In The Times of Our Lives, Robert Dessaix has written a genial memoir about the different ways of approaching old age

Robert Dessaix has written an affable portrait of old age. Picture: Supplied
Robert Dessaix has written an affable portrait of old age. Picture: Supplied
  • The Times of Our Lives, by Robert Dessaix. Brio. $26.99.

The Time of Our Lives is a warm, genial part-memoir from Australian writer Robert Dessaix. It's an affable portrait of old age which adopts an inconsequential tone, one perhaps adopted to mask the temerity of quoting Andre Gide.

The main thesis is that a good life is possible in old age if you have cultivated, throughout your life, an "inner life". This is what a writer would say, isn't it?

Dessaix adopts the narrative nonfiction technique of weaving characters and incidental action around passages of prose.

We start with Sarah, who he has known since he was 10 years old; they are together in Java sightseeing at Borobudur. She walks with a cane, and is unlikely to make it to the top of the grand temple.

"She gave me a slightly lopsided smile, not being in her prime any more, and cast a wry Hungarian eye over that morning's group performing its synchronised moves by the pond."

Their fierce effort is directed at staving off something, in her view. "It's death they are afraid of - or at least dying."

The humorous smirk is for fads and fitness, remedies for the fear that we may not be "forever young".

Of course, Dessaix and Sarah already know this for a fact, since they are no longer young.

Sarah is "looking more and more like Maggie Smith that winter, as a host of women of a certain class eventually do", Dessaix tells us - Sarah has a face that "looks like what it was: the face of a woman who had lived a long, rich life - a difficult one in recent years - and lived it intensely, eyes wide open".

Sarah is like many of Dessaix's interlocutors in the book, women of uncertain age with decided attitudes who he celebrates as having an intensity for life. This emerges as the book unfolds as a key to, as the subtitle promises, "growing older well".

"What are we afraid of, really?" he asks. We are led through the kampung - "the village the hotel is nested in" - admiring the Javanese style of life.

The narration is untroubled by the way that the visitors can take their place at the apex of this arrangement, flying in and out to admire the local colour, their philosophical pragmatism, their good-humoured acumen.

The meandering style means that we are not coming close to an answer to the instigating query "what are we afraid of, really?" several pages in.

We don't find an answer to that until we stand on the threshold of the old people's home in Hobart where the narrator's mother-in-law is waiting out her final days.

In "Rita's Room", there is much to be afraid of, as Dessaix portrays it - the stultifying boredom, the suffocating stillness, the loss of purpose among the residents who, in some cases, are reduced to incoherent distress largely ignored because it cannot be addressed.

Dessaix wonders at how the elderly woman could have got through this life without cultivating an inner life.

This critique seems somewhat harsh. What of those people that life has marked more harshly - scarred even - left in poverty, disability, grief and other reduction?

At times, the book is a portrait of good fortune congratulated - a kind of comfortable self-help book for people who read French literature and have good superannuation.

It remains a puzzle why Dessaix's discussants in this enterprise of growing old are mostly women. Many of these women are brave friends who he commends for their resoluteness and whose wisdom he quotes and admires.

The other category we meet with are dead poets. Why don't we meet more men? Do men not discuss ageing? Is it that more women live to be old? Is it the stereotype of "the crone" or wise woman that Dessaix has unconsciously adopted?

It is women growing older that testify in the contemporary world of the narrative, while beautiful young men appear as waiters and dancers in Javanese hotels, and the dead poets persist as exemplars from the pantheon of European culture.

Despite the gilding of erudition from Plato to Said, The Time Of Our Lives doesn't touch the sides of mortality. This may be because there is no genial way to confront growing old.

The aspiration to do it well is like that which causes us to spend on bathroom renovations and new curtains for the living room, but at some point the whole enterprise can seem like moving the deck chairs on the Titanic.

At least we are not offered a vignette of how the Javanese age or look after their old people, and in that, perhaps, Dessaix is a realist.

The reason fortitude, good humour, conversation and friendship are touted as the secret to growing old well is that, in our version of old age today, it's everyone for themselves.

This story How to grow old in good humour first appeared on The Canberra Times.