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 make the most of the smiles they exchanged. On impulse, he goes into a classy hairdresser and has his graying hair dyed, something he has never consciously wanted but that actually cheers him up immensely. He can now persuade himself that time is not running out for making the most of life, whatever that might entail.
Unlike the traditional novelist who builds up characters by establishing their relation to one another in the tension of developing drama, Dyer has a trick of setting up entire books in insouciant relation to other books (famous books), thus placing himself in relation to other writers (invariably great writers). Hence the drama, in a sense, lies in the writing of the work itself, rather than the story it tells. The nonfiction Out of Sheer Rage (1997), for example, has Dyer struggling (hilariously) to write a biography of D.H. Lawrence and declaring such a powerful affinity with a man who would never have had the patience to research a biography that we know at once that the scholarly work will never be written. What is written, however, gives us a wonderful insight into Lawrence, or one side of him—his restlessness, impatience, irritability—and a fascinating picture of Dyer as someone anxious to feel he has the same restlessness, the same genius, anxious to avoid the dullness of the mere scholar, the person who hasn’t lived. As if that were not enough, there are frequent references to Thomas Bernhard (who wrote more than one book about failing to write a book) and an astute awareness that the rhetoric of the impotent rant (usually directed against the world’s dullness) was common to both Bernhard and Lawrence, and to Dyer.
One of the rants that Dyer’s fans (they seem to number everyone who has ever struggled to sit still at a keyboard) always mention is his attack on literary academe in Out of Sheer Rage. Dyer has just been lent the Longman Critical Reader on Lawrence edited by Peter Widdowson:
I could feel myself getting angry and then I flicked through the introductory essay on “Radical Indeterminacy: a post-modern Lawrence” and became angrier still. How could it have happened? How could these people with no feeling for literature have ended up teaching it, writing about it? I should have stopped there, should have avoided looking at any more, but I didn’t because telling myself to stop always has the effect of urging me on. Instead, I kept looking at this group of wankers huddled in a circle, backs turned to the world so that no one would see them pulling each other off. Oh, it was too much, it was too stupid. I threw the book across the room and then I tried to tear it up but it was too resilient. By now I was blazing mad. I thought about getting Widdowson’s phone number and making threatening calls. Then I looked around for the means to destroy his vile, filthy book. In the end it took a whole box of matches and some risk of personal injury before I succeeded in deconstructing it.
If Dyer objects to dull academics forever shut up in universities pretending to understand vibrant people like Lawrence, it nevertheless has to be said that “radical indeterminacy” would not be a bad description of the state of mind of someone who never knows whether he wants chewing gum or chocolate, to write a book or to go out for a drink, and “R adical Indeterminacy: A Postmodern Lawrence ” might not be a bad title for an essay on Geoff Dyer, whose works are at once so densely and deliciously literary and so determined to avoid genre pigeonholing as to invite exactly the sort of analysis he loathes, or rather enjoys entertaining us with loathing. Dyer is aware of all this and suspicious of his own performance, which itself is a source of comedy. He thrives on paradox, especially when it seems to come at his own expense. One notes in passing that he doesn’t tell us how the friend who lent him the book reacted to its destruction.
So Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi plays cheekily with the Jeff/death assonance to give us a title that recalls Thomas Mann’s Aschenbach, who in Death in Venice also dyes his hair in a rather less successful attempt to look younger. But the very invitation to draw parallels establishes a defining difference: Thomas Mann, like D.H. Lawrence or Thomas Bernhard, would never have set up his work in teasing relation to another’s. Such writers would never have invited us to question their towering seriousness, their vatic superiority. Always ready to fall into flippancy, even inanity (“the opportunity to respond seriously resulted only in the impulse to say something glib,” we hear at one point), Dyer appears to question the very possibility, or at least the nature, of seriousness, thus obliging us to pay him serious attention.
Jeff is a hack journalist divorcé in his mid-forties, known to friends as Junket Jeff (hence quite the opposite of the hard-working, overachieving Aschenbach). His improbable surname is Atman. Again, in the gap between Grub Street sleaze and the Sanskrit for “soul” we have Dyer’s characteristic provocation. The junket that Jeff is on this time is an all-expense-paid trip to the Venice Biennale, where his problem of never knowing what he wants will be exacerbated by the sheer abundance of artworks to see, parties to attend, wines to drink, drugs to do:
Jeff studied the invitation, noting the sponsor’s logo—Moët, nice—and the time. Shit, it clashed exactly with the Australia party which, in turn, overlapped with a dinner he’d cancelled as soon as the Australia invite turned up. That was also part of the Biennale experience: not getting invited to things was a source of torment; getting invited to them added to the logistical difficulties of wanting to go to far more things than you had any desire to go to.
When it comes to describing freeloading and parties, Dyer is second to none, and Jeff’s three bellini-swilling, dope-smoking, coke-snorting days and nights in the Serenissima include comic descriptions that vie in inebriated disorientation with Henry Green’s Party Going and Anthony Powell’s Afternoon Men (once again reaffirming the glorious tradition of the English binge). There are also some fine descriptions of the kind of installations that appear in the Biennale, mostly “puerile,” but always betraying the artist’s “ravenous” “hunger to succeed.” Ominously, Jeff is attracted to
A simple wooden boat…adrift in a frozen sea of broken, multi- coloured Murano glass…gradually filling up with water dripping from the ceiling. Every now and again—so infrequently Jeff wondered if he was imagining it—the boat rocked slightly. He was transfixed by this, glad that he’d seen it right at the beginning of his tour, before he became punch-drunk, sated and oblivious.
What rocks Jeff’s slowly sinking boat on this Venice trip is his meeting, at the first evening’s first party, with Laura Freeman. This beautiful young American with the significant second name is the perfect partner for Jeff: witty, irreverent, generous, more than willing to seduce and be seduced, altogether a more promising object of desire than Aschenbach’s elusive Tadzio. Laura makes her man wait just long enough to allow for the obligatory sightings between vaporettos, then takes him to bed, where, despite scores of bellinis, the lovemaking is long, lavish, and, most surprisingly, loving.
Indeed, so perfect is the sex and so brilliant, polished, and savvily cinematic the dialogue (these two are incapable of a dull moment) that the reader quickly appreciates that Laura is hardly a character at all, more an exemplum in an essay (Dyer has spoken of preferring essays to fiction and it is precisely his didactic vocation that obliges him to seek disguise in flippancy). Laura will bring Junket Jeff to the point where he yearns to be with her always. Initially reflecting that “life, at its best, was about wanting never to go home,” he will soon be wanting Laura to be his home. However, an encounter on his second morning warns him of what is to come.
Commissioned by Kulchur magazine to interview a famous artist’s ex-wife (“this old has-been,” Jeff thinks, or rather “a never-was”) and if possible wrest from her a drawing that the artist is known to have made of her in her prime, he meets a “slovenly posh” lady in her fifties who shares a joint with him and distinguishes herself for her complete lack of the ugly craving for attention that drives on artists and journalists. Here at last is someone who does not fret about never having written a book, is sufficient to herself. Eventually the woman fetches the drawing. Executed with evident passion, it shows her naked, legs apart, genitals freely revealed, but with an expression on her face indicating “absolute indifference” to the yearning of the man drawing her. “One only needed to look at the picture for a few moments to know that the relationship was not going to endure,” Jeff observes.
So it is with Jeff and Laura. The three days are perfect but, sensing she isn’t eager to talk about an afterward, he is unable to press for more, commenting with regret that it has become “easier to lick someone’s ass than to ask when you might see them again.” After Laura leaves for the airport, Jeff returns to a bar where the two had enjoyed some time together, only to find that the Biennale crowd has drunk it dry. The transition to the second, penitential, or purificatory, part of the novel, where Varanasi substitutes for Venice and “Death” for “Jeff,” has already begun:
Like parched locusts, they had descended on this bar, drunk it dry, squeezed every last drop of alcohol from it and had then moved on to elsewhere…. It was still, ostensibly, a bar but it was a place, now, of abandoned meaning. The atmosphere was woebegone, an architectural equivalent of a fearful hangover. It was as if an atrocity had been committed, something shameful that no one cared to remember but which permeated the walls, the floors and all the fixtures. It seemed quite possible that a curse had now fallen on the place, that it would never again enjoy the dizzy heights of the last few days when the booze flowed and flowed and then ran out, leaving in its wake an emptiness that could never be filled, an after-taste of waste and pointlessness.
The second half of the book flips Dyer’s romantic coin, moving straight from eros to thanatos, eliding in the process all that makes up most ordinary lives (and that rarely finds a place in Dyer’s writing): work, family, routine, the slow accretion of shared life that might have been if Jeff and Laura had got together. Much has been made of Dyer’s repeated portrayal of the would-be writer who fails to write his book, or even to start it, but this is perhaps only emblematic of a deeper failure truly to embark on any life project, no doubt out of fear that to give oneself to one book, one woman, one career, is to close down other opportunities, forgo immediate pleasures.
Again and again Dyer’s alter egos are attracted to people deeply engrossed in what they are doing, people who are not forever scratching themselves out of one itch into another, but not dull either. Watching two musicians play together, for example, he finds it “difficult not to envy their absorption.” Shortly after leaving the bar that was drunk dry, Jeff runs into an Italian family whose young daughter is bouncing along on a space hopper shaped like a kangaroo and complete with a little pouch. He finds this image of domestic bliss “completely adorable”—here are people combining pleasure and long-term project—and if possible “he would have climbed right in there, into the pouch, and gone bouncing along with them.”
Just as “Jeff in Venice” frequently alludes to Mann’s Death in Venice, so it also looks forward to “Death in Varanasi.” An opening quotation from Allen Ginsberg explicitly compares the two cities; Laura speaks of going to live in the Indian town; at a party Jeff’s friends quote the Buddha and refer to their champagne glasses as renouncers’ begging bowls. Yet as the second part of the book begins, again with a journalist being commissioned to make a trip, this time to Varanasi, we have no explicit reference back to the first part. Is our new narrator Jeff Atman, or not? Is this the same story? Visiting an exhibition of photographs disconcertingly bereft of captions, the narrator remarks:
There was nothing to help you get your bearings and then, after a while, once you accepted the idea, you realized that you didn’t need these things that you so often relied on, that there were no bearings to get. A given picture had no explicit or narrative connection with the one next to it, but their adjacency implied an order that enhanced the effect of both.
So it is with the adjacent halves of the book: they call to each other. If our narrator isn’t Jeff, he is someone very like him and since Varanasi with its death pyres, mysticism, and sheer weight of raw humanity is a place for shedding rather than affirming identity, the loss of name is appropriate. After all, the Sanskrit ¯ atman does not correspond to the Christian notion of the individual soul, but can mean the consciousness we all share. One life can easily be superimposed on another. There is much talk of reincarnation.
Our nameless narrator arrives for five days but, without apparent purpose, decides to stay. For months. He is fascinated by the Indian city’s combination of seething vitality and unending funeral procession. His time is spent exploring the ghats and temples, having himself rowed up and down the river by the ever-available, poverty-stricken boatmen (there are echoes of Aschenbach’s dealings with gondoliers), and dining and conversing with the other guests in his hotel.
Dyer’s style is more meditative now, but still determinedly comic, still recognizably Dyer, always ready to throw in a hip word or bizarre analogy when the writing risks taking itself too seriously. It is possible, he remarks at one point, “to be a hundred per cent sincere and a hundred per cent ironic at the same time.”
At his hotel, the narrator befriends two lone travelers, a young man and woman, and as the two meet and fall in love he finds himself able to observe their growing intimacy with pleasure; he no longer needs to be the one involved. Likes, dislikes, and even his sex drive fall off him like discarded clothes. Not that he renounces drink and drugs (how dull that would be), but the urgent appetite of “Jeff in Venice” is behind him. Nor does he submit himself to some spiritual discipline or embark on a serious study of the intense religious life all around him. However eager to “bust out of the prison of the ego,” no self-respecting Dyer hero would do such things. True he has his head and eyebrows shaved, begins to dress in a dhoti, and eventually bathes in the filthy Ganges, but this is neither from a desire for spirituality nor in response to some program of purification: “It was more as if I knew that one day I would bathe in the river and so there was no point in not doing so.” He has accepted that he is caught up in a larger process, not a single Jeff Atman but an infinitesimal part of the universal ¯ atman. “I had taken myself out of the equation,” he tells us.
There is much excellent travel writing in these pages and, alongside the obvious and ironic references to Death in Venice, much allusion to Lawrence’s travel writing, as if Dyer had found, in the notion that our lives are interchangeable, another frame for putting himself in relation to Lawrence. A hilarious account of a last flare-up of self-assertion, when the narrator fights to keep his place in line at a cash machine, loudly echoes Lawrence’s description in Sea and Sardinia of a struggle to buy ferry tickets in the port of Naples. When the narrator sits face-to-face with a bearded holy man so that the two can gaze into each other’s otherness, we are reminded of the extraordinary scene in Twilight in Italy where Lawrence watches an old woman spinning in a mountain village above Lake Garda. Like Lawrence, Dyer realizes that there can be no affinity between a modern and a pre-modern consciousness, but that “what distinguished us from each other was that he had no interest in [my world] whereas I was intensely curious about his.” Lawrence wrote: “That I had a world of my own, other than her own, was not conceived by her. She did not care.”
Unwilling to find himself a guru, Dyer’s narrator relies on illness to complete the erosion of his identity. A bout of dysentery prevents him from taking his anti-malaria pills and the mosquitoes get him; the fevers begin. Again, though the obvious parallel is with Thomas Mann’s sickening Aschenbach, there is once more a deeper affinity with Lawrence. In 1927, his tuberculosis irreversible, Lawrence, as though to prepare for death, visited the underground Etruscan tombs in malaria-stricken Tuscany and wrote the book published posthumously as Sketches of EtruscanPlaces. Visiting the funeral pyres of Varanasi and catching malaria, Dyer is “in mourning for [himself].”
But while Lawrence set his distinctive, combative style aside for some stretches of this work, bringing the calm of acceptance right into his prose, Dyer’s hallucinating narrator finishes his tale with an intensely Dyerish, determinedly comic tour de force. Having previously joked with friends about adding a kangaroo to the variegated Hindu pantheon, he hallucinates the arrival of a huge kangaroo on the Varanasi ghats. When the creature is greeted and garlanded by the locals, the narrator climbs into its pouch, at last “letting go, leaning on nothing.”
Thus the novel, or essay, ends on a note of surreal comedy with the dissolution of the alter ego’s ego. Dyer, however, is far from leaning on nothing and his identity is even further from dissolution. Not only does the scene remind us of the moment at the end of “Jeff in Venice” when Jeff wanted to jump into the pouch of the child’s toy kangaroo, it is also stacked (like the whole book for that matter) with cross-references and allusions, offering a powerful affirmation of Dyer’s authorial control, literary ambitions, and trademark balancing act between seriousness and flippancy. Our author is a long way from taking himself out of the equation; we can look forward with pleasure to another virtuoso performance to relieve our routine dullness.