Geoff Dyer is a wildly eclectic writer. His work – which often blurs the distinction between fiction and non-fiction – is vastly varied in subject.
But Beautiful, published in 1991, was a fictional homage to the heroes of jazz; The Missing of the Somme (’94) was a history of WW1; Out of Sheer Rage (’97) was about his inability to buckle down and write a book about DH Lawrence, one of his literary influences; Yoga for People who Can’t be Bothered to do it was part memoir, part travelogue. He has also written about John Berger and wrote an acclaimed book on photography which won the Infinity award in 2006. In addition, he has three previous novels to his name, the last published 11 years ago.
Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi comes plastered with accolades from literary giants – William Boyd, Zadie Smith, David Mitchell, Michael Ondaatje and Joshua Ferris all rave on the back cover. Most writers would sell their soul for praise from one of those alone.
Although this latest work – his first since swapping publishers from Lttle, Brown to Canongate – is ostensibly a novel, like much of Dyer’s work it straddles boundaries, incorporating travel, fiction and art criticism, not to mention the autobiographical elements, about which Dyer has been coy in interviews. It is also a curiously structured book, being divided into two distinct halves. Dyer initially wanted to call it Diptych to clarify that it was two discrete novellas linked by various recurring themes, but was horror-struck at how ‘pretentious’ (his term) a mock-up of the book’s cover looked with this title, so he opted for the current one instead. Readers unaware of this may be puzzled about the lack of concrete connection between the two parts – any common themes are nebulous in nature. This feeling of being abandoned after part 1 is exacerbated somewhat by the fact that the first part, Jeff in Venice, deals with a momentous love affair amid the hazy heat and frenetic tourism of Venice, and readers may be waiting for a conclusion.
The two sections are poles apart but have much in common. In Jeff in Venice, the story is told in third person. Jeff Atman is a grumpy (bordering on curmudgeonly) London journalist who takes no pleasure in the writing part of his job, though he enjoys the hedonistic parties. Jeff has been commissioned (by an arts supplement called Kulchur – surely a spoof on the Sunday Times’ Culture supp) to write an article on the Venice Biennale. Jeff has many similarities with Geoff the author – both are tall, skinny, grey haired (initially), love tennis, are caustically cynical, and enjoy partying.
The first part of Jeff in Venice is laugh-out-loud funny on almost every page because of Jeff’s cantankerousness. Here he is on a truculent local shopkeeper:
‘Atman was always taken aback by his exchanges with this guy, by the way that, brief though they were, they managed to sap any sense of well-being he’d had on entering the premises. It was difficult to suppress the habit of saying ‘please’ and ‘thank you’, but as a reprisal, a protest, at the guy’s refusal to abide by the basic courtesies, Jeff always picked up whatever he was buying… and handed over the money silently.’
And here on a budget airline:
‘This was budget flying taken to its limit. They had stripped away everything that made flying slightly more agreeable and what you were left with was the basically disagreeable experience of getting from A to B, even though B turned out not to be in B at all, but in the neighbouring city C, or even country D.’
‘The cost-cutting was amazing, extravagant, even. No expense had not been spared. Getting rid of free meals and drinks was just the beginning of it. They’d skimped on the flight attendants’ uniforms, on the design and graphics of the check-in counter, on the number of characters on the boarding pass, on the amount of foam and cushion on the seats. It was hard to imagine they had not skimped on safety features as well – why bother with a life raft when everyone knew if the plane ditched in the sea you were fucked anyway?It seemed they had even budgeted on the looks of the flight attendants. The one doing the safety demonstration appeared to be suffering from an aerial equivalent of the bends. No amount of make-up – and there was a lot of it, caked on like the first stage in the preparation of a death mask – could disguise the toll taken by years of jetlag and cabin pressure.’
Jeff’s irascibility is mildly soothed by the thought of the free good time awaiting him in Venice. The art is the least of his concerns – he wants to maximize the number of free drink-filled parties he goes to there.
The allusions to Thomas Mann’s Death in Venice are not limited to the title and the setting. Before he leaves, Jeff gets his grey hair dyed. (‘All in all, it was the best eighty quid he’d ever spent in his life. (The only thing that could have made him happier was to have found a way to claim it back on expenses as necessary preparation and research for the Biennale.) ‘) And while in Venice, he too falls in love with a beautiful much younger stranger. Only in Jeff’s case, the object of his desire is a young woman, Laura, and his lust is reciprocated.
Jeff’s time in Venice is a whirl of parties, wandering the watery maze of the city, art (much of it soulless and empty but with some highlights), chemical highs and incredible sex. Dyer succeeds on almost all counts: he has written about art before, so his insights into the works on offer are mostly acutely perceptive. In the notes to the novel he mentions that he attended the Biennale three times, in 2003, 2005 and 2007, and much of the art he describes is from these shows. He is razor sharp on the pretentiousness of much of it, but conveys the power of the pieces that work, such as a boat on a sea of shattered glass, or a womb-like room of blue. His depiction of Venice is also magnificent, capturing the majesty of the piazzas and Tintorettos, the charm and claustrophobia of the winding alleys and the way the city seems to exist only for tourists.
Dyer is such a smart writer, so erudite and articulate, that weak points are few. In this section, I would say that Laura seems unreal by way of her perfection: she is so gorgeous, so funny and clever, their 0rgasms so simultaneous, that she seems like a fantasy woman. She also appears somewhat as a female version of Jeff/Geoff , matching him in mischief, witty one-liners, intelligence and appetite for alcohol and cocaine. It’s as if he became a hermaphrodite and fell in love with a male version of himself. She is also enchantingly lackadaisical about commitment, which again doesn’t quite ring true for someone who shows so much passion and tenderness
But overall, this first section is a dynamite read, packed with hilarity, insights, wild chemical excess and graphic (at times almost squirm-inducing) sex. At the end of this section, we leave Jeff unsure of when or if he’ll ever meet Laura again. His hardened London scepticism has been replaced by a wakening of his emotions, flitting from euphoric ecstasy when with Laura to the depths of despair at the contemplation of her leaving.
The second section, Death in Varanasi, switches from third person to first person narration. The assumption is that this is still Jeff, but it is never specified. The narrator is a writer who is assigned an article on Varanasi, the Indian city next to the Ganges river known for its daily public cremations of the dead. In the first section, Laura had mentioned to Jeff that she was planning to travel to Varanasi, and he had expressed a wish to join her, so, if unaware of the two sections being discrete stories, the reader may wonder why the narrator doesn’t contact Laura to arrange to meet her there.
This narrator has a lot in common with the Jeff in the first part. Like Jeff, he is a freelance journalist with no current wife or children, he is prone to deep self analysis without ever slipping into self indulgence, he is bright, thoughtful, has a wicked sense of humour, enjoys the odd chemical high and even eats bananas. But the mood of this section of the book is very different. The narrator stays on in Varanasi after he has filed his article, and steeps himself in the Hindu culture, visiting temples, witnessing the cremations, crossing the Ganges, and contemplating life. There is a strong element of travel writing in this part of the book, with the narrator/Dyer exploring themes as diverse as the Hindu gods and the culture of pestering tourists for money. As always, Dyer/the narrator is so clever that he’s always one step ahead of the game – for instance, as soon as he’s expressed exasperation with the way he’s constantly hectored for money, he comes down on himself , pointing out how insignificant the sums involved are to a Westerner. And, as with all his apercus, he does it in an erudite, pithy way.
Despite the fact that in Death in Varanasi, Dyer is writing about a culture that is unknown to most readers, he never slips into pedantry. Nor is his sense of humour ever far away. He manages to be both respectful of an alien culture and funny, which is no mean feat. Here he is on Hinduism:
‘I’d bought a pile of books on Hinduism from the Harmony bookshop… but found it difficult to concentrate on them. However hard I tried, I could not keep track of who was who and what was what. It was impossible to tell if the person in one part of the story was the same in another part…Another problem was that the epic antics of these gods – all those yarns about eggs the size of a planet, drops of water forming great lakes, the blink of an eye shutting out the sun, errands lasting tens of thousands of years – were exactly the kind of things I’d always had trouble reading. After a fling with Gabriel Garcia Marquez, I’d come to detest even a hint of magic realism in fiction. As soon as I came to a passage in a novel where the trees started talking to each other, I gave up on the spot. Compared with what went 0n in the Hindu myths, trees talking to each other seemed like scrupulous reporting, documentary.’
And there is a raucously hilarious anecdote about the locals’ attitude to queuing, which sees the narrator transform into the teeth-gritting, seething Basil Fawlty of the early part of section 1:
‘My own smile had by now become a death’s head grin, a rictus of suppressed English rage, the product of years of rainy summers, ruined picnics, cancelled trains and losing at penalty shoot-outs. ‘You are not going into that bank ahead of me. The only way you will go into the bank ahead of me is by stepping over my lifeless body. Do you understand?’
The themes that the second section of the book has in common with the first include watery cities in searing heat, tourism and commerce, the ability to seize the day and not worry about tomorrow, and the search for inner peace. And the narrator of Death in Varanasi, like Jeff in Jeff in Venice, has much in common with Geoff – a certain contentment with loafing (Geoff Dyer moved from an Honours degree from Oxford to living on the dole in Brixton, eking out small change as a freelancer for City Limits), a lazy enthusiasm for D.H. Lawrence (aptly, the narrator in Death in Varanasi leaves his Lawrence book unfinished – just as Dyer did with his own treatise on Lawrence, which turned into a book about how he couldn’t write a book on Lawrence), the same effortless eloquence, a propensity for the pursuits of a twenty-year-old (partying, mainly), time spent bumming abroad, and a pull towards similarly sharp, clever people who aren’t up themselves.
Inasmuch as Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi doesn’t hang together as a novel, it can be said to be imperfect. But Dyer is one of those writers whose books are so insightful, funny and entertaining to read that an imperfect Dyer is preferable to most perfectly constructed novels.