.P. Stupin under the name T.R. Jones. It was published by the Department of Russian Language and Literature at the University of Melbourne. An even rarer and stranger publication, also written with L.P Stupin under the name T.R. Jones, was a booklet on the typical mistakes made by Russians in English, published by the State University of Leningrad in 1972 (Типичные ошибки русских в английском языке). Together with Margaret Travers in 1994 he published A Practical Handbook of Russian Aspect (AGPS Press, ISBN9780644351751).
A collection of reference materials for most books listed above (research notes, letters from readers, drafts, notebooks and so on) is archived and available to readers in the Mitchell Library at the State Library of NSW.