'Turning moments into hours, months and centuries: a review of Robert Dessaix’s The Pleasures of Leisure', by Melissa Fagan

Midway through Robert Dessaix’s latest book The Pleasures of Leisure, while reading a chapter called ‘Nesting’ about leisure in the home, I realised I was bored. In it, Dessaix writes about activities like cooking, eating, gardening, and sex – activities that are, or can be, among the most pleasurable there are. But reading about those activities was bringing me barely any pleasure at all.

Things had started well. The first section of the book, ‘Loafing’, opens with a quote from Monsieur Gustave, the Ralph Fiennes character in Wes Anderson’s The Grand Budapest Hotel: “There’s really no point in doing anything in life.” That entire first section, which is broken into three parts, is framed by Dessaix’s experience of staying in his “own grand hotel”, the Mayfair, in the former British hill station of Darjeeling in West Bengal.

While contemplating what it means, in philosophical terms, to do nothing, Dessaix, in practical terms, does nothing. He dips in and out of two books he has brought with him, “a slim Anita Brookner, The Rule of Engagement, which is growing on me (I think), and Concharov’s Oblomov (‘a monument to human idleness’, it says on the cover)”; describes a recent stay at a tea plantation; quotes Pico Iyer, Keats and Winnie-the-Pooh; and considers the pleasures of tea drinking and the afternoon siesta. It helped, I think, that I could picture him sitting in the dining room at the posh-sounding Mayfair “playing at being gentry”, or wandering about the foggy streets, or people-watching in Chowrastra, the town square.

It helped that I could imagine myself there, in that place, also doing nothing, or doing nothing and something, or doing more something than nothing – running up to the lookout, as Dessaix did on the final morning of his stay, fuelled by the hope of seeing Kanchenjunga emerge from the fog. I started reading the book while staying at a hotel in Darlinghurst. The hotel was not grand and I was exhausted – I arrived late and had to leave early the next morning – but it helped, I think, to be in a space that was not my home. It helped to be away.

The chapter about nesting is only thirty pages long, but in the days it took me to labour through it, I was forever fighting the urge to put the book down and do something else instead, like scroll through Twitter, or stare into the fridge, or read one of four new books that had just been delivered and now sat in a pile on my kitchen bench. It was at this point that the irony of my undertaking dawned on me.

In the book’s preamble, Dessaix defines leisure as activities that are “freely chosen purely for the pleasure they afford us.” I freely chose to read The Pleasures of Leisure, but it wasn’t purely for pleasure. I read it because I was interested in what Dessaix had to say about leisure, because leisure is something I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about, because leisure is something I’ve studied. And no I don’t mean that euphemistically – though yes, I did study leisure like that too. I have a Bachelor’s degree in Leisure Studies – a Bachelor of Arts in Leisure Studies.

Studying leisure was, at times, quite pleasurable, and not just the parts where I skipped classes to drink beer and play pool. In third year I took an elective called Water-based Recreation where, from memory, we had a couple of regular tutorials, then spent the rest of the semester boogie boarding, sailing, snorkelling and kayaking. For Outdoor Education, another elective, we did two overnight treks in national parks north of Sydney. For Sociology of Leisure we spent a weekend at our tutor’s holiday house near Jervis Bay, giving group presentations that applied sociological theory to leisure-related phenomena like the Melbourne Cup, Madonna, and Woodstock. We dressed accordingly: in racing silks, conical bras and flares. Afterwards we went to the pub.

This was the early nineties, during Australia’s last recession: the Recession We Had to Have. There were no jobs to be had anyway, or so we thought, so we may as well have fun. Besides, it seemed ridiculous, at least to twenty-year-old me, that a degree in leisure might lead to a career. There was a vocational component – I did over 300 hours of unpaid professional practice across the three years, and I got an Austswim qualification as part of that Water-based Recreation course, which led to me becoming a casual swimming instructor – but when I graduated, I had no idea what I was qualified to do, nor what my prospects were. So I kept teaching swimming, and went back to an old telemarketing job, then flew to the States, where I spent three months working as a camp counsellor, followed by four months driving across the country in an old motorhome.

And so it began, the pattern that would continue throughout my twenties and well into my thirties, of working only as much as I needed to in order to buy myself the time to do the things I wanted to do: to travel and to write. Yet often, in the midst of this time that I had worked for, that I had in essence bought with my own time, my own labour, I started to feel guilty. To assuage my guilt, I kept studying leisure, applying half-remembered theories of Marx and Rojek to all the fun and freely chosen things in my life, pulling them apart to see how they worked. When you do that, you end up a long way away from pleasure. You end up depressed.

In an interview with Sarah Kanowski on RN’s ‘Books and Arts’, Dessaix described himself as a Calvinist. He was never very good at leisure, he said. So in a way, writing the book was a way of shrugging off his Presbyterian upbringing and embracing the idea that it is okay to do nothing, that it is okay to enjoy doing nothing, and that doing nothing – or doing nothing and something at the same time, or nesting or grooming or playing – can even be meaningful.

So I get that Dessaix would choose to write a book that does not interrogate the problem of agency, or the ways in which a person’s ability to freely choose what they do with their so-called free time may be limited by illness or disability, age or access, gender or income. I appreciate why he would want to avoid contemplating, other than in passing, the myriad ways our leisure activities might be contingent on another’s labour, or detract from another’s pleasure, or cause harm to ourselves or to the environment. And I understand why he would want to steer well clear of the minefield that is leisure in the late-capitalist age, when leisure is more often than not something that can be bought – and if it isn’t yet it will be just as soon as someone, somewhere can find a way to make it so.

Yet I can’t completely shake the feeling that glossing over the structural and personal barriers that prevent people from participating in leisure is a bit of a copout. It is where The Pleasures of Leisure falls short, I think, or at least where my ability to critique it on its own terms becomes fraught, complicated by the knowledge that both choice and pleasure in the context of leisure are deeply loaded concepts.

In ‘Play’, the book’s final section Dessaix writes: “As far as I’m concerned, travelling eclipses all forms of leisure.” By leaving our ordinary life behind and immersing ourselves in new, unfamiliar environments we:

can enact a multitude of selves. Here I’m a prince, there I’m an adventurer, in Paris I am stylish, in London I’m invisible, I’m a pilgrim on the Ganges, I’m a pagan in Rome, I am utterly alone, I sidle up to death, I am intensely, even passionately alive, I am a time-traveller everywhere, swooping about amongst the centuries, I am well again.

There is no escaping the fact that travel in this context is an extraordinary privilege. As The Lonely City author Olivia Laing wrote in a recent Granta dedicated to the subject: “Travel is a luxury…We can’t talk about the healing power of walking, solvitur ambulando, any longer, without knowing too that the ability to walk freely is a privilege, that being able to get up and go is not a shared human right.” And yet still, she travels. I still travel. We still travel. “Why? Because lives are lived in places, shaped by geological forces, and places serve as portals to descend through time.”

Travel changes you. It has changed me, anyway – for the better I think – and if I could travel back in time within my own life, I wouldn’t travel less, I would travel more, and I would feel less guilty about it. Reading The Pleasures of Leisure I was reminded of how much I love to travel, how at its best it is the best thing in the world. Reading about Dessaix’s passion for “flirting with foreign tongues”, I recalled that sweet sweet moment when you realise you are speaking and understanding another language, something I’ve experienced only once or twice in my life. It’s how it must feel to fly.

Since finishing the book, I’ve been Googling the Hotel Mayfair in Darjeeling. It’s pretty pricey to stay there, even in the off-season, but I reckon a few days there, doing nothing or doing nothing and something in those kitschy rooms with their wooden panels and fireplaces and four-poster beds, would probably, as Dessaix suggests leisure can do, “turn moments into hours, months and centuries.”

Melissa Fagan is a freelance writer and editor based in Brisbane. Her award-winning fiction and nonfiction has been published in Overland, Kill Your Darlings, Meanjin, QWeekend, [untitled] and others.