Jan/Feb 1999 Book Reviews

(and so forth)

Robert Dessaix
Macmillan (October 1998)
ISBN: 0 7329 0943 0
A$29.95 (hardback) 432 pages

reviewed by Ann Skea

Do you remember the little girl who had a little curl right in the middle of her forehead? Robert Dessaix reminds me of her: when he is good he's very, very good, and when he's bad he's..., well, you know.... But that's not quite fair, because often Dessaix's horrid stuff is just something I disagree with him about and want to argue over. And one of the best things about his writing is that it invites argument and debate. He has strong views; he doesn't mince his words; and he's not afraid to tackle sacred cows (or bulls, as the case may be).

There are things in the book, though, which I do not like at all and which I think do Dessaix a disservice. It is a pity, for example, that the book begins with a selection of his short stories. If you want to read Dessaix in his best fictional mode, forget these and read Night Letters instead, it is infinitely better. Otherwise, if you have spent long years, as I have, reading books from front to back (post-modernists may not have this problem) you may well abandon this book before you get to the best bits.

I found, 'His Neighbour's Ox,' for example, so larded with male sexual imagery that I ended up thinking the whole story distasteful when my aversion should have been only to the central character. On the other hand, Dessaix's 'disquisitions' (I hope I pronounced this with my lip sardonically curled to his satisfaction) are entertaining, thought-provoking and full of delightfully barbed wit. I particularly enjoyed 'Anna Karenina,' probably because Dessaix, who has had a long love affair with Russian language, literature and life, knows what he is writing about better than most, and is not afraid to wear his heart on his sleeve.

In 'Tea With Matisse,' too, Dessaix's very personal account of an experience in the Australian outback is curious and puzzling. I'm still not sure that I understand it, but that, I think, is the point he is trying to make: you really have to go there yourself to even begin to understand how alien the Australian interior is to a Western consciousness, and how different is the Aboriginal peoples' perception of it. Dessaix discusses two Aboriginal paintings and the complex process of their production. Both paintings are reproduced in the book by permission of the artist and the Warburton Community.

Dessaix's views on Western art are no less interesting, and he makes no pretence to impersonal analysis. What he sees in an Emanuel de Witte Dutch interior, or in a modern painting of a suburban family in a car, or seated outside a suburban Australian home, grows from his own childhood experiences. We may share some, or none, of his perceptions but he gives us an intriguing example of the sort of reactions and emotions a painting can stir in a viewer.

Dessaix's first published writing was a book review, and he tells us that this is still a genre which he enjoys and takes seriously. His approach is still not impersonal. In fact, in one disquisition in this book he advises would-be reviewers to be as personal and as non-authoritarian as possible. However, only a man who is himself HIV positive might feel able to take Harold Brodkey** to task for lack of humour in writing about his own death, as Dessaix does. {**Brodkey, the Wild Darkness: the story of my Death, Fourth Estate]

And, as Professor Sod's law decrees, no sooner has Dessaix authoritatively advised us that "authoritarian writing" is "language which totally disempowers us" and that we should "avoid clichés, set expressions and specialist jargon," than he launches into a discussion on sex and gender which is replete with terms like 'gender neurosis,' 'scientific discourse,' 'canonical text' and 'post-modernism,' and with telling reference to such authorities as Derrida, Said, Foucault and Baudrillard. No matter that he is making some interesting and controversial points, as soon as modernism, post-modernism and discourse enter the discussion, I, who grew up in a Leavisite age, in spite of reading all the right 'texts,' feel immediately insecure and ignorant. Which proves Dessaix's point about authoritarian writing remarkably well.

As you can tell, Robert Dessaix's writing is not for people who want a quiet uncontroversial read. His home territory may be Australia, and some of his references and jokes will be puzzling to people who do not know, for example, that Sydneysiders and Melbournians have traditionally sparred with each other over which is the best city in which to live (Sydney is, of course!), but you don't need to live in Australia to have opinions on gender, sex, colonialism, orientalism, pornography and art. Dessaix touches on all these topics, and more. And I suspect that he won't be a bit disturbed if, having read this book, you think he's horrid at times, too.


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