Monday, 1 March 2010

Geoff Dyer: Venice and Varanasi

I am going to see Geoff Dyer speak next Monday at the Wheeler Centre, so I thought I'd post my review of his most recent book, Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi. The review was originally posted on a short-lived blog last year, which explains the first sentence.

Geoff Dyer's Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi is one of the best novels I have read in 2009. This comes as something of a surprise because I have tended to consider Dyer's novels to be of minor standing in his oeuvre. Paris Trance (1998), which I read recently, is perfectly enjoyable and often very funny, but has a perfunctory feel to it; what I've read of The Colour of Memory (1989) felt similarly lax. For the best of Dyer you have to go to the works that blend essayistic and observational non-fiction with Dyer's cavalier and habitual fictionalising: Out of Sheer Rage, But Beautiful, The Ongoing Moment, and so on.

That, at least, is what I would have said before I read Jeff/Death. The truth is that this pair of novellas - a "diptych" in Dyer's words; "A Novel" according to the cover - constitutes one of his best books. Aside from the simple fact that Dyer's writing is sharp and funny and all the rest, the key to the book's success is Dyer's attention to form. He is a very formally-conscious writer, perhaps unusually so for a mainstream English "literary" writer. But Beautiful, for instance, is a book about jazz, and jazz musicians, that is itself composed using jazz-esque notions of improvisation and quotation. Out of Sheer Rage, a book about trying to write a book about D.H. Lawrence, captures the frantic, digressive vitality of its ostensible subject in a way that a more formal study would lack. Paris Trance, by comparison, is a bog-standard comic novel that never attains any greater value than a certain superficial cleverness.

Jeff/Death is rather more interesting. The first novella, Jeff in Venice, is the tale of hack arts journalist Jeff Atman. (If your aptronym-senses are tingling give them a sugarcube - they're onto something.) In Venice to cover the Biennale, Atman finds friends (and plenty of frankly-described sex) with Laura, an American gallery attendant. Dyer is great at writing about connection, the conversational volleys and non-verbal positioning that conceals and propels the business of getting to know someone. Jeff and Laura fire off cannonades of witticisms and affectionate mockery in the manner of a screwball comedy duo. The Biennale parties are hilarious, and in typical style Dyer subverts the conventional wisdom that there's nothing new to say about Venice by writing about how there is nothing new to say about Venice.

Despite its general levity, Jeff in Venice ends on a note of quiet desolation, which sets the tone for the book's more sombre half, Death in Varanasi. Dyer shifts to the first-person viewpoint of an unnamed hack travel journalist, commissioned to write a newspaper piece about Varanasi. Once there, he finds himself unwilling - perhaps unable - to leave, strangely attracted by the eternal filth, cruelty and piety of the city.

This bleak - and often bleakly funny - story acts as a kind of distorted mirror image of Jeff in Venice. The analogies between Venice and Varanasi are present but never laboured; the characters and situations subtly evoke those of the Jeff section. Then there is the narrator: his similarity to Jeff is unmistakable but Dyer gives no overt sign that the two characters are the same man. The connection between the two is implicit, as is the connection between the two novellas. "A Novel" may be the publisher's preferred designation for Jeff/Death, but Dyer's "diptych" makes more sense. Dyer has said that he originally planned a more explicit integration of the novellas but decided to make the parts narratively discrete: "Instead of trying to make the narrative rope thicker and stronger, I'd just have these tiny, almost invisible filaments linking the sections, all these little echoes, chimes and rhymes."The two sections can actually be read circularly, creating a sustained loop of allusion and meaning. It is a brilliant conceit that enriches what is already an enjoyable, affecting book.

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