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.