How Dare He?
- Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi by Geoff Dyer
Canongate, 295 pp, £12.99, April 2009, ISBN 978 1 84767 270 4
‘I had envied them sometimes,’ Geoff Dyer writes in Out of Sheer Rage, his 1997 book about D.H. Lawrence. ‘Those in work, those with jobs. Especially on a Friday night when, relieved that it was over for another week, they could down tools and look forward to two days of uninterrupted idleness.’ He’s sitting in hot sunshine outside a café in Taormina, supposedly researching his subject’s ‘savage pilgrimage’ but actually getting on with what turns out to be the book’s real business, which is to obsess at length about what he himself, writer, flâneur, free-floating stoner, is supposedly doing with his life. He envies them sometimes, ‘those with jobs’, because unlike him they have a structure to fit into, a way of staving off anxiety and depression; maybe, when the suitboys go to Taormina, they really can relax. Whereas Dyer can only sit there with his Coca-Cola, fretting about writing this ‘half-arsed book’. If writers need to be ‘interested in everything’ – as Susan Sontag once said – when do they ever get time off?
Loafing, getting stoned, hanging about on sun-kissed café terraces: for most people, such things are rare, and about the best that life can offer (Dyer also writes, frequently and unruffledly, about sex, usually but not always with ‘my girlfriend’). Writers, on the other hand, are well known to get more than their fair share of such bounty: it’s one of the things for which the world admires them, and/or envies them, and/or hates their guts. And writers don’t often discuss how it feels to hold such freedom, though travelling, idling, quasi-colonial carousing surely contributes as much to literature now as it ever did. Dyer, however, writes about it all the time, in his novel of 1980s Brixton and in the one set in Oberkampf in the 1990s, and in his photography book and in his jazz book, and in the one about John Berger he did in 1986, as he was starting out. He writes, often, about romance and glamour and pleasure and excitement. Even more, he writes about listlessness and ambivalence and prevarication, the digressions and distractions that seem to stop him getting anything done.
Dyer was born in Cheltenham in 1958, and formed in what he has called ‘the aristocracy of welfare dependence’ – grammar school, Oxford on a grant, the easy-if-you’re-young-and-single 1980s dole. So he’s well read and fittingly self-conscious, aware that the unease he feels is not his alone, but one of the classic modernist positions. He’d like to be ‘no more than a single human man’, in the words of his hero, DHL, but somehow finds himself more like Kierkegaard’s unhappiest one, completely unable to inhabit the present moment; and his writing follows him, forking into self-contradiction, kinking up in the middle, sliding out from underfoot. Except he doesn’t do it in the classically modernist aphoristic way, but as something lighter, quippier: ‘In my experience, the thing about life-changing experiences is that they wear off surprisingly quickly,’ he observes in Jeff in Venice. ‘Nine times out of ten, in fact, it’s precisely the life-changing experience that enables you to come to terms with the unchangingness of your own life.’ Arriving in Varanasi, he walks calmly, ‘trying to look as if I had been here for weeks, was no stranger to lepers, was in no hurry to see bodies being burned at Manikarnika ghat’; only ‘that’s where I was hurrying, to see bodies being burned. (On arriving in a new place, it’s no bad thing to simply do what everyone else does.)’ The timing and rhythm have the flippancy of stand-up comedy. The voice has Eeyore in it, and Morrissey and Victor Meldrew, and could only be English and from that postwar, post-punk generation, with its never-before-or-since education, and opportunities for buying stuff, and unmistakeable spoilt-brat whine.