Geoff Dyer’s new novel, Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi, has received a lot of attention, much of it positive, some not so. A pairing of two novellas that may or may not feature the same character — if not exactly the same, they are similar enough — it is a tale of two cities, two cultures, two worlds and, well, two modes of existence. The first part is typical Dyer, a delightfully self-deprecating travelogue through the 2003 Venice Bieniale: parties, coke, colorful sex, with a little art (or at least names of artists) thrown in. The second part also follows a hack London journalist on an extended trip abroad, this time to the Indian holy city of Varanasi. There, as in Venice, he hangs out with fellow visitors, observes and, to an increasing degree, immerses himself (including, literally, in the Ganges), but here he is no tourist driven by physical, superficial urges; Varanasi actually begins to exert a different kind of control. Although beautiful women come through, the narrator seems both less affected by them and less attractive to them; nothing happens — but, of course, something is happening: His own need for sex, even human attachment, diminishes the more he falls into the local praxis and away from his own, and indeed away from himself (or, at any rate, the self he has known). In the end, beautifully evoked by Dyer, the narrator fades Aschenbach-like into a kind of death, a kind of birth. JIV, DIV invokes in its first sentence both “the invasion of Iraq” and in the character of Atman, “soul” or “vital principle.” For all the silliness that follows, Dyer’s intent is serious, ands he may have written the imperfectly perfect book for our time, treating cultural divisions at play in the world today with an engaging mix of comedy and tragedy, angst and acceptance. Dyer spoke to the Weekly via e-mail from his home in London.
L.A. WEEKLY: As you’ve noted, the book carried the word diptych on the cover up until publication, when you removed it because you felt it seemed pretentious. Define the word in the context of the book, and/or vice versa.
GEOFF DYER: Borrowing something from one art form and relocating it in another always has a whiff of pretension about it, like in books if instead of “Chapter One” you have “First Movement.” I felt the D word was almost allowable in this context because of the art-world connection. The book is definitely a diptych in that it comprises two parts hinged in the middle, and neither part really makes sense on its own. Or, to alter the metaphor a bit, the two parts lean on each other: Take one away and the other collapses. The key thing about the book and its structure is all the little chimes and echoes between the parts. Part of the fun of reading it is spotting these, so if people read the Venice part again after reading the Varanasi part, it becomes a quite different experience — i.e., it’s not all coke and sex and bingeing — because quite a lot of the apparently irrelevant details acquire an extra resonance.
Does it matter whether the never-named London journalist in Varanasi is the London journalist Jeff Atman in Venice? Why or why not? It’s clear from a comment you’ve made — that in an earlier draft of the book you explained what happened to Laura, the American woman Atman meets in Venice — that it is Atman. But by focusing on this little mystery, as so many readers are, what are they/we missing?
It’s important to me that his identity is never definitively established. The author can neither confirm nor deny the identity of this operative. I like books that contain diagrams of their own workings, and in this case there’s the passage about Hindu gods, where the narrator says: “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 a story was the same one in another part, a few pages later. Everyone was an avatar of everyone else.” I like the idea that the narrator of part 2 is an avatar of Jeff in part 1 or maybe a reincarnation. Plus, of course, there’s the sense of Atman as “soul” or whatever it means exactly, so even the guy’s name in part 1 hints at what is to come in part 2. Also, although the Varanasi part is bound to be read as coming chronologically after part 1 — because it follows sequentially — it’s never stated that this is the case.
The sex in Venice is graphic and crude; as is life in Varanasi. I had the distinct feeling while reading the ultraphysical sex scenes that you were setting up some sort of metaphysical or spiritual opposite to come; and yet Varanasi is entirely physical, and you link sexual fluids in the former to Ganges fluids in the latter (not to mention the scatological .). What’s going on here?
The sex in Venice would be kind of pointless — in the larger scheme of the book — without the evaporation of the narrator’s sexual urges in part 2. There’s that brief reminder of sexual life in part 2 when he sees the amazing erotic carvings in that temple. And yes, you’re right again, there’s a link, in that during one of the sex scenes a few drops from Laura’s pussy fall into his mouth; in part 2 he gets a few drops of the Ganges in his mouth. I don’t know what this means, but it was certainly done deliberately. It’s difficult writing about sex, but once it was decided that Jeff’s relationship with Laura would be consummated — rather than having him just moping away Aschenbach-style — there was no choice but to follow them into the bedroom with a high-power lens.
You’ve said that a “comic novel” is the last thing you’d want to write — or, for that matter, to read. Yet your books are very funny and often flirt, even embrace, the “superficial.” Please explain.
I was ranting on at the Hay literary festival the other day about how I didn’t like comic novels. And then, at the end of the event this famous radio presenter came onstage and presented me with a huge bottle of champagne, part of a prize for the year’s best comic novel (another part of the prize is that you get a pig named after your novel!), so I then gave a little speech retracting everything, saying that I realized now that the comic novel was the highest form of literary expression! But no, I don’t like the monotony of the comic novel. I like things that are funny and have a lot else in them besides that — ideas, for example. For me a great joke is an idea expressed in extremely concentrated form.
You’re straight out of Oxbridge, yet you describe your working-class family as “poor.” Has this made a difference (for you and your work) in the land of Amis and Barnes? If so, can you (or we) spot the difference?
The “poor” bit isn’t the thing — the working-class part is enough. Practically everyone I know now is from a middle- or upper-middle-class background, and I no longer have the huge chip on my shoulder that I carried around for so many years. I’m not sure it comes out much in the work, but coming from this kind of background is absolutely central to my identity, to my sense of who I am. To anticipate your later questions, one of the things I love about America generally is that although there is of course a class system at work, there is not the class hatred, which is such an exhausting and enervating aspect of British life
Your books are so varied, and you seem to have devised a way to pursue your interests (photography, jazz, D.H. Lawrence, travel, tennis, etc.) without having to get a job like the rest of us. Should we be annoyed (even as we enjoy your books)? Or is there some downside you’ve been made to suffer?
There’s quite an interesting review of my new book in the LRB, where the writer goes on about exactly this thing. She talks about how this aspect of my writing has really bugged people over the years and continues to bug her now. It’s not a question of suffering but not having a job — the luxury of time and introspection — really exposes you to the big questions of your existence. Cioran says somewhere that a large amount of leisure is essential to any sense of metaphysics: If the Buddha had had a job, he’d have just been a moaner! What I like about the writing life is this: If you have a job, your sense of identity is inevitably tied up with that job. If you then get sacked or made redundant, then that sense of identity collapses and you’re plunged into crisis — even if that dismissal has nothing to do with your abilities, is purely a function of economic factors beyond your control. Whereas, as a writer, it’s entirely down to me. Can’t do it anymore? My fault, my decision and mine alone. Even if one gives up as a result of poor sales or critical derision — it’s still down to the individual concerned, in that it’s a failure of their ability to tough it out. I like that, the self-responsibility or self-determination of the whole process.
You’ve got the writer’s life in London, and yet you fancy California. Why in God’s name …?
You’re wrong. I don’t fancy California. I love California. From the first time I went to San Francisco I remember thinking, “Ah, so this is what life is like, higher up the evolutionary ladder.” I love the daily interactions with the people, the landscape and the way that that general American urge — how can I make my life better? — receives its most extreme expression in California. A surprising number of people in Britain wake up and tacitly think: How can I slightly fuck up someone’s day, including my own? Plus, in California there’s the weather and the ready availability of tennis courts. At some level my life is a complete failure (see that question above) because I’ve ended up living in London and not California.
JEFF IN VENICE, DEATH IN VARANASI | By GEOFF DYER | Pantheon | 304 pages | $24
Further reading from the Weekly Literary Supplement:
“How Fiction Works: King James and the Battle for the Novel,” by Nathan Ihara
“Henry Bay’s America: An Excerpt From The Enthusiast,” by Charlie Haas
“Wet Metal: An Excerpt From Blame,” by Michelle Huneven
“The Calm: An Excerpt From Silver Lake,” by Peter Gadol
“Old World Meets New Age in Thriller Nowhere-Land,” by Judith Freeman
“Publishing Your Novel Online,” by Alan Rifkin