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The magic of Dessaix's Abracadabra

  • 28 April 2023
Abracadabra, by Robert Dessaix. Brio Books 2022   I often think that as a critic or reviewer of books, I am a very good cook, for I find it difficult to make adverse comments about the printed word even if I think they are deserved. I know how hard it is to write a book, and so feel that adverse criticism is similar to looking in a pram and exclaiming, ‘What an ugly baby!’ However, when it comes to the work of Robert Dessaix, I do not have to worry, for I am invariably captivated by his writing.

Robert Dessaix is by now an Australian cultural icon, and one with a very distinctive voice. His first book, A Mother’s Disgrace, was published in 1994, and recounts his first meeting with his birth mother. It was Australian novelist Thea Astley who convinced him that the story had to be told; he listened to her and so changed his life, and he has been writing ever since. In the intervening years he has written nine books but says he never set out to be a writer; rather, he wanted to live in Paris and be a dilettante. But he also says that he always had an urge to perform and had early yearnings for the theatre. It turned out that he had a talent for talking and for languages. He remains interested in what motivates us to study languages, and offers the example of a friend who studied Italian even though she knew she would never speak it very well. She had told him she studied it because it made her feel more deeply human, more civilised. Dessaix himself has travelled widely, is fluent in French and Russian, and was the presenter of the ABC’s Books and Writing program for ten years.

Abracadabra is a collection, but a collection with a difference: the pieces have been adapted from Dessaix’s radio talks and addresses he has given at writers’ festivals and other functions. There is also a section called ‘Feuilletons’ — the French word for newspaper serials but considered by Dessaix (in the singular) to be a brief literary entertainment, ‘an irreverent jeu d’esprit’ or witticism. He also considers the writing of the feuilleton to be very much a dying art. In this section he writes about whatever takes his fancy, such as the matter of names, the reasons we travel, places as disparate as India and