The English writer Geoff Dyer’s books defy formal classification when considered singly and defy generalization when considered together, or so the critical commonplace has it. “Geoff Dyer is the least categorisable of writers,” says The Spectator. “Give him a genre and he’ll bend it; pigeonhole him and he’ll break out.” The Evening Standard calls him “the kind of writer who cannot sit still for a moment, changing direction constantly between projects—and sometimes right in the middle of one.” The biography on the jacket of Dyer’s last few books has described him a bit confusingly as the author of “three novels, a critical study of John Berger, and three [or four or five, whichever was the case at the time] genre-defying books.” Just which of his books are included in this group is not clear, but the most likely candidates are The Missing of the Somme (on public memorials of the Great War and the nature of the memory they have engendered, 1994), But Beautiful: A Book About Jazz (1996), Out of Sheer Rage: Wrestling with D. H. Lawrence (1998), Yoga for People Who Can’t Be Bothered to Do It (essays with leitmotifs, 2003), The Ongoing Moment (a survey of photography, 2005), and Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi (2009).
The critical consensus on Dyer’s books—unconventional, diverse—largely ignores their underlying conviction: a belief in the unity of the arts, in all forms of art as the product of the artist’s communion with his or her artistic precursors. Credos are hidden in plain sight. In The Ongoing Moment Dyer compares the contemporary receptions of the photographer Robert Frank’s The Americans and the alto saxophonist Ornette Coleman’s Shape of Jazz to Come:
Frank’s pictures share with Coleman’s music the need to explore formal boundaries by doing away with them. The objections to the free jazz ushered in by Coleman can easily be carried over to Frank, whose work was judged, by traditional standards, to be unframed, uncomposed. In the late 1950s Coleman’s music was revolutionary, unprecedented. Listening to it now we can hear, quite clearly, that it is drenched in the blues that the saxophonist had heard growing up in Fort Worth, Texas. It’s the same with Frank.
Dyer’s main subject is the discovery of aesthetic affiliations—a kind of organized synesthesia. So while his work may appear “unprecedented,” this appearance could not be further from the truth. Precedents, and predecessors, abound.
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The act of teasing out these affiliations consumes the attention Dyer might otherwise devote to creating fictional universes. His narrators, whether first- or third-person, are of a piece. And not only with each other. What we learn about them seems too close to what we know or assume about Dyer himself for us not to identify them with him.
This identification, one suspects, is by design; they sound just like him, or just like we think he sounds. Although they are not named Geoff (only one is Jeff, which, as any Geoff will tell you, is not at all the same thing), neither are they given other names or attributes incompatible with what little we know about Dyer from outside sources. The Dyer narrator is mischievously gonzo yet hypochondriacal, judgmental yet skeptical, intellectual yet incurious, competitive yet self-deprecating. He is a comedian with no instinct for laughter, a hedonist with an ascetic streak, a peripatetic who longs to be on his couch at home watching a British Premier League game on “telly.” Like many a traveling Englishman before him, he is a connoisseur of discomfiture and dissatisfaction, a man of the world whose world is not his oyster but rather a clam of suspect freshness. Unlike them, however, the Dyer narrator takes some of the blame for his unhappiness and seeks to remedy it, assuming a stoical determination or, when this effort eludes him, getting high. This self-critical spirit, gameness, and a disarming directness of address make him a companionable and apparently trustworthy reporter.
The moment when Dyer declares that he is resigned to his existential failure is the one in which we see that this failure is staged, a mock confession.
But the more we read, the harder it is to overlook a basic distinction between the narrators whom we are invited to think of as Geoff Dyer and Geoff Dyer himself. Even in essays, the Dyer narrator is an underachiever whose sense of failure and self-betrayal cannot be stilled by the pleasures of sex, drugs, and travel to primo party destinations such as Haad Rin and Black Rock City. “I have achieved very little in my life,” one of these says to himself in Amsterdam, the shrooms he’s forcing down his gullet preventing him saying it aloud. Another, the narrator of “The Rain Inside,” recalls an extended period of serial distraction that makes him sound like a model for Kierkegaard’s description of the aesthetic stage:
My days were made up of impulses that could never become acts. Ten hours was not enough to get anything done because it wasn’t really ten hours, it was just billions of bits of time, each one far too small to do anything with.
Geoff Dyer himself, the 51-year-old author of eleven books, the editor of a few more, a seasoned, adventurous journalist who has flown in a Russian supersonic fighter jet and gone on safari, has “achieved very little” only by the standards of an inconceivably exclusive pantheon.
This discrepancy between the writer and his personae indicates that the work is in good measure invented. Still it is better, as in more interesting and enjoyable—and, at least in this sense, truer or more faithful to the work—to defer our awareness of the fictive elements in Dyer’s nonfiction. This is just what an apparently confessional essay such as “Decline and Fall” leads us to do. “In Rome I lived in the grand manner of writers,” it begins. “I basically did nothing all day. Not a thing.” It ends with him sitting at the Campidoglio and reflecting:
I had been drifting for years, and now—like the lone cloud we’d seen at Hadrian’s Villa—I had drifted to a standstill. I may not have admitted it at the time—if that afternoon was a turning point, then I responded as one invariably does at such moments, by failing to turn—but at some level I knew that I had been kidding myself: that all the intellectual discipline and ambition of my earlier years had been dissipated by half-hearted drug abuse, indolence, and disappointment, that I lacked purpose and direction and had even less idea of what I wanted from life now than I had when I was twenty or thirty even, that I was well on the way to becoming a ruin myself, and that that was fine by me.
The moment at which Dyer declares that he is resigned to his existential failure—“that was fine by me”—is the one in which we see, as if in a simulated intimation of the Lacanian real, that this failure is staged and that what we have been reading is a kind of fiction, a mock confession à la Rousseau. Maybe our sympathy for a man in crisis is transferred in the aftermath to the character that man has drawn, and maybe that sympathy is mixed with admiration for the artistic feat the man has pulled off. But no matter how this change in our understanding of the nature of what we have been reading may change the experience we have had of it, it is clear that Dyer finds such reversals enabling. As playwrights write against type, he writes against form.
In The Missing of the Somme, the required self-consciousness is attributed to the subject rather than the narrator. Contending that the First World War was being memorialized even as it was being waged, that soldiers reacted to their experience in the trenches by imagining how they would remember it or how they themselves would be remembered, Dyer finds not only in the poetry that came out of the war but also in its memorial sculpture the kind of self-referentiality typically associated with works of modernism. His generation does not “remember” the Great War, but in the way that its monuments are seen to enact their own intended memorial function, the war remembers itself, and has been doing so all along: “The most common form of sculpture—a soldier, head bowed, leaning on his downward-pointed rifle—actually represents the self-contained ideal of remembrance: the soldier being remembered and the soldier remembering,” he writes. “Sculptures like this appeal to—and are about—the act of remembrance itself: a depiction of the ideal form of the emotion which looking at them elicits.”
It is not only because the past has fled that art cannot capture it, but also because the artistic moment is by nature anticipatory, because in the act of being rendered the scene is temporally thrust toward the world in which it will be frozen. This idea is carried over from The Missing of the Somme to The Ongoing Moment, in which figures in classic photographs are taken to be surrogates for the photographer, representing the photographer’s desire to be, or at least to join the world of, the depicted. Of the caped figure walking toward the camera in Alfred Stieglitz’s The Street, Fifth Avenue, 1900-01, Dyer remarks:
Even he must have had an inkling of the way that ‘now’ becomes ‘then.’ When he crossed the street and passed the man with the camera, he would surely have glanced back to see what the picture looked like, only to discover that the very thing—himself—that defined it as a picture, a moment, was no longer there.
A similar feeling, of being outside their own music, haunts the canonical jazzmen in career-twilight who are evoked in But Beautiful. Dyer imagined the scenes from photographs, which “are . . . to be listened to as well as looked at; the better the photograph, the more there is to hear.” When he has Ben Webster think:
something about the ink-blue sky, the light showing through the trees, and the long slow yawn of the Thames passing beneath it all—even as you looked it felt like a memory, like something from the past you were telling folks about,
Dyer describes what may be a memory of his own in prose suggestive of the melancholy of Webster’s tenor saxophone. Even as Dyer does this, Webster retains the absence from his own experience that characterizes the photographed subject.
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Dyer started out as a student if not a disciple of John Berger, about whom he wrote his first book, in 1986. It is a laudatory, dissertation-like study called Ways of Telling, a play on Ways of Seeing, the 1970s BBC television series on the history of painting for which Berger—and through him, the ideas of Walter Benjamin—may be best known in Britain.
In 2001 Dyer edited Berger’s Collected Essays. Prolific and intellectually formidable, Berger is one of the few modern renaissance men who can hold his own with the Renaissance men. It may be from studying him that Dyer comes by his sense of underachievement—compared to Berger, everyone is a layabout. At once a nonconformist and a communitarian, Berger has excelled as a painter, fiction writer, essayist, and theorist and critic of practically every form of Western art. He has also collaborated with the photographer Jean Mohr on groundbreaking books on labor in rural Europe and with the director Alain Tanner on films about the attempt to effect radical political change locally in the face of a global capitalism.
In his eclecticism and unconventionality, Dyer has followed in his master’s footsteps. But in at least one significant regard, he has deviated from them: whereas the political is given no explicit place in Dyer’s work, Berger has been, throughout his career, a committed Marxist. This commitment has given its impetus to everything he has done, both as an artist and critic. His praise and condemnation ring with a revolutionary’s authority.
Discussing Berger’s narrative method in G., the 1972 Booker Prize winner regarded as a milestone in postwar British fiction, Dyer says that the novel’s
conspicuous modernism is less an abandonment of realist principles than an attempt to achieve a Marxist modernism that represents both a higher stage in the evolution of broadly defined realism and a formal resolution of the problem of commitment. The distinction between realism and other modes of expression, Berger writes in Art and Revolution, ‘can only be made in a given historical context by reckoning the possible complexity of any imaginable totality at that moment. Realism is not a fixed measure but a variable and comparative achievement.’
Berger’s aim in G., Dyer says, is to render dramatic action as historical process, to transmit an idea of the represented social order not as synchronically fixed, as novels typically do, but as contingent. To this end Berger fractures his narrative: the viewpoint in G. shifts from one paragraph to the next; dialogue and description converge to give us a materialist perspective on character instead of a private, psychological one; the boundaries of the story are transgressed to call our attention to what lies beyond them or to the accidents by which they have been drawn. The narration breaks off mid-scene (“I cannot continue this account . . . . To stop here, despite all that I leave unsaid, is to admit more of the truth than will be possible if I bring the account to a conclusion. The writer’s desire to finish is fatal to the truth. Unity must be established in another way”), then resumes with the same intensity—an intensity that, as the relation of G.’s plot is regularly interrupted and its characterizations resist our attachment, is sustained by the dynamism of its images. These are described not in the painterly language of the classic realist novel but in unadorned, direct terms appropriate to the description of a photograph. “A photograph,” Berger says elsewhere:
whilst recording what has been seen, always and by its nature refers to what is not seen . . . . Photography has no language of its own. One learns to read photographs as one learns to read footprints or cardiograms. The language in which photography deals is the language of events. All its references are external to itself.
Or, as Roland Barthes puts it: “Whatever it grants to vision and whatever its manner, a photograph is always invisible: it is not it that we see.”
Some of Dyer’s genre-defying books seem to come straight out of a final dictum: ‘the best readings of art are art.’
Berger’s “higher stage” of realism defies the conventions of the ostensibly lower, mimetic variety, the typical novelistic devices. His reflexive and imagistic narrative mode conjures images that, alluding to conditions outside the images’ frame, bespeak the subjectivity to such conditions of those within the frame. Berger’s ideological commitment leads him to work in this mode. Dyer has no such commitment, but has absorbed the aesthetics that go with it and in his characteristically improvisational, unprogrammatic manner adapted them to his own needs and abilities. But since aesthetics and ideology are not easily disjoined, Dyer’s emblematic “genre-defiance” is not only postmodern high concept or arty reversion to the aims of the nouveau roman, but an unlikely species of engagement.
“All art is also criticism,” Dyer says in the afterword to But Beautiful:
This is most clearly so when a writer or composer quotes or reworks material from another writer or composer. All literature, music, and art [says George Steiner] ‘embody an expository reflection on, a value judgment of, the inheritance and context to which they pertain.’ In other words it is not only in their letters, essays, or conversation that writers like Henry James reveal themselves also to be the best critics; rather, The Portrait of a Lady is itself, among other things, a commentary on and a critique of Middlemarch. ‘The best readings of art are art.’ (Emphasis in original.)
Some of Dyer’s genre-defying books—if not the defiance itself—seem to come straight out of, or down to, this final dictum. But Beautiful views the history of jazz as cumulative, like that of mathematics: “Every time [a saxophonist] picks up his horn he cannot avoid commenting, automatically and implicitly, even if only through his own inadequacy, on the tradition that has laid this music at his feet.”
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This brings us to Dyer’s newest, Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi—seemingly the plainest case in point. If the identity of art and criticism is displayed “most clearly . . . when a writer or composer quotes or reworks material from another writer or composer,” then his novel’s references to Thomas Mann’s novella prepare us to agree. A few similarities between Dyer’s jaded journalist, Jeff Atman—whose last name apparently means something like “soul” or “universal self” in Sanskrit—and Mann’s writer, Gustave Aschenbach, invite us to read Dyer’s book with Mann’s Death in Venicein mind.
After getting his hair dyed for the first time—as does Mann’s till-then dignified Aschenbach late in the novella—Atman goes to Venice for the Biennale, hits the meta installations and parties as Aschenbach hits the beach and hotel dining room. Jeff falls for the Californian soubrette, Laura, as Aschenbach falls for Tadzio, a prepubescent Adonis embodying the formal beauty to the pursuit of which in writing Aschenbach has sacrificed himself:
He turned and ran back against the water, churning the waves to a foam, his head flung high. The sight of this living figure, virginally pure and austere, with dripping locks, beautiful as a tender young god, emerging from the depths of sea and sky, outrunning the element—it conjured up mythologies, it was like a primeval legend, handed down from the beginning of time, of the birth of form, of the origin of the gods.
But Atman has made no such sacrifice to art or anything else for that matter. It is 2009 instead of 1911, and—this is one of the few things we know about her—Laura is of age. Champagne bellinis are followed by sex, more bellinis, coke on a yacht, and more sex. The Biennale ends, and the lovers go their separate ways. Death will be reserved, as the title indicates, for Varanasi, the Venice of the East. One of the book’s epigraphs, from Allen Ginsberg’s Indian Journals, makes this comparison explicit: “Huge walls & towers & rocks & balconies—a prospect along the bend of the river like Venice along Grand Canal or seen from Judecca—finally to Manikarnika burning ghat . . .”
All the ‘not mattering’ in Jeff in Venice emerges as the point, the indifference in the narration figuring heavily in the conception of protagonist.
It’s Part Two. The phone rings. A Telegraph editor wants the narrator to go to Varanasi to write a travel piece. Dramatic pretenses this thin do not come along every day, but thinness is evidently the point: “There was nothing I had to do in London in the coming week . . . . So I said yes, OK, I’d go,” and, as if a gondolier had taken a wrong turn on his way from the Lido, we are there. This narrator may or may not be Jeff Atman. We are not told, and it does not seem to matter. Nor does it matter that he does not write the article, that he just stays on and on in Varanasi—as Aschenbach stays on in Venice—drinking lassis, haunting the ghats, being paddled on the Ganges and ultimately bathing in it: “Since there would come a time when I had bathed in the Ganges, not doing so made no sense: like trying to avoid doing something I had already done.”
The narrator’s junket becomes a retreat, then a vigil; illness takes hold of him as he loses his will and detachedly observes his own enfeeblement, more like the tubercular Hans Castorp in The Magic Mountain at this point than like Aschenbach. “My cough had not got better,” Dyer’s narrator reports near the end, “but I had grown so used to it that I scarcely gave it a thought. Coughing was just a form of breathing, a slightly noisier function of being alive.” All this not mattering emerges as the point, if it is not contradictory to say so. The indifference in the narration comes to figure so heavily in the conception of the protagonist that at the novel’s climax he becomes its personification:
I really don’t want to come on like someone what has gone through rehab or undergone a conversion or awakening. All I’m saying is that in Varanasi I no longer felt like I was waiting. There waiting was over. I was over. I had taken myself out of the equation.
Jeff in Venice is a response to Mann’s novella, certainly; but the specific references and correspondences that Dyer includes are cute before they are anything else. Where Jeff in Venice actually stands as a criticism of its “inheritance and context” is in its portrayal of contemporary Venice, the Venice of the Biennale. Mann’s Venice is contaminated by cholera and by the conspiratorial silence maintained to keep the tourists from fleeing, but the city is given a mythic aura that endows the rising epidemic with something of the status of a curse. Dyer’s Venice is by comparison banal. It is just another setting in which the art world can stuff its collective face:
And then the doors to the gallery itself opened. This was it! The risotto, obviously, was now being served. There was an amazing stampede as people seized on the idea that the risotto moment was imminent. Jeff . . . surged up the steps and found himself in the galleries, confronted not by vats of creamy risotto but art, paintings and sculptures from the glorious heyday of modernism . . . when it was impossible to believe that there would come a time when all people cared about was free risotto to mop up all the free bellinis they’d been swilling in the garden. Like a flood, the crowd of people kept finding new levels within the building. Suddenly Jeff was out on the terrace, faced with the back of Marino Marini’s statue of a guy on a horse . . . ‚Ä®with a kind of turd-tail sticking out of its bronze bottom. The rider’s arms were stretched out horizontally, crucified by air or, perhaps, by the splendour of the view of the Grand Canal. As Jeff squeezed past he saw that, just as his mount had this stiff little tail at the back, so the rider had a stiff little dick sticking out at the front. He had no opportunity to ponder the significance of these details. Such was the intensity of the search for risotto that, within minutes, the terrace was jammed solid . . . . Jeff manoeuvered his way to the drinks table, where he spotted Ben.
“He had no opportunity to ponder the significance of these details”: how many other writers would have written that line or, if they had, would have kept it? It does exactly what most writers avoid, perhaps with good reason: deliberately diminish their own authority. Other writers would ponder the significance of the details in an aside, since they have the time that Atman is said not to have. Or they would ponder it and attribute this reflection to Atman in retrospect. Or they would say nothing and leave this significance for the reader to ponder. The effect of not doing any of these things—of adding, as Dyer does, a line that communicates nothing about an otherwise closely observed scene—is to take us out of the scene and render the narrative status of the passage less certain, a bit like Berger in G. The line suggests that the narrator may have had this very experience, that he is really talking about himself and since he did not have time then to ponder the significance of the details, Atman, who is just a stand-in, will not either, ever. This is tricky because Atman does not look too good in this scene; he is an appetitive boor, and it is the narrator who earlier in the passage has made him look this way.
And as the man behind the narrator reminds us, even the most straightforward factual account is artificial, designed. He proceeds by subverting the forms of ideas or relations, by breaking their frames or undermining their boundaries, whether spatial or temporal, as soon as they become perceptible to him. He responds to the activity of his own intellect, to thoughts and images, as he responds to artistic objects, particularly photographs: by projecting his mind beyond them, toward their external references. It is a Bergerian reflex, developed from an ambition to see the world anew. But it is a hard way to exercise a sensibility. Another part of Geoff Dyer’s mind yearns to be steadier, to abide longer within the boundaries of impressions. Which is where the risotto is—or would have been, had there ever been any.