Dessaix, Robert 1944-

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DESSAIX, Robert 1944-

PERSONAL: Born 1944, in Sidney, New South Wales, Australia. Education: Attended Australian National University (studied Russian language and literature); attended Moscow State University, 1966-67 and 1970.

ADDRESSES: Home—Melbourne, Australia. Agent—Lyn Tranter, Australian Literary Management, 2 Buckland St., Chippendale, Sydney NSW 2008, Australia.

CAREER: University professor, literary interviewer and commentator, and broadcaster. Australian National University, Canberra, teacher, until 1985; University of New South Wales, Sydney, lecturer in Russian language and literature; ABC Radio National's Books and Writing program, producer and presenter, 1985-95; ABC Television, producer and presenter of weekly program Books and Writing, 1985—.

AWARDS, HONORS: Shortlisted for Vance Palmer Prize for Fiction, and for Book of the Year award, The Age, both 1996, both for Night Letters.


Turgenev: The Quest for Faith (criticism), Australian National University (Canberra, ACT, Australia), 1980.

(Editor and translator, with Michael Ulman) Grigori Svirski, A History of Post-War Soviet Writing: The Literature of Moral Opposition (criticism), Ardis (Ann Arbor, MI), 1981.

(Translator, with Michael Ulman) Boris Vakhtin, The Sheepskin Coat [and] An Absolutely Happy Village (novellas), Ardis (Ann Arbor, MI), 1990.

(Editor) Australian Gay and Lesbian Writing: An Anthology, Oxford University Press (Melbourne, VIC, Australia), 1993.

(Editor, with Helen Daniel) Picador New Writing (anthology), Picador Australia (Chippendale, Sydney, NSW, Australia), 1993.

A Mother's Disgrace (autobiography), Angus & Robertson (Pymble, Sydney, NSW, Australia), 1994.

Night Letters (fiction), Macmillan (Sydney, NSW, Australia), 1996, St. Martin's Press (New York, NY), 1997.

and so forth, Pan Macmillan (Sydney, NSW, Australia), 1998.

Corfu: A Novel, Picador (Sydney, NSW, Australia), 2001.

Also editor of Outrage: Gay and Lesbian Writing, 1993, and Oxford Book of Gay and Lesbian Writing, 1993; author of A Practical Handbook of Russian Aspect, 1994; (with Amanda Lohrey and Drusilla Modjeska) Secrets, 1997; and Speaking Their Minds (a collection of interviews), 1998.

SIDELIGHTS: Robert Dessaix is an Australian educator, critic, and author who has written, translated, and edited works focusing on his main area of academic interest, Russian literature. He has also contributed to the subgenre of Australian homosexual literature with an anthology of gay and lesbian writing, as well his own autobiography, and a work of fiction centering on a gay Australian who travels to Europe after learning he has contracted the AIDS virus.

Dessaix began his literary career with the publication in 1980 of an examination of religious faith in the works of the Russian nineteenth-century author Ivan Turgenev. He later edited and translated, with Michael Ulman, Grigori Svirski's A History of Post-War Soviet Writing: The Literature of Moral Opposition, which comprises a consideration of Russian twentieth-century literature, particularly focusing on the literature of dissent within the former Soviet Union. He and Ulman again collaborated in the translation of a pair of comic novellas by Boris Vakhtin, The Sheepskin Coat [and] An Absolutely Happy Village, which was published in 1990.

Dessaix changed direction with his next work, Australian Gay and Lesbian Writing: An Anthology, published in 1994. In this volume, Dessaix has collected literary works featuring gay and lesbian themes by a variety of authors from all periods of Australian literary history and provides supporting material for the texts in the form of biographical notes and a critical introduction. The anthology includes such authors as Dennis Altman, Sumner Locke Elliot, Kate Walker, Henry Handel Richardson, Mary Fallon, Thomas Shapcott, David Herkt, Tim Herbert, Lesbia Harford, Elizabeth Riley, Susan Hampton, Sasha Soldatow, Simon Payne, and Nicholas Jose.

In a review of Australian Gay and Lesbian Writing for Choice, B. Braendlin noted that having heterosexual writers in addition to homosexual writers forces the reader to examine how homosexual literature is defined, in addition to how sex and gender are related. Tina Muncaster, commenting in the Australian Book Review, praised the volume, stating "Australian Gay and Lesbian Writing shines through the mass of mediocre publisher's fundraisers as an example of the difference a committed and careful editor can make when assembling source material under a common theme."

A Mother's Disgrace, published in 1994, offers an account of Dessaix's search for identity through a reunion with his biological mother, Yvonne, who had given him up for adoption forty-six years earlier. Elaine Lindsay, writing of A Mother's Disgrace in the Australian Book Review, commented that his "autobiography may be directed at his mother but it is possible that Dessaix is also readjusting his perceptions of himself." She found, however, that Dessaix's "conversational style . . . does him a disservice for it discourages contemplation and keeps the reader at a passive distance."

Night Letters, Dessaix's 1996 work of fiction, presents a series of letters written by an Australian writer traveling to Venice, Italy, after learning he is HIV positive. Addressed to an unnamed correspondent in Melbourne, the letters are arranged, excerpted, and annotated by the unimaginative fictional editor Igor Miazmov and offer insight into a wide array of topics, including philosophy, religion, literature, cultural history, spiritual quest, and personal awakening. In Venice the narrator meets Professor Eschenbaum. Through the dialog between the two men emerges the story of Donna Scamozzi and her virgin daughter Camilla, the "Disappearing Courtesan," as well as tales of the lives of famous Venetians Casanova and Marco Polo. Throughout the book, the narrator is intensely focused on Dante's Divine Comedy, drawing hope and spiritual sustenance from the poet's notion of God as a radiant point of light.

Jeremy Reed of the London Times called the book "a poetic masterpiece." Reed wrote, "Not since Edmund White's richly evocative Nocturnes for the King of Naples has a gay novelist infused the themes of love and death with so fine a lyric sensibility." The reviewer thought the book was full of hope and a testament to the value of living in the moment. "The outcome is heroic. . . . Illness is viewed as contingent on the will to live, and the future as it is apprehended by the narrator is open-ended and continuous," Reed concluded.

Reviewer Hazel Rowley praised Night Letters in the Australian Book Review. Noting that "Dessaix excels at second-person narrative," Rowley found the work "intensely pleasurable to read." Dessaix revealed, in an interview with Peter Beilharz, also published in the Australian Book Review, that the persona "R," who writes the letters, is "constructed as a fictional voice. It's not my own voice. . . . It's a voice I had to find. It reflects my concerns and, I hope, my enjoyment of play, but it is probably a more self-deprecating voice than my real voice—perhaps more at sea in the world, pretending not to know things that I probably think I do know."

Dessaix's and so forth is a collection of some of his short stories and essays from about 1990 to 1998. Several of the essays are from Dessaix's Radio National program. One is about the author's private language, "K," which he invented as a child and still uses when talking to himself. Another deals with other authors who are writing about AIDS and the end of life. Other essays include one about "Anna Karenina," from the novel, and a piece about Aboriginal art and the Australian Outback. Eclectica reviewer Ann Skea both liked and disliked the book, saying she preferred Dessaix's essays to his stories. Writing about this mix, she said, "If you want to read Dessaix in his best fictional mode, forget these [short stories] and read Night Letters instead." Skea admitted that the reason she disliked some of the author's writings is because she disagrees with him. "As you can tell, Robert Dessaix's writing is not for people who want a quiet uncontroversial read," she concluded. "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."

Helen McCullough, in a review for Screaming Hyena Web site, wrote: "and so forth is not a red hot flash crash change your life sort of book; rather it's a hello Uncle Robert, good to see you again, do come in and have a cup of coffee, and tell us again the one about the stolen picture sort of book. It is recommended for those who already know and like Dessaix. Others should start with A Mother's Disgrace, an excellent introduction to the voice and point of view, and a fascinating read."

Dessaix's 2001 novel, Corfu, revolves around an unnamed narrator who stops on the Greek island of Corfu on his way home to Australia and stays at the home of writer-actor Kester Berwick while he is away. The narrator comes to know Berwick by reading his letters, diaries, and novels and by meeting Berwick's eccentric friends in the village—expatriates who do not mix with the local people. A series of flashbacks from both the narrator's and Berwick's life make up most of the story. Intertwined throughout the novel are essays on literature befitting the place and circumstance in which the narrator finds himself. For example, when he travels to the island of Lesbos, Dessaix discusses Sappho; Chekhov finds his way into the narrator's reminiscences about the theater; and Homer's Ulysses comes to the fore when he thinks of going home. The narrator also muses on the writings of Cavafy, Emerson, Cicero, Horace, Longus, Tolstoy, and others. Important to the narrator's tale is his failed gay romance and his relationship with the young Australian William, with whom Berwick has also been friendly.

Reviewer Skea wrote, "I was entertained. And surprised, when I had finished, to realize that I had just enjoyed what could well be classified as 'gay fiction.' But to classify it as such would be as limiting as to describe it as 'travel writing,' which is also possible. . . . The narrator's company is entertaining, his travels are exotic, and his adventures, like those of Odysseus, are curiously full of strange encounters."

Times Literary Supplement critic David Horspool viewed the novel less favorably, saying, "Drama . . . happens offstage, while the narrator's thoughts take the spotlight. Dessaix has an eye for comic possibility, but the glimpses he affords . . . are frustratingly brief." Horspool thought Dessaix was too close to his main character, making the book little more than "an elegantly written treatise."

Diana Ward of Girl Plus Boy Web site commented that Dessaix's blend of travelogue with fiction and essay does not work as well in Corfu as it did in Night Letters. Calling Corfu "a difficult read," she said she disliked the way literary essay interrupted fiction. Ward also observed that the novel contains "little or no insight" into the lives of the local Greek people and their culture, and she said "the almost exclusive emphasis on male characters . . . makes it seem a little one-dimensional." Although she could not empathize with the narrator, Ward thought "the intricacy of some of the other characters is both wonderful and fantastical."



Advocate, December 9, 1997, review of Night Letters, p. 79.

Australian Book Review, September, 1993, Tina Muncaster, review of Australian Gay and Lesbian Writing: An Anthology, pp. 43-44; February, 1994, Elaine Lindsay, review of A Mother's Disgrace, pp. 21-22; July, 1994, review of A Mother's Disgrace, p. 32; August, 1996, Hazel Rowley, review of Night Letters, and Peter Beilharz, interview with Dessaix, pp. 7-8; July, 1998, review of Speaking Their Minds, p. 10; November, 1998, review of and so forth, p. 19; August, 2001, review of Corfu: A Novel, p. 11.

Booklist, November 1, 1997, review of Night Letters, p. 454.

Bulletin with Newsweek, December 8, 1998, Diana Simmonds, review of and so forth, p. 85; August 14, 2001, Sally Blakeney, review of Corfu, p. 71.

Choice, October, 1994, B. Braendlin, review of Australian Gay and Lesbian Writing, p. 290.

Kirkus Reviews, September 1, 1997, review of Night Letters, p. 1325.

Lambda Book Report, May, 1994, review of Australian Gay and Lesbian Writing, p. 34; July, 1995, review of Australian Gay and Lesbian Writing, p. 42.

Library Journal, October 1, 1997, review of Night Letters, p. 120.

New York Times Book Review, March 18, 1990, p. 12; January 11, 1998, Patrick Farrell, review of Night Letters, p. 14; March 7, 1999, review of Night Letters, p. 28.

Observer (London, England), December 1, 1996, review of Night Letters, p. 16.

Publishers Weekly, October 6, 1997, review of Night Letters, p. 75.

Times (London, England), November 26, 1998, Jeremy Reed, "Writing to Survive," review of Night Letters, p. 42.

Times Literary Supplement, March 12, 1999, Naomi Price, review of Night Letters, p. 23; March 29, 2002, David Horspool, "An Island of Lost Souls," review of Corfu, p. 22.


Age Web site, (December 7, 1995), review of Night Letters.

Eclectica Online Magazine, (January-February, 1999), Ann Skea, review of and so forth; (October-November, 2001), Ann Skea, review of Corfu.

Girl Plus Boy Web site, (September 23, 2002), Diana Ward, review of Corfu.

Premier's Literary Awards Web site, (October 24, 1997).

Screaming Hyena: e-Journal of Queer Writing and Review, (June 30, 1999), Helen McCulloch, review of and so forth.*