November 18, 2010

Geoff Dyer: Working the Room

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

Geoff Dyer’s Anglo-English Attitudes: Essays, Reviews, Misadventures (1999) was such a reliably diverting volume that I rushed into this new collection of ‘occasional pieces’. (‘Frequent pieces’ might be a better term, given Dyer’s restless ubiquity in reviewing, introducing and afterwording.) The title comes from his essay on Susan Sontag: “Critics are always working the room. The way they do so changes over the course of a career. Young critics like to disparage and tear down. Later, when they write about the heavyweights, it is not so much the subjects as their own ability to go toe-to-toe with greatness that comes under examination.” How well does Dyer – at 53, surely no longer young – stand up to this demand?

Working the Room: Essays and Reviews 1999-2010 (the misadventures are missing this time, at least in the title) seems a less eclectic volume than its predecessor. This is because, as he notes in the introduction, in the last ten years Dyer has become the go-to man for editors looking for a certain type of essay: personal but analytical, rigorously reflexive, loose around the edges. He is in demand – his working title for the book My Life as a Gatecrasher had to be abandoned as he is clearly part of the literary establishment – and many of the pieces here are quite firmly categorisable, despite Dyer’s protests at the outset.

We know from The Ongoing Moment that photography is one of Dyer’s passions (perm three from photography, jazz, Burning Man, DH Lawrence, John Berger and travel confessionals to make your own Geoff Dyer book), and my decision to read Working the Room straight through gave me pause when I realised that the first fifteen essays were on photographers, fourteen of whom I hadn’t heard of. (Martin Parr, take a bow.) I needn’t have worried. Dyer is at his best when communicating enthusiasm, striking a lovely balance between basic facts for the uninitiated and acute analysis of the works. Each photography essay is accompanied by one monochrome or colour image, which Dyers uses either as a focus for discussion or a springboard for wider reflection. So writing about Richard Avedon’s 1960 portrait of the famously scrotal-faced W.H. Auden leads to the following:

[In the 19th century], according to [Walter] Benjamin, everything about the elaborate procedure of having one’s picture taken ’caused the subject to focus his life in the moment rather than hurrying on past it; during the considerable period of the exposure the subject as it were grew into the picture’. In these pictures, ‘the very creases in people’s clothes have an air of permanence’. Avedon, of course, worked with split-second exposure times but the results were in some ways even more striking: the creases in people’s faces have an air of geological permanence. There is the sense, often, of a massive extent of time being compressed into the moment the picture was taken. ‘Lately,’ he said in 1970, ‘I’ve become interested in the passage of time within a photograph.’ So, in one of his most famous portraits, Isak Dinesen looks like she was once the most beautiful woman in the world – about two thousand years ago.

There is recurrence in these essays of thoughts previously given form in The Missing of the Somme, of photographs as memorials. Ruth Orkins’ ‘VE Day’ shows a crowd in Times Square “arranged in a way that has since become widespread in that its purpose was, partly, to be recorded”. Or for Enrique Metinides, “if something terrible happened, [he] was there with his camera, recording not just the wreckage but the way such incidents became sites of instant pilgrimage” (producing – in a clever wordplay also typical of Dyer – images that were “not so much film stills as still films”). His most obscure subject – I hope – is Miroslav Tichý, the ‘stone-age photographer’ who “put as simply as possible … spent the 1960s and 70s perving around Kyjov, photographing women.” Tichý’s work simultaneously displays a “kinship [with] Benny Hill” and offers a moving eroticism because it “gaze[s] longingly on a world from which he is excluded.” These essays show Dyer at his best: enquiring, enlightening, entertaining.

The corollary of this is that the essays that dealt with subjects I was more familiar with were less interesting to me. Primarily these are the literary ones – D.H. Lawrence, F. Scott Fitzgerald, James Salter, Richard Ford, Tobias Wolff, W.G. Sebald and Thomas Bernhard. (Though it may just be that I’d read some of them before, so they surprised me less. Certainly the Salter piece was one I knew.) Still, there are delights here too – marked, sure enough, by their unfamiliarity, such as his essay on The Goncourt Journals (perhaps the only diaries to contain the words: “A ring at the door. It is Flaubert”) and Rebecca West’s Black Lamb and Grey Falcon (“an awkward tome whose identifying quality is a refusal to fit”). Prime among these pieces however must be Dyer on Ryszard Kapuściński, which I read in a bookshop cafe and which rendered me unable to leave without buying my first book of Kapuściński’s reportage.

These essays also reveal perhaps more of Dyer than he – never slow to make guest appearances in his own writing – would intend. Kapuściński is, he says, “the victim of a received cultural prejudice that assumes fiction to be the loftiest preserve of literary and imaginative distinction.” Writing about Susan Sontag, he asks, “To what extent is it possible to be a great prose writer without being a great writer of fiction?” Of Rebecca West, he notes that:

[she] is considered a major British writer. If she is not regarded as a writer quite of the first rank that is largely because so much of the work on which her reputation should rest is tacitly considered secondary to the forms in which greatness is expected to manifest itself, namely the novel. … Her best work is scattered among reportage, journalism and travel – the kind of things traditionally regarded as sidelines or distractions.

What can he be getting at, this author famous for books “whose identifying quality is a refusal to fit”? He sees it too in John Cheever, whose “principal claim to literary survival” for Dyer rests not with the stories, novels or letters, but his journals. (Not perhaps such a controversial principle, as Gabriel Josipovici similarly argues that it is not Kafka’s novels or stories, but his aphorisms which “form [his] most sustained meditation on life and death, good and evil, and the role of art.”)

The weakest pieces in the book are those where Dyer cannibalises himself entirely, perhaps not recognising that the tangents into his own life are charming in the other essays because they are based upon a stronger foundation. That is to say, the final section of the book, ‘Personals’, is largely dispensable. Similarly, the most egregious will-this-do pieces are little more than gagfests about fashion or the Olympics. The jokes are good (one couture show “was Priscilla, Queen of the Desert meets Mad Max, a combination that might one day result in a co-production called Back-combed to the Future“), but they’re just jokes. Real comedy needs more.

Still, even when he’s not on form, Dyer is a reliably generous source of aphorisms from other writers: his essays are peppered with the quotability of others. Who can consider time wasted reading an essay that quotes Maxim Gorky’s “Life will always be bad enough for the desire for something better not to be extinguished in men”? Or Philip Larkin’s assertion that holidays “are essentially a kind of penance for being so happy and comfortable in one’s daily life”? Or Søren Kierkegaard’s journal entry from 1836:

I have just returned from a party of which I was the life and soul; wit poured from my lips, everyone laughed and admired me – but I went away – and the dash should be as long as the earth’s orbit ————————————————- and wanted to shoot myself.

One of the most interesting aspects of reading a book of essays like this straight through is that we get to see what we might call the ghosts, that is, the figures who recur in Dyer’s writing but who don’t – here, at least – have a place of their own. Walker Evans, Walter Benjamin, E.M. Cioran, Miles Davis, Robert Frank, Keith Jarrett, Friedrich Nietzsche and others are threaded through the essays like totems or mascots of Dyer’s cultural life, absent and present at the same time. After the teasing references to them, any full treatment would probably be disappointing, just as I fear that reading my new Ryszard Kapuściński book will be less enjoyable than reading Geoff Dyer telling me about it. Writing on Susan Sontag, he recalls how she “cattily dismissed” a famous story of Lorrie Moore’s, which Sontag said “you don’t respect yourself for finishing.” Dyer, while full of admiration for Sontag’s critical work, cats back with the observation on her novel In America, that “I respected myself so much for finishing it I felt I deserved a prize.” Dyer’s book – the “distractions” that make up a life of letters – at its best combines both: pleasurable enough to feel guilty about, but sufficiently filling to make finishing it a source of both satisfaction and regret.

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13 Comments »

  1. Lee Monks said,

    Dyer always seems somewhat surprised that he ever finishes anything – or is that my knowledge that I know that to be a fact? – that there is an indelible, virtually unique sense of ‘half-involvement’ (he is the Bill Murray of writers) with all of his pieces that I think is behind the purely enjoyable nature of reading them. He is not really straining, at any point, to make any point (it seems), so that ideas fall in to auspiciously ramshackle effect and the relaxed nature of the endeavour both transmits an affectless equilibrium and the genuine sense that he is only producing material that, through such painless arrival, is completely tranquil and unified. He is, as is well documented, opposed to writing that feels the need to fit within ready-made parameters, as someone of such a protean, unpretentious nature might well be. And yet, he is a prose-stylist of obvious, and rather antique, influences. The coupling of uncategorisable intent and classical means creates a sense of a polymath dilettante iconoclasm that is truly unique.

    And is it me or when he’s talking about, say, Don Delillo’s last novel, does he seem to hold back a little? He contrasts segments from what he considers (as do most) far superior works with Point Omega to deleterious effects to the latter and yet seems to run out of steam, almost apologetically?

    In any case, a truly absorbing read and the kind of writer who is compelling just by means of putting a few sentences together, on whatever subject.

  2. leroyhunter said,

    Personally serendipitous timing for me on this one John, as I just commented on your Missing of the Somme review. As a Dyer neophyte this sounds very appealing – the list of authors he discusses is enough to make me run & buy alone (unlike you I’ll be new to all the pieces).

    I have Out of Sheer Rage on the shelf and then I think it’d be a toss-up between this and The Ongoing Moment. So, a lot to look forward to.

    Speaking of which: “Prime among these pieces however must be Dyer on Ryszard Kapuściński, which I read in a bookshop cafe and which rendered me unable to leave without buying my first book of Kapuściński’s reportage.” O lucky man! You have a lot to look forward to. Which one did you pick?

    “I fear that reading my new Ryszard Kapuściński book will be less enjoyable than reading Geoff Dyer telling me about it.” I very much doubt that will be the case. It’s interesting: we’re coming at this from opposite ends of the enthusiasm scale…you’re a Dyer die-hard whereas I’m a Ryszard recidivist.

  3. John Self said,

    you’re a Dyer die-hard whereas I’m a Ryszard recidivist

    Nice! I bought The Soccer War. It was between that and The Shadow of the Sun (which I think is the title Dyer was actually reviewing), but the former was shorter…

    As to Dyer, of The Ongoing Moment and Out of Sheer Rage I’d unhesitatingly choose the latter. The former I found pretty tough going, and I’m not sure I even finished it. (Though I might like it more now that I’ve enjoyed so many of his photography essays in this book.)

    Lee, his sense of ‘half-involvement’ and ‘ramshackle’ ways did lead me to ask him in the interview I did here last year, if he considered himself to be the George Best of literature. To which he responded, initially, “What an unbelievably flirtatious question!”

    • Lee Monks said,

      Great question! Yes, I recall that now you mention it. And who else would’ve responded like that?

  4. leroyhunter said,

    The Soccer War is top-drawer (but who am I kidding? I’d say that about any of his books) so I hope you enjoy it. I started with The Shadow of the Sun, and I think that The Emperor and Shah of Shahs are very slightly higher peaks then his others….but that’s a marginal judgement. Look forward to your thoughts.

    Back to Dyer, am I wrong to detect some similarities between him and another favourite of mine, Jonathan Raban?

    • Lee Monks said,

      I think the Raban comparison has some mileage in it. Though I’d tentatively suggest that Dyer may loosen his tie that bit more often.

    • John Self said,

      Alas, leroyhunter, I know no Raban, though you’re the second person to recommend him to me in the last few weeks. Where to begin?

      • leroyhunter said,

        I started with Old Glory, which is superb, and if that doesn’t do it for you then it’s likely Raban’s not your thing. I’ve also read Passage to Juneau and Bad Lands, which are also good – Juneau has some longeurs but there’s always something surprising around the corner with Raban.

        Am currently trying to decide how close it needs to get to Christmas before I can gift myself his new collection, Driving Home. Selfish, moi?

  5. As much as I like Geoff Dyer’s fiction (and I do), I will admit that I have no taste for his non-fiction/journalism in book form (I don’t mind the occasional piece that I come across). I am afraid that this review — and I find nothing wrong with it in any way — confirms that impression.

  6. “Dyer is at his best when communicating enthusiasm…”
    & so are you, dear John..
    So many times you fill these books with life (not that they like it, but we seem to sometimes suck it out of them, with our prejudice, know what i mean?)
    So TX anyway & keep up the good work! :)

  7. John Self said,

    Thanks very much, Excerpt Reader!

  8. An incisive review – and I hadn’t read the interview either, so thanks for pointing that out. You’re right about the ‘gag-fests’ on the Olympics and fashion shows – I was recently surprised to find, quite by accident, better pieces that didn’t make it into Working The Room: one about marriage in the Sunday Times mag or similar (in the dentist’s waiting room, of all places) and one in Granta about religion.

    Having read the book (most of it) in gulps and then left it on the bedside table for gradual completion (there’ll be one piece I haven’t read, then one page, then one paragraph, one line, word, that word darting around the book, never to be found) a couple of thoughts occur:

    i) that Canongate have really gone to town on the production of it, as compared to the last novel, Jeff In Venice, which was a trade paperback with French flaps. Is it because they know this one’s just for the cognoscenti? If so, they’re really spoiling us – it’s a beaut.

    ii) it’s true that some of the shorter pieces don’t show this writer at his best; it’s like he knows that he’s only got space in his 800-1,000 words of journalism for a couple of decent digressions, but it’s when you get to those digressions, in his longer works, that you really feel him taking off.

    I get the feeling, when i’m reading a book-length Dyer, that there’s this tension between the book as it is, and the book that Dyer either set out to write, or otherwise thinks we – or the publishing world – are expecting. It’s like someone playing a theramin: as the hand moves further from the antenna, the note eerily changes pitch. The significant mass of a book, as compared to the slight one of a piece of journalism, creates a greater resistance, and so a purer sound. (maybe that’s not how theramins work, but i hope you get the idea…)

    This was a problem I had with Yoga For People… which just didn’t have enough of a centre of gravity to hold the pieces together. The writing, of course, was top-notch, but I never got that sense of internal resistance. Here’s my secret wish: some of the best writing in it was about architecture and ruins – clearly, what he *should* have done is tried (and, naturally, failed) to write a book about *that*. Much of the material would have stayed the same, but it would have had that internalised sense of what it ought to have been doing to make the more free-floating stuff soar, and drift, with real purpose.

    iii) Dyer makes great play of prefering the marginal output of his favourite writers to their more canonical and mainstream books – the letters and journals, rather than the novels. Which begs the question – if what we get with Dyer, from the outset, is the marginal stuff, what will there be left for us to pick over? We use writers’ marginalia to get under the skin of their ‘big’ works, but Dyer is *all* margin. His ‘big’ works look like the sort of thing other writers have tinkered with in their spare time, for their own amusement, with no thought of publication. Might there be, once he’s gone from us, a hidden stash of straightforward realist novels for us to fall upon with the same glee that we see in him, poring over Lawrence’s letters, shopping lists and post-it notes?

  9. John Self said,

    Thanks for your thoughts, Jonathan. Perhaps the pieces you saw that weren’t included were too recent to make the book? (Or, as the dentist’s waiting room magazine was presumably from the mid-1990s, perhaps it featured in Anglo-English Attitudes!)

    I agree that the book is beautifully made – though a devil for attracting fingerschmutz with its semi-matt (eggshell?) cover. Perhaps the limited appeal it’s sure to have (compared with Jeff in Venice) means they felt they could afford to bump up the production a bit (and the price: £20 seems an increasingly common hardback price these days, and seems psychologically much more than just a pound and a penny more than £18.99).

    I think you’re right that the tension you describe brings out the best in Dyer – perhaps why Out of Sheer Rage, simultaneously all about Lawrence and all one big digression, is one of his most successful books in my opinion.


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