As soon as i picked up a copy of Robert Dessaix’s Arabesques in the Darlinghurst Bookshop i knew i had to have it. This is a beautiful book: well bound with a striking dust jacket design; the layout and typesetting done with great care; printed on paper of some substance – some pages are of a heavier paper with a few sections differentiated on a pale grey bond; there are many captivating illustrations; plus a ribbon bookmark. Then too it is a book by Robert Dessaix and we’ve much enjoyed those of his books we’d read earlier. Nor, now that i’ve finished reading – and i’d been saving it up as a treat to indulge in during the summer holiday – am i disappointed. i have had a wonderful week or so of trailing with Dessaix as he mixes travel and musing into corners of France and through cities and towns of Northern Africa that were home and escape to André Gide.
Dessaix subtitles the work, A Tale of Double Lives. This refers firstly to its dealing with his own travels in North Africa and parts of France, and those of André Gide which in some senses Dessaix is retracing. It also refers to Dessaix’s discussion of his and Gide’s having lived initially and then escaped from a double life to be more truly themselves. Both, Dessaix is claiming were helped to this finding of their real selves by their experiences in and of North Africa – the places, the people and the Islamic culture.
As before Dessaix writes in a richly literate way that i enjoy. His descriptions of people and places are engaging and he takes time to present and discuss interesting ideas. Here, much more so than in his other writing that i’ve read, he reveals his own history and thoughts. All of these make for a most worthwhile book. Arabesques is not a biography but it is biographic and i’ve been pleased to learn more about Dessaix the man and the writer.
Amongst the ideas Dessaix discusses are how one may come to find out one’s real nature or person [taking himself and Gide as examples] and whether there is some epiphanous moment when we arrive at this realisation. Religions and their trappings make repeated appearances. There are frequent excursions into the reasons we might travel [as opposed to tour]; and similar examinations of aspects of friendship and love [sexual and platonic as well as such other shades of distinction we might care to discern] – particularly between older and younger men. Dessaix explains aspects of his arrival and acceptance of himself as a gay man and filters this through the influence André Gide’s writing and homosexual experiences have had on him. The author is growing older – this book has given him space and form to look at some of his reactions to this circumstance – and recognising my own journey here, his observations reverberated with me.