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Robert Dessaix was born in Sydney and adopted at an early age. He was educated at North Sydney Boys High School and the Australian National University. His interest in Russian literature led him to study in Moscow during the late 1960s and early 1970s. Upon gaining his PhD, Dessaix changed his surname from 'Jones' (the name of his adoptive parents) to 'Dessaix' (the name of his biological parents). After teaching Russian language and literature at the University of New South Wales and the Australian National University for almost twenty years (including translating works from Russian to English in collaboration with Michael Ullman), Dessaix began a career as a writer, reviewer and broadcaster.
Beginning in 1985, Dessaix produced and presented the ABC Radio program Books and Writing for ten years. Since the early 1980s, his reviews and short stories have appeared in a variety of journals and newspapers and he has edited several anthologies, including Australian Gay and Lesbian Writing(1993). He has published translations, collections of prose, and novels, winning several awards in the late 1990s. Dessaix's widely admired autobiography, A Mother's Disgrace (1994), recounts the search for his birth mother and the discovery of his sexuality, explaining the development of his personal philosophy.
Robert Dessaix lives in Tasmania. He is a regular speaker at writers' festivals, but regards himself as a dilletante rather than a public intellectual. In 2002, he was awarded the Chevalier dans l'Ordre de Arts des Lettres for services to French culture. His works have won and been shortlisted for a range of prestigious Australian prizes, including the Colin Roderick Award, the Margaret Scott Prize, and the Victorian Premier's Literary Awards.
'One Sunday night in Sydney, Robert Dessaix collapses in a gutter 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. ' (Publication summary)
'One Sunday afternoon in a secluded valley in Normandy, Robert Dessaix chanced upon the castle where the 20th-century French writer Andre 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.'
Twilight of Love : Travels with Turgenev2004single work prose travel Dessaix explores the life of Russian novelist Ivan Turgenev, particularly his relationship with the opera singer Pauline Viardot and her husband. Intrinsic to this exploration is Dessaix's journey to each of the houses where Turgenev and the Viardots lived. Within the narrative Dessaix intersperses his own reflections on the nature and meaning of life, including his understanding of the soul.