Robert Dessaix

Robert Dessaix’s authorial voice reminds me of Christina Stead’s description of a small, clear wave running up a beach at low tide, playfully ‘ringing its air-bells’. He is not a writer of direct, declarative prose. Instead, Dessaix specialises in sentences that skip over and around their subjects, sometimes darting nimbly into brackets to investigate a seco ...

What a scandal! The Blessed Virgin sprawled on a bed in the half-dark, dead as a doornail, belly swollen, bare legs sticking out for all the world to see. What could Caravaggio have been thinking of?


If you’re a theatregoer, then somewhere along the line you’re bound to have seen The Government Inspector, Nikolai Gogol’s comedy about a rapacious nobody being mistaken for a government official by the citizens of a nameless provincial backwater. (They too are nobodies, greedy to be somebodies.) You might remember (since it’s a line that will have evoked both your contempt and your compassion) that the fussy fool Pyotr Ivanovych Bobchinsky, a local landowner, who fails to exist to the point of being almost indistinguishable from his companion Pyotr Ivanovych Dobchinsky, says to the government inspector (who isn’t one):

I beg you most humbly, sir, when you’re in St Petersburg, say to all the different bigwigs there – the senators and admirals: You know, in such-and-such a town, your Excellency, or your Eminence, lives Pyotr Ivanovych Bobchinsky. Just say that: lives Pyotr Ivanovych Bobchinsky … And if you’re speaking to the sovereign, then say to the sovereign as well: in such-and-such a town, your Imperial Highness, lives Pyotr Ivanovych Bobchinsky.

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Grand illusion

Jane Goodall


by Robert Dessaix
Vintage, $27.95 pb, 224 pp, 9781742753072


‘I’m sitting in my tower, cogitating.’ Well, Dessaix admits, it’s not a real tower, though he likes to think of ...

Who is, or rather who was, André Gide? I ask this because a distinguished editor warned me, on hearing that I was about to review Robert Dessaix’s enticing new book, that nowadays nobody would remember who Gide was. Ah, the years, the years! It was another story in the time of my youth ...

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In the last however many years, we have seen the rise of a kind of faction in this country which has enabled people like Drusilla Modjeska and Brian Matthews to show what scintillation and what fireworks may follow when the life of the mind (with whatever attendant discursive zigzagging) allows itself to imagine a world ...

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Secrets by Drusilla Modjeska, Amanda Lohrey and Robert Dessaix

November 1997, no. 196

That old rhyme sits unpondered in the memory of every woman or man who grew up to speak English or chant it in the many incantatory rituals of childhood. It is locked in there, partnered with the rhythmic thud of a skipping rope and spirals drawn on your palm to test endurance, in the exquisite torture test that was part primitive ordeal, part initiation into a social community that had its mysteries and its taboos and its transgressions. Children move naturally in this world of internalised rhythms, of things unexplained, of enigma and excitement.

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Donald Horne: critics and negotiators

The general idea of ‘public intellectual life’ is more useful than the particular idea of’ the public intellectual’. ‘Public intellectual life’ is a public manifestation of what I called in The Public Culture ‘the critics’ culture’ of a liberal-democratic state. (It is made possible by the belief in a questioning approach to exist­ence as a central force in society.) However only parts of this critical activity emerge into the public culture; it is these parts that might be thought of as its ‘public intellectual life’. They provide a kind of public acclimatisation society for new ideas. All kinds of people may play a part in working up these ideas down there in the subterranean passages of the critics’ culture and others may take over the business of negotiating them into the public sphere. Many of these ‘negotiators’ are paid public performers in the news and entertainment industries. However some of the ‘critics’ also have a capacity to barge in directly – but only if they have a desire to appeal to people’s imaginations, and the talent to do so. These are the ‘public intellectuals’. Some of them may be one-offs. Some become regulars. They become influential if they articulate ideas that are already in the minds of some of ‘the public’ anyway, if in a more diffuse state. They get nowhere if they don’t. Two of my books, The Lucky Country and Death of the Lucky Country, were prime examples of appealing to interests of which readers were already becoming aware.

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The first draft didn’t have Tristan, this deformed little character. Then I was reading to the kids, Beauty and the Beast. It was very beautifully written, terribly moving – and they were moved. I read it to them many times, thinking it would be interesting to look at that. Then, round about this time, I was walking along the street and glimpsed a terribly deformed young man in a wheelchair. I couldn’t bear to look at him yet I carried with me afterwards a vision, this bright, bright intelligence and this weird twisted-up face. It was quite moving and, having flinched from it, as from a fire or being cut, I began to make myself think about what was in there. That really goes back again to the very beginning of my work, the short stories. In the very beginning I was affected by Faulkner and As I Lay Dying because Faulkner was giving rich, interior worlds to people who you might otherwise pass by. That’s been a continual thing in my work, perhaps.

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In the advertising world there’s a new and controversial trend towards catering for the X-Generation; that is, consumers with a two-second attention span, and we’re not just talking about teenagers on rollerblades.

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