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leyla

Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi

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Posted in two sections as too long for one.

 

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.'

 

And:

 

'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 ****ed 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.

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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.

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Leyla, what a perfect review.

 

Geoff Dyer seduces me with each book, and this one was no different. Like any second-rate, lazy columnist he plunders his own life for his writings; but unlike them he makes his experiences and his reactions to them transformative. And funny.

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Thanks so much for the lovely words, brightphoebus. I agree, Dyer is so intelligent and funny that reading anything he's written is a joy. He also manages to be completely down-to-earth without ever becoming earnest or losing his acidic wit.

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I enjoyed this one as well. It's my first experience at the hands of Dyer and found his writing style very smooth. "Smooth" is very much the word. I felt like the words simply dripped from the page into my head. It was so easy to read even though the themes and ideas he presents are far from simple.

 

I enjoyed the first part of the book a lot more than the second. Not to say that the second part was weaker, just very different. It never occurred to me that the character in the second part might not be Jeff! Plus the ending was far to abstract for my liking, yet still interesting. I still find myself pondering over it a few books down the line from it.

The way it is written wins the day though. I'm pretty sure that if Dyer authored the phone book he could make it enjoyable.

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I'm pretty sure that if Dyer authored the phone book he could make it enjoyable.

 

Krey20, your quip gets it in one. I think the reason he turns his hand so successfully to writing about such a wide range of subjects is as much down to his talent with words as his undoubtedly broad interests. I like your phrase about the words dripping from the page into your head, it captures well the lack of effort required in reading someone as entertaining as Dyer - they just trickle effortlessly from his pen managing to be funny and erudite simultaneously.

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Krey20, your quip gets it in one. I think the reason he turns his hand so successfully to writing about such a wide range of subjects is as much down to his talent with words as his undoubtedly broad interests. I like your phrase about the words dripping from the page into your head, it captures well the lack of effort required in reading someone as entertaining as Dyer - they just trickle effortlessly from his pen managing to be funny and erudite simultaneously.
He was the same when I saw him in person a couple of weeks ago chairing a talk about Kapuschinski. He was able to bring in spontaneous references and analogies that informed and extended the discussion, and with such a light touch too. He's funny! He's clever! He's definitely one for the fantasy dinner party guest list.

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He's funny! He's clever! He's definitely one for the fantasy dinner party guest list.

He's also highly attractive in his photo. Dammit, the man has it all.

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I received this book for Christmas and just finished it. I am not very good about forcing myself to keep reading a book I don't enjoy, so I obviously enjoyed it enough to finish it. And it wasn't a chore. But that being said, I can't really say why I enjoyed it. That makes me think that it was the quality of the writing rather than the story itself.

 

The divided story line doesn't really bother me. I thought the second narrator was still Jeff and that these were two vastly different experiences that he had had. And I thought they were fairly close together--first, he went to Venice and not long after, he went to Varanasi.

I thought there was a little delay because he wasn't obsessing over Laura anymore, which made me think that it was just a Venice affair that he was sorry hadn't turned into anything more.

 

 

If I try to think of the thread that connects the two, it seems that Venice was all indulgence. He had one job to do

and he didn't really get it done because he decided to get stoned with the interviewee instead.

He went to parties, had sex, took drugs, everything he could just to give himself pleasure. And, it sort of made him happy. But it seems that even he can see that this is just too much. He couldn't live that way all the time.

 

The Varanasi time was all about losing the desire for pursuing pleasure. And he seems contented, sort of. But even he can see that it's too little. He's wasting away physically, to the point that his friends are concerned about him. And he's wasting away emotionally as well. By the end, he seems just not to care about very much. I kept thinking that he needed to get out of there quickly, never so much as at the very end, where he seemed to have completely lost himself.

 

So that's the most I can come up with thematically. The writing was beautiful. There were parts where I laughed out loud and other parts where I found his descriptions and particularly his imagery and metaphors to be very powerful. At the end, he said there were some unacknowledged quotes in the text and I often found that those had been my favorites, particularly "darkness was hidden by darkness," to describe the Ganges at night. That's from The Rig Veda, which I doubt I will ever read even though I loved the image.

 

I am afraid that the second half of this book cemented my current ambition, started by watching "Slumdog Millionare" and reading White Tiger to never visit India.

 

I will probably try to read his other books because I enjoy him as a writer. That's what I've been doing with William Boyd since reading Any Human Heart.

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I am afraid that the second half of this book cemented my current ambition, started by watching "Slumdog Millionare" and reading White Tiger to never visit India.

I spent a couple of days in Delhi (my frist visit to India) about a fortnight before watchind Slumdog Millionaire. I'm afraid SM was far closer to my experience of what India was really like than anything else I have read or seen. I don't expect to visit India again in the near future. I won't say never, but there are other places that are higher up in my list of priorities including Chad.

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"I am afraid that the second half of this book cemented my current ambition, started by watching "Slumdog Millionare" and reading White Tiger to never visit India."

 

I don't agree. This is not how I experienced it. I loved this book and it made me long to return to India. It brought back so many memories of my visits to India and expressed the contradictions of that extraordinary country so beautifully. Dyer has an extraordinary facility with language : he captures the essence of a place and makes it alive. I had great sympathy with his experience in Varanasi. I suppose you could say he was in danger of "going native" having stayed too long and his body was protesting. But he had imbibed that marvellous Indian attitude, as a result of his long stay there, of letting things happen, not manipulating events, just going with the flow. I have never been in India more than a month at a time, but I could empathise with and envy Dyer's experience.

 

The first half, Jeff in Venice, did not mean as much to me as the second. But I enjoyed reading it greatly and was overwhelmed by the sex scenes. I could not read this part with the equanimity and enjoyment that I did the Varanasi part. Here I savoured every word and was sad when I reached the end. I shall now read all of Dyer's previous books. I agree with the correspondent who compared it to reading William Boyd's "Any Human Heart". For me too that was a book I couldn't put down and led me to read all his previous books.

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    • By leyla
      This isn't a novel but a book of essays. Wasn't sure where the best category was for it.
       
      Last year I was discussing favourite writers with a male pal called Ian. I mentioned Dyer's work and Ian looked doubtful. He expressed the opinion that Dyer seemed often to brag about what a great life he had. I didn't recognise the brilliant, acerbic, witty writer I admire in this description.
       
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      'It was the first free lunch I'd ever had, even though it wasn't really a lunch, just some disgusting sandwiches on white bread smeared with too much butter. I thought I was going to be sick, partly because of all this rancid butter and pink ham, but mainly because this pink-faced deputy boss was a rancid old bore. He told some stories he had reheated hundreds of times before.'
       
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      I came away from the volume wishing I had just received it and could read it fresh all over again. Dyer may, by his own admission, be someone that avoids mundane or non-pleasurable work but that's to his readers' great advantage. Roll on the next volume.
       
      *****
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