Book review: Abracadabra by Robert Dessaix

This book is Robert Dessaix: humorous, insightful, erudite and challenging
Robert Dessaix

Abracadabra is a collection of talks Robert Dessaix gave to a wide variety of audiences over a period of several years. It also includes a selection of Dessaix’s short written pieces that he refers to as his feuilletons. He covers a range of topics from Enid Blyton to Vivaldi, and has included a short story. 

None of the talks have previously appeared in print; Dessaix himself speculates whether they are suited to that medium, having been carefully crafted for oral communication to specific audiences. Obviously, he has decided they are worth printing, if only to reach a wider audience. The talks are humorous, insightful, erudite and challenging and well worth reading but there is no doubt that listening to Dessaix deliver them in person would be an even better experience, an opinion he shares.

On the other hand, the feuilletons were designed to be read and many of them first appeared in newspapers, believe it or not, such as the Byron Shire Echo. Publishing them in book form also ensures a wider audience, which they most certainly deserve.

But whether these pieces are gifted with a romantic French name or are merely labelled as talks, they have much in common. Dessaix picks a theme and develops it, meanders away from it and back to it, all with an intriguing underlying logic peculiar to him. For a brilliant example of this, dip into the talk he delivered at the Sydney Writers’ Festival in 2016 entitled ‘Kissing, Hugging and Saying “I Love You”’.  ‘Kissing’, says Dessaix, ‘is a cultural practice, and all cultural practices . . . are forms of play. Shopping, Holy Communion, Chinese checkers, throat-singing, learning Italian, cricket, collecting fridge magnets, tap-dancing, kissing, it makes no difference – all are in some sense games.’ 

Listening to Dessaix, as that is effectively what you’re doing when you read this book, makes you aware of just how much of himself he gives. Of who he is and what he is and how he got there and why. This frank, amusingly presented self-portrait is very endearing. It strengthens his plausibility and makes you want to agree with him, even when you are not sure you fully understand what he is getting at, such as when he expands on ‘the essential presences in objects’, for instance. Here is a prolific author who says he was lazy and didn’t want to be a writer:

‘I wanted to live in Paris . . . I wanted to love things, you see, rather than do things – preferably in Paris, but I’ve always been open to suggestion. Ideally, deep down in my heart of hearts, what I’ve always dreamt of doing is absolutely nothing at all.’

Read: Theatre review: Bernhardt/Hamlet

The short story – ‘A Mad Affair’ – is a powerful character study of a person living in an institution. It lacks, arguably by its very nature, that touch of humour that pervades Dessaix’s talks and feuilletons, the contrast the starker because of its inclusion at the tail end of so many amusing pieces. It deserves better than being tacked on at the end of a volume in which it does not belong.

Short witty insightful opinion pieces are lacking from our print media. To some extent, cartoons take their place and have a similar function, but there is ample room for both. It would be wonderful if Dessaix and other talented commentators could be persuaded to regularly enhance our newspapers with their wisdom and observations. If such contributions were anything close to the quality of those in this collection, one could expect a notable rise in circulation numbers. 

Abracadabra by Robert Dessaix
Publisher: Brio Books
ISBN  9781922598783
Format: Paperback
Pages: 304pp
RRP: $34.99
Publication Date: 10 May 2022

Erich Mayer is a retired company director and former organic walnut farmer.