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HR #4

DESSAIX IN VENICE

in

DESSAIX IN VENICE
The homotextual dissimulation of Robert Dessaix in
Night Letters

Javant Biarujia

Till we be roten, kan we not be rypen
— CHAUCER

“ ‘It’s like a grand sickness,’ said Dudley, speaking of the Letter which he had at last begun. ‘I want to wash up my own life and literature too. The book opens with a nightmare, an evacuation, a complete waste of images.’ ”1 Night Letters, too, opens with a nightmare. In many ways, dreams — or nightmares — resemble letters: be they destined for a private drawer, publication or the waste-paper basket, letters constitute the least structured genre of writing, often the least professional; they are free-flowing, unformed, held together merely by a thread of arbitrary memories, thoughts and associations, full of non-sequiturs and blind alleys. In literature, however, all the non-alphabete idiosyncrasies — the loops, the curlicues, the dashes, the scrawls, the cross-outs, the exaggerated exclamations — are cancelled out on the printed page. For this reason, printed books of letters should be viewed with the same scepticism reserved for memoirs and diaries: that is to say, with utmost suspicion.
Two novels written in this confutable genre which immediately come to mind are Les Désenchantées by Pierre Loti and Alexis by Marguerite Yourcenar. There are, however, important differences between them. Yourcenar’s novella — in French, Alexis ou le Traité du Vain Combat (“Alexis, or the Treatise of Vain Struggle”), simply dedicated “For him” — is a long letter from a young husband to his wife, who has just given birth to their son; Alexis painfully confesses to her his homosexuality.2 Alexis, like Night Letters, was, in fact, a first novel, but by a young woman of twenty-four beginning her literary career. It was 1929, sixty-seven years before Dessaix’s book; a precocious and provocative study of homosexuality, in the form of an apologia for a persecuted way of living. It should be remembered that the Wilde Affair of 1895 had virtually silenced (homo)sexual desire in literature — if not in bed. It was 1925 before Gide’s seminal work on “uranism”, Corydon, was anonymously published as C.R.D.N. (homotextual cryptography); it greatly influenced Yourcenar. Just two years before, at a Dada performance, its only openly homosexual member, René Crevel, was physically assaulted by poet Paul Eluard, who concurred with Breton that the “entire movement had been polluted with homosexuals” (italics added).3 Yourcenar wrote her book “in isolation from the fashion … a spontaneous confession and an authentic testimony”, for she was, in John Ashbery’s words, “trying to get at … a general, all-purpose experience” through being representational (expressive), as opposed to personal (communicative).4
Pierre Loti, an Immortal of the French Academy and what we would call today a “best-selling” author, was on the other hand “always fascinated by disguises and masks such as he himself adopted”.5 Following on from the success of his semi-autobiographical Aziyadé, he published Les Désenchantées in 1906. The very first words of the novel proclaim that it is “une histoire entièrement imaginée”, as well it might have been, for the plaintive letters from a young sequestered Turkish woman were, in fact, a cruel hoax perpetrated on Loti. Here, fiction is a travesty of autobiography.
Loti, who scandalised society with his heavy scents, varnished fingernails and lavish makeup, was attempting, through transvestism, to understand his own sexual identity better. Isabelle Eberhardt dressed as a man in Morocco for the same reasons.
The “author” has a long tradition of appearing under the (dis)guise — a form of transvestism — of protagonist in literature, maintaining a cool distance between, on the one side, author and protagonist, and, on the other, author and reader. Dessaix, as author of a book of “anonymous” letters, is operating in complete reversal to, say Helen Demidenko, who wrote a fiction under the guise of confession and historical truth, and who reinforced that guise with not just a pseudonym but a complete peroxidised persona.
Night Letters, in trying to make of itself the most representative as possible for its projected general audience (this book is not gay fiction, not even a fictional “gay confession” along the lines of Alexis), is despite itself imbued with the personal; it is autobiography, a masquerade of the personal. It is the one-sided correspondence of two “unnamed” people: one “on holiday” in Venice; the other, of indeterminate sex and unknown views (namely, the reader, in literature’s “exclusion zone”). Let us give the homotextual appellation “R.” to the vacationing letter-writer, as he himself signs off at the very end of the book, on a postcard from the Peggy Guggenheim Collection. (Dessaix could just have easily signed off as “X”, a device long employed by writers wishing to remain anonymous or unidentified; but he did not, and herein lies the author’s desire to be recognised.) “R.”, then, could perfunctorily stand for “Robert” (the author), or, more playfully, for “Romantic”, “rotten” (one of Dessaix’s leitmotivs) or even “queen” (regina); it could be a component of Gide’s encrypted Corydon, “C.R.D.N.”; perhaps “R.” is psychiatry’s shorthand for “response”, psychophysics’ “stimulus” (Reiz) or merely the druggists’ shorthand direction to “take” (Rx) one’s medicine; “R.”, in an Everyman Möbius strip, could be none other than Night Letters’ “readers”. What is without doubt is R.’s soul is self-masked. Our anonymous R. could be any of these things behind the mask. (“Anonymous”, by the way, means “nameless” as well as the wilful “unnamed”; it is no accident that most casual sex partners, or “pick-ups”, in bars, bath-houses and “beats” are not known to each other by name.) Yet Peter Timms, the “novel’s” dedicatee and Dessaix’s life partner, is mentioned by name within the text. Actual events from their lives are recorded, such as the death of their pet dog. No doubt, R.’s visit to the house of Patricia Highsmith is true, too, and the dinner conversation about Bruce Chatwin’s death. The laundry list of authors undoubtedly derives from Dessaix’s decade of interviewing authors on radio (Vikram Seth, Paul Auster, George Steiner, Salman Rushdie, et al. — some of whom are gay, whether publicly or not). From the outset, in fact, even before the novel begins, on the untitled Acknowledgements Page, Dessaix is acknowledging Night Letters as not a novel but a memoir, by thanking his friends for “their commitment to helping me find a voice to say the sometimes difficult things I wanted to say”.*
In the very opening lines of Night Letters, written in the form of an untitled preface by one “Igor Miazmov”, initial doubt on its authenticity is raised: “All these letters (if that is indeed what these documents are) …” (i; italics added). This misrepresentation continues:

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