A Note on Geoff Dyer, 2009

11 November 2019

I just came across this short note I wrote to introduce Geoff Dyer at the Hay Festival in 2009, after the publication of Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi.

Geoff Dyer's first book, a study of John Berger called Ways of Telling, was published in 1987. His first novel, The Colour of Memory, showed a group of friends milling round Brixton in a post-university haze of pubs, odd jobs, night buses and yearning. In But Beautiful, published in 1991, he dreamed himself into the lives and music of Thelonius Monk, Art Pepper, Charles Mingus, Duke Ellington and other legends of jazz. A second novel, The Search, which I'm not even going to pretend I've read, was followed by The Missing of the Somme, an essay both on the ways we remember the First World War, and on the ways we remember, and then by Out of Sheer Rage, a book about and not about D.H.Lawrence, a work "comprised entirely of irrelevancies" that's at the same time a sustained and eloquent improvisation on "the challenge of freedom". Geoff's third novel, Paris Trance, published in 1998, sets twentysomething Luke and Alex loose in Paris in a post-post-university haze of odd jobs, movies, music, romances and conversations; the story-essays in Yoga for People Who Can't Be Bothered to Do It take us from New Orleans to Cambodia, Thailand, Miami, the Roman ruins at Leptis Magna and the Burning Man Festival in Nevada's Black Rock Desert. Dyer's interest in photography, already signalled in But Beautiful, The Missing of the Somme and Out of Sheer Rage, produced, in 2005, The Ongoing Moment, a revelatory tour of the medium, arranged not by personalities or movements but by threads of images: blind accordionists, people's backs, flights of stairs, drive-in movies, picket fences.

Even an overview as brief as this one hints at a paradox in Geoff Dyer's career. "My greatest urge in life is to do nothing," he declares in Out of Sheer Rage. "In Rome," he writes in Yoga for People Who Can't Be Bothered to Do It, "I lived in the grand manner of writers. I basically did nothing all day." How is it, we might ask, that a writer whose books so often seem a song of mooching around should be so gallingly industrious and productive?

Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi is the latest addition to this constantly surprising and engaging body of work. Geoff has said he was going to subtitle the book "A Diptych", but then drew back, worried that would be "too pretentious, even for me". But the novel is a game of two halves. In the first, fortysomething journalist Jeff Atman flies to Venice to write about the Biennale and interview an ex-model and ex-muse called Julia Berman. He goes to art shows and art parties, drinks bellinis with artists and art people, revels in "the accoutrements of Venice-ness - canals, palazzos, vaporetti, gondoliers" and sniffs cocaine off one of the little mirrors visitors use to view the Tintoretto ceilings in the church of San Rocco. Above all, he encounters a beautiful young American woman named Laura Freeman: "The important thing," Jeff knows, "was to say something, anything, to get the ball rolling. He looked at her but there was only one thing to say. If he said anything else it would be a lie, and since he couldn't say what he wanted to say - you're beautiful and unless you have a voice like David Beckham's I'm going to be in love with you in less than a minute - he said nothing."

Part Two, Death in Varanasi, is told in the first person by a journalist who may or may not be Jeff Atman. He flies to the holy city of Varanasi in India to write a travel piece for the Telegraph, settling into a small hotel called the Ganges View and wandering, visiting temples, listening to ragas on his iPod, forming loose traveller-attachments with other foreigners - Darrell, Laline, Sayoko, Isobel - and watching the cremations and death-rituals on the ghats or stairways that lead down into the river. He cancels his return flight as if to stay indefinitely: "Time passed, or maybe it didn't. All of time is here, in Varanasi, so maybe time cannot pass. People come and go, but time stays."

So where Venice had been laughter, libido, life-appetite, ascendancy, Varanasi is lassitude, diminishment, dying and decay, and the diptych of Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi suggests the deep contrary currents in which all of us swim.

Jeff Atman has a "torrent of grievances" tumbling constantly through his head. He carries with him "an inner rumble of discontent". Readers of Geoff Dyer's books may have heard this rumble before. Out of Sheer Rage is remarkable for, among other things, the musical virtuosity of its complaining. Moving between Rome, Alonissos, Sicily, Oxford, Oaxaca and New Mexico, and failing to write his study of D.H.Lawrence in all of them, the narrator refers to his hatred of - and this is only a partial list - the cost of living in Paris; the irrational closing times of shops in Italy; islands; "slithery things"; his girlfriend Laura's camera; sea-food ("vile filth which I will eat under no circumstances"); Oxford ("or Dullford, to give it its proper name"); the theatre; children; DIY; the literary theorist Julia Kristeva; and tuna - "a fish I detest more than all the other kinds of fish which I also detest".

But any reader of Geoff's books will know that this capacity to be dissatisfied with the world is only the corollary of his capacity to wonder at it. He can be disappointed by life only because he knows how much life has to offer. People, places, photographs, paintings and pastries; books, music, conversations and jokes; curiosity and friendship and love, and how, in Rome, "All I had to do to get a feel of the neighbourhood, the quartiere, was hold my hand under the cold tap. First the water was warmish, room temperature, then cooler, then warm, as the pipes climbed down the walls into the apartment, hot as they moved over the sun-baked roof, warm again as they descended on the other side, in shadow, becoming cooler, and then cold, lovely black-cold, as they disappeared below ground, into the past." "Life!" Jeff Atman thinks to himself in Venice. "So full of inconvenience, irritation, boredom and annoyance and yet, at the same time, so utterly fantastic. What an absolutely, sensationally brilliant planet it was!"

We Tend Towards Home

19 October 2016

The Bookshop Band wrote a beautiful song inspired by The Snow Geese called "We Tend Towards Home". You can hear Ben and Beth performing it here. Brilliant Sarah at the Ryedale Book Festival made it happen.

Body of Essays

03 April 2016

I wrote about the bowel for a BBC Radio 3 series called Body of Essays - you can listen to the broadcast here.

Remembering James Salter

24 June 2015

I wrote about James Salter for 1843 magazine here.

Folio Prize Speech

24 March 2015

I gave a short speech before announcing the winner of the 2015 Folio Prize yesterday:

Our Folio Prize shortlist is the result of months of reading and hours of passionate conversation. First the almost physiological challenge of getting through the 80 nominated titles, when we became machines for reading, combine harvesters gorging on sentences. A strange, trippy sensation - from one day to the next we might be reading books written in dystopian patois, blank verse or eleventh-century English, swooping through the lives of Montana social workers, art students in Weimar Germany, Christian missionaries on a distant planet. Children, soldiers, composers, dentists, bankers, ministers, vagabonds, this great humanity-pageant passing across the mind's eye - there were days when my head felt like a souk of other people's dreams.

With so many books arriving at the house in boxes, so many new flyleaf blurbs and dedication pages and Chapter Ones, it might have been easy to take the existence of books for granted, as if books simply irrupted into the world, the result of unconscious natural processes, like clouds, or spring. In fact, this period of intensive reading has refreshed my sense of wonder, not just about the enriching of our imaginative, intellectual and emotional lives made possible by books, but about what each individual book represents, the hundreds or thousands of hours of solitary concentration that lie behind it, the private campaign of thoughtfulness, the self-criticism, doggedness, perseverance and despair as well as the daring and elation.

So I feel, more than ever, gratitude for books. And special gratitude, this evening, for their books, to Ben Lerner, Ali Smith, Colm Toibin, Akhil Sharma, Miriam Toews, Rachel Cusk, Jenny Offill and Yvonne Owuor. It may be that, as parents think their own children are the special ones, so prize judges always think their shortlist is somehow exceptional. But this one really is. These eight novels explore vast themes - time, loss, belonging, war, solitude, marriage and family, the making and the mystery of art - with amazing vitality and grace. They're both epic and intimate - in fact, they show those dimensions to be two sides of the same coin. They've surprised, moved, challenged and enchanted us; they've made us laugh; they've grown and deepened when we read them again. It's easy to say something new, and it's easy to say something true, but to say something new and true takes a kind of wizardry. These books have it.

Thank you to Andrew Kidd, Kate Harvey, Suzy Lucas, Fiona McMorrow and the team behind the Folio Prize for being our shepherds and sometimes sherpas throughout this process. Thank you to Bob Gavron and the Folio Society for their commitment to the celebration and promotion of great writing. And thank you to my brilliant fellow jurors Rachel Cooke, Mohsin Hamid, A.M.Homes and Deborah Levy, for their diligence and insight and care. At every stage our conversations were passionate - passionate not just for individual books but for the whole enterprise and possibility of fiction.

Our only agenda was excellence. Our shortlist has boldness and experiment and a deep core commitment to human struggles, fervours and longings. The list reminds me that fiction is itself a work-in-progress, reaching out for new shapes and strategies. It's as if we're eavesdropping on a marvellous conversation about what the novel is and might be.