Interview with Robert Dessaix

The author of Corfu talks in depth about his latest novel, the theatre, his literary references, on the “redemption of the ordinary”, the possibility of a national literature, roots, the purpose of literature, the value of classic texts, and more.

Interview by Magdalena Ball

Magdalena: Tell me about the background to Corfu.

Robert: I went there about 4 years ago and just as I was about to leave I was offered the Kester Berwick book Head of Orpheus Singing. I never had heard of it, or him and I was told that he lived in Gastouri where I had been to visit Elizabeth’s palace, and something about it sparked a response in me. I suppose I would say that it resonated, even though there was no information, there were the sorts of themes that I’ve always been much taken with: exile and the making of an unremarkable life. I was told that he died there some years before alone, and that he had lived in Greece for some 30 years, and I thought I’d never heard of this Australian man who was apparently very active in the theatre, and so it resonated with these sorts of concerns, such as how you make your ordinary life good and significant to yourself. There was also notion of exile and the historical theme of why someone in the late 60s living in Australia might feel that he could only have a full life outside the country. I didn’t at that time know that he was homosexual, although I had a whiff that this might be one of the reasons for his exile, but I came home and started to find out a little bit more about him, to talk to people who had known him. Then I went back to Greece the second time and took notes about Easter in Greece, and how it was celebrated, and I read up on the history of Corfu and read Sappho for the first time, and gradually this all goes into the mix. Then then you wait perhaps a couple of years, and one day you know you have enough material.

Magdalena: You make it clear that Corfu is a novel, but did you find yourself walking in the narrator’s shoes?

Robert: I suppose so. One has to choose a word in English. If you want to be eligible for a literary prize you have to designate it as something. It wasn’t strictly speaking biography, so it became a Fiction. You are obviously writing out of experience and so the boundaries are always blurred, it is just that sometimes it would seem that you are playing with fire a little bit by choosing someone that obviously existed. You know The Sound of Music, and The King and I, are based on real people, and there are any number of movies about Tolstoy – these things are all based on someone’s historical life which has been played around with, and this bothers nobody. I’ve been surprised that some people have been uncomfortable with my use of a real person, and would clearly like me to have chosen a non-fiction, in which case I would have written a biography of this interesting man. Albeit one not deserving of a biography in this sense, or else I should have written a completely imagined novel. Well I don’t operate according to those rules.

Magdalena: Within the novel are some detailed literary analyses of Chekhov, Sappho, Cavafy, and to a lesser extent, Homer and Tolstoy. Did you have these writers in mind when you started writing?

Robert: Not when I started, although because I had just re-read Homer and knew that one of the islands that he ended up on is in fact supposed to be ancient Corfu, I thought that I would like to weave it in. I tend to do this. I don’t know whether it is the teacher in me, saying to the readers let’s share some more text, or whether it was just my way of amplifying a very simple story, by including other stories that people have heard of. Chekhov is the most produced playwright in the world after Shakespeare, and most of the people in my sort of audience would have seen at least one of his plays. So it was my way of saying, let’s make this bigger than this seems. I didn’t know Sappho before I started this, but because Kester was writing in the Lesbos setting about love that doesn’t work out, it seemed appropriate.

Magdalena:A lot of Corfu the novel is rooted in the theatre, with the 3 Chekhov plays produced within the book. Have you spent time working in the theatre?

Robert:Very little. I did spend about 5 years in the Griffin Theatre Company in 1978 actually , and worked therefore about 5 years on a voluntary basis. This was very much as a amateur, doing things like mopping the floor, handling props, setting up scenery, etc. I never acted, and don’t think I’m an actor, but those years in the theatre taught me a lot about professional theatre. Everybody there came from NIDA. Of course when I was a little boy, theatre was very much a part of my life. It goes back to my early childhood. I’ve always had a fascination for the stage which has to do with transfiguration. One moment you are John Smith from East Brighton riding in your cart, and the next moment you are in a completely different world. Also I wanted to share that sense of transparency – you look through that wall which isn’t there. It is the disappearance of the self in some ways, which mirrors the experience of being in love. In the theatre, you are in love with what is on the stage, with the moment. You just don’t get that with movies or videos, or TV, where you know that what you are seeing is repeatable. Every time you watch a performance in the theatre, you know that this is just for you, and will never be the same again. It is quite exciting for me.

Magdalena: What do you see as the big themes underlying the book?

Robert: I suppose I would say that the main theme emerged as the redemption of the ordinary. I think that’s what art is about. The extraordinarily facile and in literary terms long lived works tend to be about ordinary people. Even Sappho writes about the utterly insignificant . What art can do is make the extraordinary more ordinary and ordinary more extraordinary. You turn your life into a work of art in order to redeem the ordinariness – a condition you are stuck with. Although I think that a lot of readers will perhaps not be all that interested in Kesster as a historical figure, there is that sense of how he makes sense of his ordinary life. There is clearly another theme that has to do with love and friendship, particularly friendship and sexual love; intimacy and what it is. This intimacy can operate in every sphere of love – friendship, sexual love – there are many different kinds of love and it is important to use language to define what they are, so you have power over them. In Chekhov there is only one word and that is the word “love”, and this is the same in English.

Magdalena: At one point the narrator of Corfu asks Greta, “do you believe in roots?” Do you? Do we all have a physical Ithaca that we are striving to return to (viz the Cavafy poem you cite)?

Robert: I think that a lot of people do have a physical Ithaca, but I don’t think that I do and I think that a lot of people do not. This depends on your values and the circumstances of your life. My Ithaca is in the Mental realm and this doesn’t mean that you don’t have to go back to it. There is a mental space that we consciously makes our way back to, and give honour to what has formed us in this mental homeland which we carry with us always. It is important not to try to annihilate it but to take your courage in your hands and go back, and then I think you can more easily make a new beginning. A lot of us would like to know how to do this.

Magdalena: What about from a literary perspective? In our increasingly global world, can we still have a national literature?

Robert: I find it hard as an Australian to define it. It is much easier for me to define what makes a novel French or Russian, but defining the characteristics of an Australian novel are difficult for me as it is all too close – I can’t see the woods for the trees. What I would say, is that in this globalised world, local themes, language, sense of humour, ways of looking at the world, a sense of shared history, all this becomes more important. We are seeing this more and more. The Basques, and Scottish, and Welsh, and Irish, and the Slovaks as opposed to the Slovenes, are all more conscious than they were 10 or 20 years ago. These are ways of fighting a globalised (which means an American) world. Anyone else who tries to make a movie simply can’t compete, since Americans own everything. It is terribly important to maintain a national identity in a way that it probably wasn’t before. For example, Borders bookshop are putting the kind of pressure that huge conglomerates put on publishers to publish marketable books. To this I say, no, I want to write the sort the book that my people want to read, even if the market is small. Borders is saying the only people who should be allowed to write books are the kind of people who will sell us 100,000 books, and of course these are not always the best books. I think that in this globalised world, the local is going to become more and more important – it is a paradox. You see it in Western Europe more and more. Eastern Europe is still coming out of the Soviet uniform cultural era, but this kind of separation and nationalism is very obvious now in Western Europe.

Magdalena: In one of his most famous poems, Auden wrote “For poetry makes nothing happen; it survives/In the valley of its making where executives/would never want to tamper…” (In memory of WB Yeats). In light of the horrific terrorist attacks which took place in the US last week, where does literature fit? Can it help us in the prison of our days “teach the free man how to praise?” Or is it just an escape?

Robert: A) I would see nothing wrong with escaping but B) no, I think it is an important question of our lives – what is the meaning of literature to us as humans. Drusilla Modjeska has a section in her book about Grace Cossington Smith on this topic, which gave me courage to write this book [Corfu]. Cossington Smith also had an utterly suburban, utterly uneventful life, and out of that life she produced luminous art. Despite the war, and bombings, and all the big things that happen to us, the stuff of our lives is small and always will be. During a war it is different, but even then, it is perfectly possible to write novels during a major war, which are about those thing which endure. It is what makes us human and the thing which is going to keep going; the actual stuff of our real life despite what we are seeing. It is loving and being loved, and I would also add, although it seems pompous, creating. Not just art, but all forms of creativity, because you can be creative in whatever you do; in how your raise a child, or tend the garden. Those are the two things: a sense of loving and being loved, and being creative – that is what life is made up of, and what literature reminds us of.

Magdalena: In his essay on Ulysses, Eliot talks of “manipulating a continuous parallel between contemporaneity and antiguity…it is a step towards making the modern world possible in art” This seems to be evident in Corfu. Talk to me about how this merging of antiguity and contemporary in modern literature and the importance of this theme to the novel.

Robert: I didn’t do it consciously. I have quite a strong sense that there are ur-texts that we are losing touch with in this post-modern world through the shear beauty and because they have been with us for thousands of years. The Odyssey and Iliad say things about the human condition in ways we should re-acquaint ourselves with, and use as a prism to interpret though. I did this with Dante in Night Letters, and you don’t have to be a scholar or wise person – anyone can read them. It is a miracle. When I re-read the Odyssey, it felt like I was reading PD James or Minette Walters – you feel that you are sharing in something that hundreds of millions of people have read with love, and I think that this is worth holding onto. It is not a matter of canonical texts or elitism, which the universities are trying to make us wary about. It is about shared language and metaphor and experience and imagery and that is all good.

Magdalena: Have you begun work on something new?

Robert: I am in the middle of moving to Tasmania, and even as we speak I’m watching Peter Timms pack one of the last boxes. We are moving on Friday, and that is taking up all of my energies. I’m also doing “Books and Writing” for the ABC, and am having to give attention to that. The publicity for Corfu has now eased off a bit, but that also takes up a lot of mental space. I do want to write a long essay. A form of art that I like is portraiture. I had my portrait painted not so long ago, and it was hung in the National Gallery, and I gave a talk on that. I’ve been thinking about portraiture, and its relationship to writing and literature, biography and autobiography, and so that will be my next thing. I don’t write quickly or a lot. Well actually I write quickly, but I don’t have a store of things. I will wait for that erotic moment – like the one which struck me when someone said “have you ever heard of Kester Berwick?” One of the unfortunate things about creative writing courses is that they make people impatient. People feel that they have prepared themselves and that they must now do it. In fact there are positive incentives for doing so – universities are offering degrees for writing novels. I am coming from an older school, and I feel that you must learn to wait. There is that essay which was about the great notion of sitting on the mountain and waiting for the muses to cross the stream, and give you the symbols that would allow you to create. The word wait seems to me to be terribly important. Writers feel that they can’t afford to wait. They must do it now, and they are so clever, and there is so much competition. I’m quite happy to wait, and quite confident that the muses will cross the stream.