March 30, 2009

Geoff Dyer: Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi

Posted in Dyer Geoff at 8:00 am by John Self

Geoff Dyer’s non-fiction has always been more consistent – or anyway easier to get a grip on – than his fiction. With punning titles to his novels like Paris Trance and now Jeff in Venice…, just how seriously are we supposed to take them? It’s a query that doesn’t dissolve even after reading his new book. One reviewer says that reading Dyer is like making a new friend, one as silly as you but more intelligent; precisely so. I’d call him a national treasure if that didn’t imply a cosiness which doesn’t fit Dyer’s rigorous intellectual anarchy. Let’s begin from the understanding that anything Dyer writes is worth reading, and proceed from there. And as far as the difference between fiction and non-fiction goes, Dyer says “the distinction means absolutely nothing to me. I like to write something that’s only an inch from life … but all the art of course is in that inch.”

When the protagonist’s name – Jeffrey Atman – was disclosed in the opening sentence of Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi, a little something in me died. I recalled from Siddhartha that Atman was a Hindu spiritualist term for the eternal soul, and I dreaded the onset of a new age tale of ‘finding oneself’. But I needn’t have worried: at least, not yet. And just in case Dyer’s reputation as a restless intellectual burrower didn’t precede him, the book has no fewer than seven epigraphs, from sources as diverse as Borges and Ginsberg.

In part one, ‘Jeff in Venice’, our louche Dyeresque hero is a freelance journalist (“if it was a proper job, I’d pack it in and do something else, but freelancing is the something else that you do after you’ve packed in your job so my options are limited”), given to wearing skateboard T-shirts, raving about Burning Man, and other activities recognisable to Dyer watchers. Jeff is sent to the Venice Biennale to interview a fading celebrity. This is a great opportunity for Dyer to exhibit his facility for slick wit. On the budget airline:

The cost-cutting was amazing, extravagant, even. No expense had not been spared. … Then he had to struggle through the coach-crowded bus terminal, with his bags, in the baking heat. It was like being in an Italian version of an oily, hugely demoralizing art installation called This Vehicle is Reversing.

This includes accurate observations – perhaps derived from Dyer’s own journalistic experiences – about contemporary art (“The work may have been puerile, but the hunger to succeed of which it was the product and symbol was ravenous. In different historical circumstances any number of these artists could have seized control of the Reichstag or ruled Cambodia with unprecedented ruthlessness”) and the business of celebrity (“part of the etiquette of being an interviewer [was] that you had to let the interviewee call the shots. It made them feel important and being important hopefully made them more amenable – though, in practice, as often as not, it just made them feel even more important, which manifested itself in their being extremely difficult”).

The plot of this first part, such as it is, comprises Jeff’s interview with the celebrity and his sexual encounters with a woman named Laura. At one point Atman observes that “everything began as a joke – or some things did anyway – but not everything ended as one”. The tone of ‘Jeff in Venice’ is of a joke, where the witty exchanges tread a fine line between maddeningly brilliant and brilliantly maddening, so it’s a relief, or at least a change, when part two, ‘Death in Varanasi’ is generally more sombre.

Here, the narrative is in the first person, with nothing but a passing reference to Venice to suggest that this may be the Jeff of part one, rather than, say, Geoff instead, or another incarnation entirely. In a recent interview, Dyer said that the book was originally intended as two discrete stories: “With my usual unerring eye for commercial suicide, I originally wanted to subtitle the book ‘A Diptych’ to make clear the two stories were separate. But I was urged not to, and when I saw a mock-up of the front cover with the word ‘diptych’ on it, I thought, ‘Oh God, that’s too pretentious even for me’.” Much of ‘Death in Varanasi’ reads like a reportage piece about travels to the Indian holy city (“the place of many names”) with “uncomprehended meaning everywhere.” Here, comic set pieces about locals who don’t respect the British addiction to queuing tend to give way to sincere observations:

What I didn’t see was any affinity between us. He was in his world and I was in mine. My world-view would never be his and vice versa. That was what we had in common. What distinguished us from each other was that he had no interest in mine – it meant nothing to him – whereas I was intensely curious about his.

As Dyer – or the fictional narrator (“the distinction means absolutely nothing to me”) – points out, “it’s possible to be a hundred percent sincere and a hundred percent ironic at the same time.” The lazy perception of a barrier between ‘a funny book’ and ‘a serious book’ is broken down. Like so many great writers, Dyer is both deeply funny and absolutely serious.

Midway through the book, Jeff recalls reading The French Lieutenant’s Woman, and how he had been “much impressed by John Fowles’s distinction between the Victorian point of view – I can’t have this forever, therefore I’m miserable – and the modern, existential outlook: I have this for the moment, therefore I’m happy.” In the first part of the book, Jeff seeks completeness through attachment to the passing moment; in part two, the narrator achieves completeness through detachment from the present.

I really don’t want to come on like someone who has gone through rehab or undergone a conversion or awakening. All I’m saying is that in Varanasi I no longer felt like I was waiting. The waiting was over. I had taken myself out of the equation.

Being a Dyer fan is a stressful experience, always expecting great things, always fearing he’ll drop the ball. He portrays himself in other books – and Jeff the journalist here – as a lazy writer, coasting by on considerable talent but without the application to transmute the work into gold. But this cannot entirely be true, when the results are so satisfying and stimulating. Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi is only an inch from brilliance, but all the Dyer is in that inch.

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14 Comments »

  1. JRSM said,

    Well, i read this because of a kind benefactor, and I can only agree with what you’ve said (though I wouldn’t have said it as articulately). It reminded me of how much fun ‘Out of Sheer Rage’ was, and sent me back to rereading that as well.

  2. An excellent review — I have this on pre-order and can’t wait until it arrives. I do appreciate your attempt to describe Dyer and his writing. In some ways, the fact that he never quite seems to reach what we as readers think may be his potential (that “inch”) may be one of his most attractive characteristics. I certainly felt that in Paris Trance and your review indicates that I’ll probably be feeling it here as well.

  3. John Self said,

    Thanks Kevin and JRSM. I must admit I’m disappointed by the lack of interest in this book (at least here) – I consider a new book by Dyer to be at least as much of a literary event as the new titles by Ishiguro and Tóibín which are due out soon, both of which I intend to write about in the next month or so (and which I expect will attract more interest than this one has). Kevin, I look forward to seeing your thoughts in due course.

  4. John Self said,

    I’m disappointed by the lack of interest in this book (at least here)

    And just to emphasise how well the book has been received in the press, a selection of reviews: “an early contender for the most original, and the cleverest, novel of the year” (Daily Telegraph); “a novel that is both funny and insightful … an amusing and intelligent exploration of some of life’s big questions” (Guardian); “the writing is Dyer at his very best: philosophical, astute, unstructured, oscillating between surface and depth, between the casual and the universal … This might be one of Dyer’s best books” (Independent). So don’t blame me if it turns out to be one of the big novels of the year and you didn’t get in on the ground floor…

  5. Lee Monks said,

    Well, I must say that indifference to a new Dyer book is rather odd. He is, after all, one of our best writers, simple as that. Indeed, he is one of a handful of writers that I keep a constant eye out for. I notice the new Archer flying off the shelves…but such is Dyer’s ease when crossing genres, he’s probably left hordes of fans behind with each book, and is perhaps considered too maverick to have garnered a foothold in many an affection. Maybe this carries with the critical establishment as well, who may be enviously suspicious of his flitting between, well, whatever he feels like. I guess he’s not well liked. I think he’s brilliant.

  6. The book is out in Canada next week and I hope to get to it quickly — it is one of those frustrating titles where the release is later, but not later enough to make a Book Depository order worthwhile. I am certainly looking forward to it, particularly since I seem to have had a string of not very good novels lately.

  7. Sam said,

    There’s a review by James Wood in The New Yorker: ‘original, affecting and unexpected.’

    http://www.newyorker.com/arts/critics/books/2009/04/20/090420crbo_books_wood

  8. John Self said,

    Oh thanks Sam, great link.

    “Dyer’s sixth book, Out of Sheer Rage (1997), established the characteristic voice of his recent work—a loitering investigation, somehow intense and slackerish, the author not quite pursuing his subject but hanging around it, like a clever aimless boy on a street corner. … The result ought to be a mutant mulch but is almost always a louche and canny delight.” Agreed.

    Interesting too to see Wood’s comparison of Dyer to Thomas Bernhard, a writer it is increasingly clear that I am going to have to read. Coincidentally, in an interview with Dyer which I will post here later this month (plug, plug), Dyer refers to Bernhard as “the funniest writer … who is also one of the most profound – you can’t stop yourself laughing.” A challenge, eh?

    Nice also to see Wood commenting on the parallels with, and subversion of, Death in Venice, which I didn’t mention above as I haven’t read the Mann in so long that I didn’t think I could do so without embarrassing myself.

  9. [...] People Who Can’t Be Bothered to Do It). His latest genre-defying, Dyeresque book is a novel, Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi, which has been praised in the press as “an early contender for the most original, and the [...]

  10. sharon alexander said,

    Coincidentally, I just finished reading Geoff Dyer’s terrific new novel ‘Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi’ after reading your interview with him (really fascinating interview by the way). It seems it’s not just Mann whose footsteps Dyer is following. On p.138 Jeff and Laura are sitting on the terrace of a café:

    ‘Don’t look now,’ said Laura, pausing for effect. ‘But Jay Jopling and Damien Hirst have just arrived.’

  11. John Self said,

    Good spot, Sharon – and even better the third time around. ;)

    Thanks for visiting my blog and for commenting.

  12. John Self said,

    Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi has won the 2009 Bollinger Everyman Wodehouse Prize for comic writing. Of note, perhaps, is that the chair of the judges was James Naughtie – who is also the chair of the judges for this year’s Booker Prize. Busy man.

  13. Lee Monks said,

    Were Dyer to win this year’s Booker, I would happily streak down Market Street in Manchester, no problem. Such is the state of the award in recent years I would be delighted. But really, there’s no chance. Is there?

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