April 21, 2009
Geoff Dyer Interview
Geoff Dyer is undoubtedly one of the most interesting writers in the UK. The stock response for his books is ‘genre-defying’ – so often cited that it has more or less become a genre in itself. He is one of those few writers whom I will read on any subject – even those pieces he did with Maggie O’Farrell in Waterstone’s magazine – and the breadth of his interests can be seen in Anglo-English Attitudes, his collection of “essays, reviews, misadventures”. He has written a book about not writing a book about D.H. Lawrence (Out of Sheer Rage), a book about public memorialising of the First World War (The Missing of the Somme), and a travel book where “everything in this book happened, but some of the things that happened only happened in my head” (Yoga for 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 cleverest, novel of the year.” If you haven’t read Dyer, you must remedy that: and where better than with this interview he kindly agreed to do for this blog?
Martin Amis said that The Information was not a novel about a mid-life crisis; the novel was the mid-life crisis. Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi contains a narrator who achieves some kind of spiritual fulfilment in an Indian holy city. Is this a novel about a mid-life crisis? Or…?
I am resigned to the book being seen that way but would like to stress that the author is not in the grips of such a thing and, in fact, is not even convinced such a thing exists. Since we’re quoting Amis, it’s worth remembering that the war against cliché isn’t waged just at the level of phrases and unthinking habits of expression. People think in clichés – and the notion of a mid-life crisis is just such an unthinking mental reflex. Having said that, if after all this grumbling, we extemporise on Amis’s comment a bit, maybe the novel, as a form, is in a state of perpetual mid- or late-life crisis while appearing oblivious to the fact.
You’ve said that the distinction between your fiction and non-fiction “means absolutely nothing” to you, and also that you “dread” inventing things for books. In your new novel, when you blur the lines between Jeff and Geoff, are you making a virtue out of a necessity?
Yes, that’s exactly what one learns to do as a writer, or as any artist. You arrive at your own style by default or failure. You know, Miles Davis wanted to sound like Dizzy Gillespie but couldn’t do the high register thing so had to content himself with becoming… Miles! And although I dread inventing things I would get very bored simply transcribing things from life, as they actually happened. What I like is improvising on them, embellishing or altering them a little.
I would like to think that my books encourage readers to ask themselves about the kind of experience they are having – and that, in turn, raises other questions about the often unquestioned formal expectations brought to the act and habit of reading, i.e. to ideas of how a book is supposed to behave or comport itself in their hands! In this case, it’s not that I’ve tried to write a novel like other novels and have failed (“The woman in the first half? Oh shit, you’re right, I completely forgot about her. Sorry” ). I’ve tried to write a book which succeeds or fails within its own internal physics.
Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi, like Yoga, Paris Trance or Out of Sheer Rage, is very funny but also very serious. “Everything began as a joke,” observes Jeff, “but not everything ended as one.” Do you feel ideas have to be smuggled into your books under cover of entertainment? Is one mode easier for you to write than the other, or do they all, as it were, come out of the same hands?
When you’re with friends that you really get on with, there’s a constant shuttling back and forth between joking and serious, with no change of gears at all and it’s the same in writing. One of the things I’ve really worked hard to achieve in writing is a tone or style which enables me to move freely and quickly between comedy and more discursive and analytical parts. Actually even that’s not right because the funny bits can be analytical too, so both things are happening simultaneously. I’m really not interested in entertaining the troops and can’t imagine anything worse than being a so-called comic novelist. I never read comic novels: I almost never find them funny because they’re always holding up this tacit sign saying ‘LAUGH NOW’ so one sits there, grim-faced. For me, the funniest writer is Thomas Bernhard who is also one of the most profound – you can’t stop yourself laughing.
Actually, while we’re at it here’s an example of my idea of brilliant comic writing (from The Forever War, Dexter Filkins’ collection of dispatches from Iraq and Afghanistan) about a suicide bomber in Baghdad:
Sure enough, they’d found the head. They’d placed it on a platter like John the Baptist’s, and set it on the ground next to an interior doorway. It was in good shape, considering what it had been through… The most curious aspect of the face was the man’s eyebrows: they were raised, as if in surprise. Which struck me as odd, given that he would have been the only person who knew ahead of time what was going to happen.
In Jeff in Venice…, Jeff recalls John Fowles’ 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.” As a writer, you must have half an eye on permanence and posterity. Or do you, like the characters in the book, seek nothing but the ongoing moment?
The books preserve those fleeting moments so it’s a way of having it both ways. And this is something that has been a major concern of many writers, since the romantic period especially. You know, it’s Wordsworth’s “I would enshrine the spirit of the past for future restoration.” Personally, I think I’ve been quite good at depicting happiness which we’re always told is difficult to do (‘Happiness writes white’ etc – another reflex non-thought). In terms of posterity etc, I think it’s really unfortunate now that one’s standing is decided so early on that it’s increasingly difficult to distinguish from the pre-publication marketing campaign (“the next big thing…”). I’ve never really been plagued by doubts about the worth of what I’ve been doing, only about my ability to continue doing it which has not really been tied up with whether that high opinion was shared by others.
You portray yourself as terminally lazy and uncommitted, but few writers are as protean, or as widely and highly acclaimed. Is Geoff Dyer the George Best of literature, gifted with such a great natural talent that he can get away with not knuckling down to make the most of it? Or is this just a pose?
What an unbelievably flirtatious question! I don’t think it’s laziness so much as a chronic, deep-down existential desire to do nothing, to down tools, to just potter away my time. But if I succumbed to that – and I get closer to succumbing to it with every passing year – I would sink into depression. Paris Trance was ultimately about the siren call of that. In a way I would like to have acquired the habits and discipline of the career novelist without becoming one. And since Thomas Mann is lurking in the background of the new book I’ll quote that line of his that I love so much: a writer is someone for whom writing is more difficult than it is for other people. To be honest, it’s an absolute mystery to me how I’ve ended up writing all these books. When you are younger there are more things to tempt you out but as you get older it becomes more difficult to concentrate.
You say your eclectic range of books comes from taking an interest in a subject – jazz, photography, Lawrence – and wanting to find out more about it. Are there any such projects which have failed to make it to book form? What topics do you have your magpie eye on currently?
There is something thing that I am very interested in at the moment but which I have no desire to write a book about: the US Marine Corps. My house is full of books about the Marines but there’s nothing in it for me as a writer. That grew out of, or is a by-product of, the series and book Generation Kill but, more generally, I’ve been reading all these books about Iraq, Afghanistan etc: The Assassin’s Gate, The Looming Tower, Imperial Life in the Emerald City, The Forever War etc. This is the big story of our time – in fact, these are some of the great books of our time – but there’s no chance of me trying to write anything like that. I am tempted to write a whole book about Tarkovsky’s film, Stalker. I like that as an idea: following up Jeff in Venice, which I guess has a wide potential readership, with one that has almost no readership at all. And tennis is a perpetual source of torment, both in terms of playing it and trying to write about it.
Can you recommend an overlooked book or author for readers of this blog?
I really love this American poet Dean Young, who I suspect not too many people in UK will have heard of (though I could be wrong). He comes out of that Ashbery surreal school but he’s very distinctive. Also hilarious – and profound at the same time. The various volumes all have pretty much the same proportion of great, good and not-so-good poems but the first one I read – and therefore the one for which I have a special affection – is First Course in Turbulence.