Outskirts online journal

Gina Mercer

Further information

About the author

Gina Mercer is currently the editor of Island. She has published two collections of poetry, The Ocean in the Kitchen (Five Islands Press, 1999), Night Breathing (Picaro Press, Wagtail 51, 2006), a novel, Parachute Silk (Spinifex Press, 2001) plus two academic books. She has taught creative writing and literature in universities and communities for over 20 years.

Publication details

Volume 14, May 2006

Masquerade of the Tiny Leaden Ball:
An Epistolary Meditation on Robert Dessaix’s Night Letters

28 March

Dear M.,

It’s the twentieth anniversary of mum’s death and I’m in bed with a noxious flu. It’s not like anything I’ve experienced before – I feel about as lively as a scrap of week-old processed chicken. I keep getting out of bed, convinced that I must be on the mend, only to find that making a cup of tea seems an impossible task and I have to shuffle back to list on the bed … again.

P. dropped by a couple of days ago with some soup (she’s not the best cook in the world but she is kind) and a copy of Robert Dessaix’s Night Letters. She’d just finished it, and said she thought it would be the perfect read for my languishing body. So next morning, after having exhausted myself utterly by having a shower and getting some breakfast, I flopped back into bed, settled into the feather pillows and started to read. I was really keen. P. had been so enthusiastic, you’d recommended it, and I remembered seeing a couple of very positive reviews when it first came out.

So I’ve been reading it solidly for the past few days – and I hate it. Maybe my mind’s off-beam because of this bloody flu, or maybe it’s that I find Dessaix’s meditation on his narrator’s imminent and predicted death disturbing at this time of year when I don’t want to be confronted by any more intimations of mortality. Whatever the reason, I found it hard to finish, and when I did, I had a very nasty taste in my mouth. Am too crook to work out why. Can you tell me what you liked about it? At this point I can’t imagine what a woman of your taste could find to enjoy. Am out of energy to prop up the laptop. Til next time – G.

1 April

Dear G.,

Feel concerned that you’ve been hit so hard by this flu. Take it seriously, won’t you? Don’t go barrelling back to work before you’re properly better in your usual “I’m OK” performance. A journalist on our local newspaper, she was only 36, had this same flu and ignored it in the interests of meeting her deadlines, and ended up carking it in hospital a couple of weeks ago. Her lungs collapsed and there was nothing they could do. So keep listing on those feather pillows a while yet.

It is a puzzle about Night Letters though. I remember when you read Dessaix’s earlier work, A Mother’s Disgrace how much you liked it, powerful and interesting I think you called it. It certainly was good to find out more about the Robert we’d listened to on Books and Writing all those years. Such an erudite voice, never fazed by his guests, no matter how famous or intimidating they might be. And never a sycophant, that’s what I like about him. So what was it about Night Letters that impassioned and disturbed you?

You’re right about the reviews. Peter Craven, never an easy one to please, called it “luminous” and some bloke at The Advocate called it “sophisticated and profoundly moving” (Pela). And I’d have to say that I agree with them. I found it refreshing to hear an informed and intelligent male voice talking in public about desire, fear, the focus for a life, the dynamics of the erotic … as well as the feeling of helplessness and disability which can be engendered by something as simple as a broken suitcase handle. How I empathised with his narrator as he climbed on train after pointless train, nearly fainting with hunger amidst all those urbane and indifferent Italians. Or those predatory aisles of eyes he had to pass through at the entrance to the various stations. Just like Dante’s descriptions of hell (Bartolini 22) or the ordinary hell experienced by any unattached woman traveller in Italy. Don’t you remember all the sinister raptor-men perched outside Brindisi station that time we staggered off the early morning train? It was interesting to read a male’s version of that experience, of feeling vulnerable as a field mouse, and being unable to shape-change into something more powerful because of a whole variety of external factors.

I really enjoyed those fabulous tales R. regaled us with too, elaborating the detail of them as if his very life depended on carving each detail with absolute precision. Don’t tell me you hated that? One reviewer described the whole book as an “Old World cabinet of curiosities” (Kadushin), and that’s how I remember feeling when I finished it. The same pleasure as if I’d browsed around a really good antique shop or museum with a knowledgeable companion who could explain the purpose of all those odd-shaped metal implements.

Was it the S&M, torture and violence theme that disturbed you, you delicate little petal? Or were you too flattened to be bothered with all the deceptions and disguises?

Must away – I have that lecture on Tristram Shandy to prepare … and Sterne’s wit and clever games are not something you can slide over with generalities or fudgy dollops. He’s a much sterner task master than that.

Lord, if I’m resorting to puns, I’d really better stop. Hope you’re energetic again very soon – love – M.

18 April

Dear M.,

Well you’ll be pleased to hear that I’m feeling the occasional glimmer of energy, though the doctor has ordered another week in bed at least. And I have to say that I’m grateful for that. Still feel incredibly fatigued if I do anything other than list.

The indefatigable P. dropped round the other night with an eggplant casserole and a box stuffed full of books and essays by Dessaix, plus lots of clippings of stuff about him. Can’t say either looked very appetising. Apparently P. had some student working on a research project on Dessaix, then the student got sent to Canada for work and left the box of papers with P., in case they came in handy! You English Lit people are a strange lot. P. obviously thinks that if I read all these other opinions about Dessaix, I’ll change my cantankerous views until they line up more neatly with hers. And being a compliant girl, I figured that if I’d consumed her soup and casserole I should dutifully imbibe these bits of paper too. So, I’m taking a leisurely tour of Dessaix-land with a view to my moral improvement – at least that’s P.’s desire!

Though I’m not sure why either of you would champion Dessaix, when he says such villainous things about the way English departments function these days. He seems to hate what you do very thoroughly. Keeps coming back to it like a falcon at a mouse. I didn’t realise English departments had the power to impose ideologies on anyone. What do you think of his perorations? The worst and most comprehensive rant I’ve found so far is an essay called “On Travesty” where he proclaims that people like you are “beavering away … at dressing up Something as Nothing … parodying both religious and scientific discourse” ((And So Forth) 236). Phew! Have you read it?

But to get back to Night Letters … although as Dessaix says “Night Letters is a homage to non-linearity, digression [and] the errant” (Bartolini 22). Perhaps you’re right and I’ve been too ill and exhausted to puzzle my way through all Dessaix’s disguises, masks and masquerades. I know Dessaix is never a lazy read, and that’s been part of the pleasure of his work for me. His narrators are conspicuously unreliable and tell you so, in the tradition of your Sterne taskmaster’s Tristram Shandy. As Morag Fraser aptly comments “Dessaix plays Escher in words. Now you see him, now you don’t.”(19)

Remember at the beginning of A Mother’s Disgrace he quips “I’m telling you stories, trust me.” (Jeanette Winterson, The Passion) This struck me as such a curious and confronting epigraph to place at the beginning of an autobiography that he describes elsewhere as being “a letter to my mother to tell her things …. [to] tell her in all its complexity why my life had assumed the shape it had” ((And So Forth) 412, emphasis added). Escher indeed … especially the promise to tell all. Can’t help wondering how his biological mother read this double message. After nearly fifty years of utter silence between them, how would she respond to an arch, self-conscious confection like this? What would it tell her about the son she’d craved to know? How are we meant to read it? I notice that the Winterson quotation appears again as the section header of Part I of (And So Forth). Dessaix really likes to signal and flag his untrustworthiness, but having done that he then tries to seduce you into trusting his word games. As he says: “it’s the untrustworthy voice that everybody trusts.” ((And So Forth) 421)

And when you’re writing fiction, there’s no problem with being “untrustworthy” is there? Artifice and seduction are inevitable and inimitable tools of trade for the novelist, as I know you teach your Creative Writing students every week. Though Dessaix himself raises a series of funhouse mirror questions about the appropriate genre for his works: “Take Night Letters, for example, which some regard as an autobiography posing as a novel” ((And So Forth) 419); and “it’s probably even true of my autobiography, which some regard as a novel posing as autobiography” ((And So Forth) 415). And further, one of the “sniping footnotes” (Farrell) in Night Letters, apparently written by the fictional editor of the letters, Igor Miazmov, describes The Life and Times of Tristram Shandy as “a novel posing as an autobiography.” (Night Letters 96) More Escher, or as Morag Fraser says, “Dessaix is the very devil to categorise.” (19) He delights in being categorically devilish, don’t you think? The repetition of the precise phrasing in all these different places definitely suggests the deliberation of Escher.

And that level of repetition, while cute and tricksy sometimes, is a source of irritation to me ultimately. Why does R. need to tell us things several times? At first I thought it similar to Patrick White who seemed to hold his readers in such contempt that he needed to put fluorescent marker repetitions in his novels to let the idiot reader know when he was being symbolic. But then in an essay on creativity, I came across a passage where Dessaix says that in order to write Night Letters he had to stop teaching ((And So Forth) 415). But in my view he hasn’t stopped. The voice in these letters is still that of the lecturer. It is still the voice positioned as expert, droning on and on, without external interruption, except those rhetorically orchestrated by the letter-writer/lecturer. There are self-conscious moments of irony and humour, stories thrown in to illustrate a point, but then it’s back to the rather ponderous philosophical musings, with anticlimactic conclusions such as “I try simply to be more intensely there, to make it good (whatever it is) or else be somewhere else.” (Night Letters 197). Even kind reviewers suggest that this kind of “central insight …[is] hardly original” (Farrell) and that “at times the novel’s abstract grappling slackens the tension.”(Publishers’ Weekly) Maybe all this is meant to be a portrait of the self-possessed, professional male thrown into doubt by a diagnosis of incurable illness, grappling with himself, and needing to repeat ideas and homilies in a somewhat obsessive, pedagogical voice in order to convince himself that there is a civilised, orderly way through his dis-order. Did you find yourself dozing off during some of those erudite ramblings about mysticism, narcissism and the nature of travel? Or is that my flu talking?

Perhaps I’m being a bit harsh. Feeling exhausted does make me brutally impatient with anything that seems long-winded or inefficient. Had best return to reading the weave of my pillowcase for a while.

Hope you’re travelling calmly and with curiosity – love – G.

22 April

Dear G.

Found this postcard at the gallery on Sunday, and given our recent correspondence, couldn’t resist it. Saw this exhibition of Venetian masks – it was brilliant. Wish you could have come with me. Some of them were so elaborate and extreme. All those resources to make a plaything that may only have been worn a few times. Perhaps I’ll apply for a grant to research Italian traditions relating to masks, they’re intriguing … could pass as a cultural studies project, don’t you reckon? I’d love to go back to Venice when I didn’t have a roaring toothache. Hope you’re back to striding rather than listing by now. M.

27 April

Dear M.

Such a superb card. As you say, the detail in the work is incredible for such an ephemeral, unnecessary item of apparel! But very apt, given our discussion of Robert and the elaborate dressing up he gets up to in his writing. And perhaps I’m wrong about masks – are they so unnecessary? Or are they the crucial building blocks of culture? I guess Dessaix might answer yes to that last question, he really is a talented fan-dancer when you think about it. And all the reviewers and commentators seem to respect him for that ability. To a man (and woman) they say such urbane and cautious things about his work. Guess none of them want to be on the receiving end of one of his devastating critiques.

It was a relief when I opened the most recent issue of Imago, to come across one commentator who seems unusually impassioned about Night Letters, and not at all inclined to give Dessaix the usual kid-glove treatment. Have you seen the essay by Javant Biarujia? He’s like an angry dog tugging and snarling at the masks and mirrors Dessaix constructs. He gets immensely frustrated with Dessaix’s double-speak where, for example, the narrator of Night Letters, R., is ill, just like the author Robert. And it’s Robert who writes about being HIV positive in the Good Weekend. And, as I noticed, R.’s lover, on being told that R. is incurably ill, says “I’ll be alright” (Night Letters 11), just as Robert’s real-life lover, Peter Timms says “I’ll be alright” in similar circumstances, as reported by Robert, again in the Good Weekend. Biarujia writes, “Perhaps Dessaix, or R., if I must separate the two and pretend the author and protagonist are not one and the same” (80). Biarujia clearly resents the pretence, though I’m just amazed at the elaborateness and find myself asking “Why?”. Later Biarujia writes, “Night Letters … is a conventional love story, a complex love story written with much erudition and trivia alike, in which candour and camouflage perform an elaborate masque around each other.” (91) But if that’s accurate, who is in love with whom? Is it that R. is in love with himself and his ability to camouflage, his ability to seduce us into thinking he’s being candid when he’s presenting us with a series of highly wrought masquerades? Strangely enough, I think that if I were told I had a terminal illness I would feel utterly impatient with artifice and masks. I would go diving and beaking, like a falcon, to clasp in my claws, no matter how briefly, any mouseful of truth which might tell me what to care about as I confronted oblivion …or whatever comes next.

Instead, Dessaix’s R. tries to find fulfilment in what’s happening now, which in his case is often a closed roomful of eternally peeling onions. Perhaps that’s the rhizome of truth that Dessaix is so keen to teach himself, and us? That beneath all the artifice there is only more artifice? But doesn’t that come perilously close to the postmodernist views he derogates as a case of “the meaninglessness of truth [being] … argued for as a truth?” ((And So Forth) 239) I’m not too sure. Perhaps if R.’s supposed correspondent had been given some space in which to reply there might have been a more pliable and satisfying dialogue on say, desire? But we don’t get to read so much as a two-line e-mail from the poor long-suffering P. As Biarujia points out, “Night Letters is an interior monologue dressed up as one side of a dialogue: the ‘letters’ themselves are a travesty … one genre … dressed in the garb of another.” (95) And, it seems to me, even when apparently putting himself in the position of questioning and vulnerable traveller, R. (or is it Dessaix?) can’t help playing the resident expert, the professor or lecturer.

But you’ll think I’m in love with my own obsessive voice if I don’t stop writing now. Have you had a chance to read (And So Forth) yet? It casts interesting lights on Night Letters, and as many dancing, complicating shadows, I think. Am obviously much stronger if I can sustain the laptop for this long. Hope all’s well in your travesty of a workplace. Love – G.

1 May

Dear G.,

Here we are, suddenly into May, and it’s getting thoroughly autumnal, which I like. Though in Italy of course, it’s still spring. Why do you think R. writes his decidedly autumn-tinted letters yet dates them as being written in the archetypally hopeful months of a European spring? Another of Dessaix’s witty jokes I suspect, though I doubt you’ll be convinced by that explanation. Surely you’re not accusing him of being banal and cliched? He’s far too acute and intelligent for that. Or is that another of the masks you think you’ve detected? Cliches dressed in such fabulous and elaborate garments that few could recognise them as cliches any more? Mmm …

Did get hold of the Biarujia article after I got your last letter. Interesting, if not terribly well written. I kept wanting to get out the red pencil and suggest ways of connecting his argument more effectively and logically. Still, it was impassioned and eclectic, so I could see the appeal for you. Thought it was interesting that he left the discussion of the institutionalised rape of Camilla until late in the piece. Is that the disturbing scene that you too are skirting? Knowing your understandable sensitivity to sexual abuse issues, I figured that this might be the source of your “hatred” of Night Letters, and have been waiting for you to raise it. Am I right? If so, why the reluctance? Thought Biarujia was spot on when he suggests that Dessaix “puts so much compacted imagery in [this] story within a story [that he] arguably makes of it the real climax of the book.”(90) It certainly is one of the most memorable scenes. The calculated misogyny of the trentuno or trentuno reale (Night Letters 206) is profoundly shocking. As when I discovered that the phrase “to stir the porridge” could mean “to take one’s turn, relatively late in a pack rape.”(The Macquarie Dictionary, 1991) To find such hatred embedded into the very language still shocks me, though perhaps it shouldn’t. But what does Camilla and the vicious torture she suffers at the hands of Count Lorenzo and his hired rapists represent in Night Letters? Why is the writing so heavily (in)vested? What is being dressed up, or is it undressed, here? Would love to know what you think. Biarujia might be right that this represents “a revenge …on heterosexuality, or on sexuality alone, a removal from sex which had brought R. to where he is today, an ill man with a feared, stigmatised and as yet incurable disease” (90, Biarujia’s emphasis).

One of my PhD students was discussing it with me recently and she argued quite cogently that it was an expression of Dessaix’s distrust and dislike of women. That the graphic repetition of the rape act reminded her of those crimes of passion where, for example, sons murder their mothers and stab them twenty or thirty times with the kitchen knife. She is heavily into psychoanalytic theory at the moment, so saw it as representing the rage Dessaix felt toward his biological mother for abandoning him as an infant, and then for not being able to save him from terminal illness. Can’t say I’m into this kind of “read the author’s psyche in the text” activity but when she pointed out that Count Lorenzo and Professor Eschenbaum might be read as R.’s alter egos, acting on the desires which he is too ill, too civilised and too daunted to perform, I could see what she was getting at.

Best away, I have seventy-nine first year essays to mark before next Wednesday … I’d better stop musing with you and get the red pencil out again. Wonder if I’ll miss marking when I retire? It’s hard to imagine, but then desires (and their habituation) are tricky creatures. Love – M.

12 May

Dear M.,

Am back at work and apart from a pair of very black circles under my eyes, I’m pretty well back to normal. But I wonder how I would have felt if I’d known, like R., that I’d never again be able to write that sentence truthfully? Makes you pause, doesn’t it?

Now that I have no excuse to wallow in bed and read whatever I fancy, plus three weeks work to catch up on, I’ll have less time to discuss Dessaix with you … unfortunately. But you were right, as always. It was Camilla’s betrayal and rape that attacked my core. I identified too closely with that sense of all her elegance, intelligence and beauty being reduced to a “tiny leaden ball, no bigger than a pinhead, floating in black emptiness. No clocks told the time where Camilla was. Camilla was no longer Camilla.” (Night Letters 168) So accurate a picture of the feelings experienced after that particular kind of desecration, torture, cruelty, call it what you will. How does R. know this feeling? I think Biarujia is right that there’s revenge going on here but it’s not toward some abstraction called “heterosexuality” or even “sexuality”. It’s far more personal than that. Your PhD student is right to be reminded of the crime passionnel though I’m pretty sure Robert’s mother has nothing to do with it. But I’m pondering the possibility that R.’s alter ego is not only Count Lorenzo, but Camilla too – both at the same time? Are the passion, rage and desire for revenge to do with hating the self? Is this scene a representation of R. stabbing or raping his self, viciously and repeatedly, because he once believed that sex could bring him paradise (a familiar and hard-to-divest cliche) when in fact it brought him hell, reducing all his elegance, intelligence and beauty to a “tiny leaden ball, no bigger than a pinhead, floating in black emptiness”? Are all the elegant words and elaborate repetitions in Night Letters designed to provide vestments and vestiges of a desirable and presentable self? Is R. invested in trying to cover up the feeling that his self has been reduced by the illness to a tiny leaden ball-bearing? To mask the sense of being just a minuscule and unimportant mouse or ball-bearing, travelling vulnerable round the world without animation, signification or destination? And that just like Camilla, the return from this awareness to an apparently “normal” existence is impossible, without employing a series of farcical tricks and masquerades before the final disappearance?

Must rush, am tapping this frantically before I have to disappear off to work. I know I won’t have the energy to add any more tonight after I get home. Am keeping nursing home hours at present, in the hopes that this flu won’t decide on a return performance. Hope this finds you floating in crimson silk kimonos – Love – G.


Bartolini, Paolo. ‘Travelling with Dante and Sterne: A Conversation with Robert Dessaix’. Antipodes 13.1 (June 1999): 22-24.

Biarujia, Javant. ‘The Homotextual Dissimulation of Robert Dessaix: A Reading of Night Letters’. Imago 10.2 (1998): 69-89.

Craven, Peter. ‘Me and My Spirit: A Review of Robert Dessaix’s (And So Forth)’. Sydney Morning Herald, Spectrum, 14/11/98: 11s.

Dessaix, Robert. A Mother’s Disgrace. Sydney: Angus & Robertson, 1994.

---. Night Letters. Sydney: Pan MacMillan, 1997 (1996).

---. (And So Forth). Sydney: Pan MacMillan, 2000.

Farrell, Patrick. ‘One Way Ticket: A Review of Dessaix’s Night Letters’. New York Times Book Review, 11/1/98: 19.

Fraser, Morag. ‘Grand Miscellany: A Review of Robert Dessaix’s (And So Forth)’. Australian Book Review 206 (November 1998): 19.

Good Weekend. ‘The Two of Us: Robert Dessaix & Peter Timms’. Sydney Morning Herald, Saturday, 28/2/98,12.

Kadushin, Raphael. ‘A Journey through Switzerland and Italy: A Review of Dessaix’s Night Letters’. Lambda Book Report 6.8 (March 1998): 34.

Pela, Robert. ‘A Review of Dessaix’s Night Letters’. The Advocate 748 (9 December 1997): 79.

Publishers’ Weekly. 'A Review of Dessaix’s Night Letters’. 244.41 (6 October 1997): 75.

Delbridge, A., Bernard, J.R.L., Blair, D., Peters, P., Butler, S.(eds.). The Macquarie Dictionary
(Second Edition). McMahon’s Point: The Macquarie Library, 1991.

Back to top


Outskirts online journal

This Page

Last updated:
Monday, 12 September, 2011 1:24 PM