A life in writing
Something of a literary outlier
'I don't suppose there are many John Berger nuts who are also interested in the first world war, jazz and photography'
Interview by John Crace
Saturday 21 March 2009 00.01 GMT
art bad pun, part nod to Thomas Mann, from a writer who is known both as a stylist and for bleeding away the boundaries between the real and the imagined, the title of Geoff Dyer's latest novel, Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi, has to be making some kind of statement. But what?
Dyer appears puzzled by the suggestion, preferring a simple narrative explanation instead. He and his wife had been to the Venice Biennale in 2003, had been overwhelmed by the heat and intensity of the occasion, and he had wanted to write a fictional account of it. He quotes George Steiner's observation that, implicit in loving any book is the desire to write a response, though he qualifies this by acknowledging it was more the idea of Mann's Death in Venice as a universal template than the book itself to which he was responding.
"I think I've clearly highlighted it isn't me by calling him Jeff with a J," he says. But he didn't call him John, Jack or Jim, names that would have done away with any confusion from the start. And he does have form. Early on in his 2003 memoir-cum-travelogue, Yoga For People Who Can't be Bothered to Do It, which won the WH Smith travel book award, there is a reference to a Jeff, who is unmistakeably our Geoff.
"Really!" he says, laughing, completely unfazed and unrepentant at being caught out. "I'd forgotten that. So, I was playing with this kind of stuff back then. I must own up to having a fondness for my name! The blurring of fact and fiction is part of the fun, so of course there are parts of me in there.
"I could never write a book where the point-of-view character was a short person, because I just can't imagine what that's like. I do understand my limitations as a fiction writer, which is why my novels are always going to be close to home. But equally, there are lots of things about Jeff that aren't like me at all. The key to his pissed-offness is that he hasn't written any books; my life at least has the illusion of purpose."
But Jeff is still a writer ... You can go round in circles with this stuff. No sooner do you think you've got hold of Geoff than you find you're hanging on to Jeff. It's rather like talking to Dyer in person. From time to time he can blah on a bit, and just when you're thinking he takes himself a bit too seriously, he'll smile, make a few gags at his own expense and say, "Fuck me, that was a load of pretentious crap".
In a writing career - not a word Dyer likes to use - of more than 20 years, he has turned out four novels, including Jeff in Venice, a broad range of non-fiction on subjects as diverse as literary criticism, the first world war and photography that have been garlanded with literary prizes in the UK and the US, and he's also been rewarded with publishing's equivalent of a long-service medal - a collection of his reviews and essays.
His dustjackets are splattered with the sort of quotes from fellow authors you'd be quite happy to have on your gravestone. William Boyd calls him "a true original - one of those rare voices in contemporary literature that never ceases to surprise, disturb and delight"; Zadie Smith likens him to "a postmodern Kingsley Amis: a national treasure"; for David Lodge he is "pure pleasure" and so on.
Which presents a slight problem. Dyer is not an ingenu; he is now 50. Yet he is still something of a literary outlier. "Oh dear," he laughs, "I guess it's my unfailing eye for missing the boat and career self-destruction.
"When I started writing, the deal was that publishers gave you a grand or two as an advance to buy some sweets, with the promise that they would make a big putsch with your fourth book when you'd built up a bit of a following. But by the time my fourth book came out, previously unpublished authors were the new big thing."
The structure of the new novel is disconcerting. The first "Jeff in Venice" half is familiar Dyer territory: third-person male narrator, Jeff - much the same age and height as Dyer - goes to Venice for the Biennale, gets a bit wasted on drugs and booze and has an intense affair with an impossibly attractive, much younger American woman, Laura.
So for the "Death in Varanasi" sequence you're rather expecting some kind of resolution to Jeff and Laura's relationship. Instead, you get a first-person narrative from someone who may or may not be Jeff - it's never made explicit, though you rather assume he is - who accepts a travel writing gig to Varanasi and never comes back. And by the time you finally twig that Laura isn't going to reappear, that she's been left in mid-air, mid-book, it's hard not to feel a little cheated.
"With my usual unerring eye for commercial suicide," he says, "I originally wanted to subtitle the book 'A Diptych' to make clear the two stories were separate. But I was urged not to, and when I saw a mock-up of the front cover with the word 'diptych' on it, I thought, 'Oh God, that's too pretentious even for me'. So I agreed to knock it off. But I'm beginning now to wonder if I shouldn't have let it stand.
"When I sent a first draft to a friend in Canada," he says, "he advised me to make the connections between the two halves much more explicit. And my immediate response was, 'yes you're right', and I started rewriting it in that way. But then I thought, 'hold on, you've never been a big story-teller or plot maker, so why play to my weakness?' Rather than trying to solve the problem, I decided to do away with it and make the two halves distinct. So it's not clear whether the second half even chronologically follows the first or if it's the same person; just as everyone is an avatar of someone else in Hindu myth, so the characters are different incarnations of each other."
If you really want to get to grips with his authorial identity, Dyer himself suggests, you are better off thinking of each book as a small part of a larger whole that comprises the unity of the Dyer experience than as separate entities in themselves.
"If you just take me as a fiction writer, then you're probably going to find me fairly limited. I don't come up with great story lines and my three previous novels [The Colour of Memory (1989), The Search (1993) and Paris Trance (1998)] could all loosely be said to be about the same thing - a group of friends having a good time together."
Dyer calls The Colour of Memory "a bit of a mess, though with lyrical passages of which I remain quite fond", while The Search gets a brutal "it sank without trace".
While his fiction may feel a bit samey and lightweight, his non-fiction is anything but. As ever with Dyer, you have to issue a warning about possible category errors. Non-fiction for him is really just another location on the fiction continuum, and versions of Geoff/Jeff are as likely to turn up there as anywhere else; but, given this, the range of subject matter is prolifically diverse. And, unlike his fiction, there is no sense - apart from a lightness of touch and flashes of comedy - that you are getting a standard Dyer take on a subject. In Ways of Telling, Dyer took on John Berger, a literary hero whom he has gone on to outdo in the range of his output; The Missing of the Somme is a mini-masterpiece on memory and loss inspired by a chance visit to the first world war Thiepval Memorial; But Beautiful is a lyrical, offbeat homage to the jazz greats; Out of Sheer Rage manages to pull off the impossible - an engaging book on Dyer's failure to write a serious critique of DH Lawrence; Yoga for People Who Can't be Bothered to Do It is part-travelogue, part-memoir, part-history, and should by rights be a total mess but somehow hangs together; and in The Ongoing Moment he came up with a series of scholarly essays on photography that had professional snappers drooling in admiration despite Dyer's flip but frank admission that "he can't be bothered to take pictures himself when he goes abroad because it's too much effort".
As he admits, he's rather gone out of his way not to build a following. "I don't suppose there are many Berger nuts who are also interested in the first world war, jazz and photography. But I've always taken the view that I'll write what I want to write. Whenever a publisher asks me what I'm going to do next I say, 'Whatever the fuck I want.' After all, it's me that's going to be stuck indoors doing the hard work, so I might as well try and enjoy it."
So if someone suggested he do a book on tennis - Dyer plays as often as his increasingly wonky knees allow, and the hallway to his flat is stuffed with trainers and cans of balls - where he takes on Federer, Nadal and Murray, he'd turn it down on principle? "Er, as a matter of fact, I have proposed something like that already," he confesses.
This might offer his publisher and agent a chink of hope, but you can't help feeling that Dyer's determined anti-careerism will be making them a little anxious. After roughly 15 years of being published by Little, Brown, Jeff in Venice is his first outing for Canongate, and the idea behind the move must be to try to take him over the line from cult to mainstream. "Writers switch publishers the whole time. The reason I went to Canongate was that my American agent, who also represents Jeffrey Eugenides, told [Canongate publisher] Jamie Byng that 'Geoff' was thinking of moving publishers. Jamie thought he was in with a chance of getting Eugenides, and by the time he realised it was me it was too late to back out."
It's that old Geoff/Jeff thing again.
There's also the matter of what Dyer quite happily calls his "arrested development". Search through his books and you'll find barely a mention of children. "I've never had any desire either to have children or to write about them," he says. "The things that interest me now are pretty much the same things that interested me when I was in my early 20s." This could have restricted his development as a writer, but Dyer has made it work for him. On a practical level, he hasn't needed to sell out for a bigger advance as, without anyone else to worry about, he's been quite happy single-mindedly bumping along in the pursuit of the writer's life; and on an artistic level, he's had little interference to distract him.
Out of Sheer Rage, Dyer's non-book about DH Lawrence, is a case in point. It works so well precisely because he left it far too long to write the book that he originally wanted to write - a serious critique - that he ended up with an extremely funny and arguably even more serious book about the deadening effects on literature of the kind of leaden critical theory he had been planning to write. It's a book that only Dyer could have written; not just for its panache but because you can't imagine anyone else getting round to it. For him, it was a book he simply had to get out of his system. "Lawrence had always been a huge influence on me since university," he says. Apart from their explicit depictions of sex, it's hard to see too many parallels between the two; where Lawrence tends to the florid, intense and overwrought, Dyer is pared down, relaxed and comic. So what was the attraction? "Class."
Dyer comes across as the quintessential, slightly bohemian, north-London literary man. He talks softly, with a vaguely classless, metropolitan accent, and his Camden flat has all the accessories - wood floors and joss sticks - you'd associate with the alternative middle-class. "Yes," he smiles. "There's something about coming from Cheltenham that makes everyone snigger and think of a refined gentility.
"But my father was a sheet-metal worker and my mother was a school dinner lady and hospital cleaner. Don't get me wrong, I'm not claiming to be from the wrong side of the tracks; we were a perfectly respectable, hard-working family. But we were poor: I was just one of those working-class boys who did well out of the grammar school system and went to Oxford.
"Oxford was the perfect grounding for becoming a writer," he says, tongue in cheek. "With no lectures and just one tutorial per week, I got used to the idea of only doing what I wanted when I wanted. So living in Brixton, signing on the dole and trying to get by doing reviews for City Limits felt like a natural segue; I'm not sure how happy my parents were about it, mind."
His reinvention has certainly paid off. He spent most of the 1990s abroad - France, the US and all destinations between - in pursuit of misery and muses, but this century he's been an almost ever-present figure on the London literary scene. His address book drips with writerly celebs, he's not shy of the odd party - "It's a lot more fun than staying at home or going to the pub, and the conversation's a lot better" - and his reviewing has lost some of its sharpness now he's one of the great and the good. "You can only review a friend's book if you really like it," he says a little awkwardly. "If you write and say you hate it, you can't really remain friends with them."
You'd think, then, that Dyer was now pretty much where he'd always wanted to be. "Not really," he says. "I'd really like to be living in California. Ever since I first went there in my 20s I've felt I was born to be a West Coast writer. I just love it there and have fantasies about hanging out with Dave Eggers. I feel I'd notice things there, that I just don't here. In London, I'm just one of the crowd, staring at the ground, moaning and groaning."
What's keeping him here, then? "My wife, Rebecca," he says gloomily. "She's got a good job here and really doesn't fancy moving to America." But what about the For Sale sign outside the flat? "It's only an incremental move to Islington or Clerkenwell. You should never underestimate the power of inertia."
Not that you would count on inertia winning out indefinitely. A self-confident, single-minded only child with precious little baggage, Dyer is used to living by his own rules - both as a writer and in his everyday life - and to getting what he wants. He hasn't made too many compromises so far, and you can't see him making too many in the future. And even the ones he has made, he regrets.
"An editor said that one of the sex scenes in Paris Trance made him feel a bit queasy and would I take it out?" he says. "I reluctantly agreed, but I should have been a little bolder, a little more fearless."
When I get back to the office there's an email from Dyer. "I'd rather you didn't go into details of the sex scene I cut. My parents will probably read this, and I don't want to upset them." Whatever happened to bold and fearless?
Dyer on Dyer
"Laura's flight was at two in the afternoon. It was eleven in the morning now. He lay on her bed, head aching, holding a tissue to his bleeding nostril, watching her pack. The white dress, the red and gold one she had bought in Laos, the navy blue dress - all were folded neatly into her wheelie. It was like an awful inversion of a striptease but it was worse than that too, like watching her prepare things to take with her into the afterlife - the after-Venice life, the after-him life - and leaving him for dead."
This comes towards the end of the Venice part of the book, set during the 2003 Biennale. The bleeding nose is not the result of a fight but of excessive partying which Laura can take in her stride but which has proved a bit much for Jeff - he's not Mann enough, as a friend joked. They only met in Venice three nights previously and already time is running out. It also sets the scene for the second part of the book when Atman is sort of reincarnated in Varanasi. The two parts are connected not by plot but by dozens of little chimes and echoes.