On a hot summer evening in 1999 in the Italian town of Reggio Emilia, the English writer Geoff Dyer told a crowd how much he preferred Italy to England: the Italians were vibrant, free, warm, loved life; the English were dull, conformist, surly, glum. One development, however, offered hope: the invention of the rave party and the discovery of Ecstasy meant that many English people were opening up and becoming more Italian; they were learning to love life. The crowd applauded.
Sitting beside Dyer on the stage, I foolishly took issue. Having lived in Italy all my adult life, I know how the country suffocates in its Catholic conformity. Nor was the English vocation for bingeing new. On any Saturday midnight in the early nineteenth century, about half the population of Manchester was drunk. There had been surveys.
A graciously grinning Dyer didn’t trouble to rebut. Only later did I realize I’d misunderstood. Alien to anthropological analysis, he was simply setting up a polarity—carefree creativity against plodding conformity—and making his own allegiance clear. He was also being flippant. This was part of his war on dullness. He was seducing the crowd. We were having a good evening. It was difficult for an old literalist like me to know how to respond.
At the beginning of “Jeff in Venice,” the first part of Geoff Dyer’s new book, the author’s alter ego goes into a magazine shop and is served by an Indian girl who gives him “a bright smile, unusual in her line of work.” Immediately Jeff compares the teenager with “her surly father, who, though he spoke little English, had so thoroughly adjusted to British life that he looked every bit as pissed off as someone whose ancestors had come over with the Normans.” This vitality/killjoy contrast is at the heart of Dyer’s work. In “Death in Varanasi,” the second part of the book, the narrator remembers how his own anxious English father “hated spending money, so holidays were a kind of torture.” As if in belated reaction and fearing, as anybody in Varanasi must, that death may be imminent, the narrator decides that “since this life…was the only one you got, the only real crime or mistake was not to make the most of it.”
So, carpe diem. But how exactly? Rave parties? Ecstasy? Is “to make the most of life” sufficient prescription? Jeff goes into the magazine shop to buy chewing gum to disguise his obsessive’s habit of talking to himself in the street but comes out of the shop with a chocolate bar. He doesn’t know what he wants. Reflecting anxiously on a book he should have written but didn’t, he seems unable to weigh immediate gratification against the pleasures of achievement through prolonged concentration. Briefly, he wonders what kind of underwear the charming Indian girl might be wearing but is not so unwise as to try to …