A couple of months ago one of my many internet feeds popped up an article in the Los Angeles Review of Books about an academic conference devoted to the work of Geoff Dyer, a most un-academic contemporary British writer. Or at least a writer who might be expected to launch flaming bottles of sarcasm at the notion of academic conferences, academic prose, and the sort of hyper-self-conscious, hyper-specialized, and hyper-jargonized discourse that characterizes a certain prominent strain of modern literary criticism.
When I was in graduate school studying Comparative Literature in the late 70s, that sort of thing was just starting to break out in US academic circles. Russian Formalism was the starting point; Derrida’s De La Grammatologie had recently been translated into English for the first time and deconstructionism was about to be the next big thing. The department I was enrolled in was at the forefront of this movement. Our Ur-Text was Roman Ingarden’s The Literary Work of Art, a dense, phenomenological treatise that grew out of the work of Edmund Husserl. I spent more time reading Hans-Georg Gadamer and Jan Mukařovský than Thomas Mann or Marcel Proust. It was rigorous and brilliant, but it wasn’t going to lead to a job anywhere and I was tired of poverty, so I dropped out and became a librarian instead. (No regrets.)
But it’s been amusing in the decades since to watch the growth of these European schools of thought in America: kind of like watching, say, the Northern Snakehead (that’s a fish native to eastern Asia) take over the inland waterways of Maryland. And so when the LARB article about the Dyer conference began with a discussion of the perils of treating a living author, who was in the audience, to such methods of explication, I read on, even though I had no idea who Geoff Dyer was. I was intrigued by the description of Out Of Sheer Rage, a book in which Dyer recounts his “failed attempts to write a scholarly study of D. H. Lawrence. As he drudges through a Longman Critical Reader on the author, he finds himself increasingly angered by its contents: trendy theoretical titles like “Lawrence, Foucault and the Language of Sexuality” and “Radical Indeterminacy: a post-modern Lawrence.” Ah, yes, I remember it well, although I could have come up with far more ridiculous titles without breaking a sweat.
The light of recognition dawned dimly several paragraphs later with a passing reference to Dyer’s 2009 novel Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi. I had nebulous memories of reading reviews of that book when it was published, lured by the obvious titular reference to Mann and by its implicit irreverence. But for some reason, I never followed up on the interest those reviews generated. The book and its author drifted away from my consciousness until the LARB piece piqued my curiosity once again. So I made my way into the library’s stacks and returned with both the novel and a book of Dyer’s essays with the equally intriguing title Otherwise Known as the Human Condition. Given that Dyer has said “I like writing stuff that’s only an inch from life but all the art–and, for me, all the fun–is in that inch,” I decided to start reading them both together.
The essays on art, film, and music in Otherwise left me cold, even the one on Lawrence. So I flipped to the final section, “Personals,” which proved to be a series of unconnected (and indeed sometimes repetitive) reminiscences about living as a young, rootless man in 80s London, pursuing the life of the mind, music, drugs, and literature while avoiding steady employment. That these years represented something of a golden age or perhaps even a legenda aurea in Dyer’s personal mythology only added to their first-person appeal. I could relate to this, mutatis mutandis for America in the 70s.
Meanwhile, Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi got off to a rollicking start. Part One, “Jeff in Venice,” describes the adventures of one Jeff Atman (atman = self in Hindu thought, a clue?), a hack reporter on assignment to cover the Venice Biennale. Although he knows that his mission is to conduct an interview, secure the reproduction rights to a mysterious work of art, and review the art on display, his real mission is to consume as many glasses of free champagne as possible, while scoring the occasional snort and smoke, and above all, to get laid. Jeff has few illusions about his ability to accomplish any of these goals with style. But he is not foolish enough to question his luck when things turn out otherwise. In fact, once he meets Laura at a first-night party, the sex and drugs turn out to be so improbably fantastic that the only part of his mission that seems endangered in paying much attention to the art. But even his pursuits of artistic arcana go better than he could have dreamed.
Back in the real-life Human Condition, I was discovering the inch of difference between Jeff and Geoff. Plenty of details of Jeff’s adventures are drawn from Geoff’s own experiences, but the transformations were obvious enough. Still, the two characters are delicately intertwined. I have to assume that to some extent the Geoff of the essays is a constructed character, a reflection, of the author, a recollection and re-presentation of his experience, just as Jeff of the novel is a representation in the more conventional, fictional sense. In fact, a reader could be slightly maddened by the notion that the “truth” is always kept at a remove by the art while simultaneously being evoked by the art. On the other hand, that madness is one of the things that made the whole experience of reading the two books in tandem so much fun.
Part Two of the novel, “Death in Varanasi,” takes the refractory nature of this experience more than a step further. The second half of the novel, or the second novella within the book’s covers (you decide which), is a first-person narrative related by a journalist who has been sent to India to write a travel piece for the Telegraph.
At the end of “Jeff in Venice,” Laura departs Venice for the Far East and there is hope, if not exactly promise, that the lovers will meet again; there’s been mention of Varanasi at moments throughout. So when “Death in Varanasi” begins with a few paragraphs written in the second person, you could be excused for jumping to conclusions.
The thing about destiny is that it can so nearly not happen and, even when it does, rarely looks like what it is.
It’s just a phone ringing routinely at three in the afternoon (not alarmingly in the middle of the night) and the person on the other end is not telling you the the results of your blood test have come back positive or that your girlfriend’s partly clothed body has been discovered floating in the Ganges. That would be handy, that would lend narrative continuity and drive — albeit of a not very novel kind — to the purposeless drift of events. But no, it’s just an editor at the Telegraph asking if you can go to India at short notice, to write a travel piece about Varanasi.
But as it turns out, the narrator of “Death in Varanasi” isn’t necessarily Jeff Atman, and the body in the Ganges, never mentioned again, doesn’t need to be Laura. “He” of Part One and “I” of Part Two share some qualities, just as Jeff and Geoff share some experiences of life in London and Venice. But to pursue an identification of any of these pairs would probably be a mistake, and is certainly doomed to uncertainty.
The descriptions of Varanasi are as vivid and compelling at those of Venice, but the obvious similarities of crumbling architecture set along waters of dubious clarity are counterpointed by the equally obvious differences between cities and stories. The Varanasi narrator, in the course of his story, purposelessly drifts away from the sensuality of pleasure-seeking towards a different immersion in and simultaneous dislocation from sense experience. Whereas Jeff, in Venice, pursues the heightened experience that drugs offer to bring himself joy, or to hold at bay the paranoia the drugs create along the way, the blast force of sense impressions in Varanasi, redolent of corruption, decay, and elimination, slowly erodes any last chance the narrator may have at purposefulness. Near the end of the book, with no plans to leave Varanasi, he comes to this conclusion:
Some people stop believing that happiness is going to come their way. On the brink of becoming one of them, I began to accept that it was my destiny to be unhappy. In the normal course of things I would have made some accommodation with this, would have set up camp as a permanently unhappy person. But what had happened in Varanasi was that something was taken out of the equation so that there was nothing for unhappiness to fasten itself upon. That something was me. I had cheated destiny. Actually, the passive construction is more accurate: destiny had been cheated.
The odd thing about this conclusion is that, as a philosophy, it doesn’t seem all that far removed from a thought that Jeff Atman might have voiced had he been given the chance. For all his foraging for pleasure in Venice, Jeff is a peculiarly passive character. In some ways he seems to start from the place that the narrator in Varanasi concludes, by letting life happen to him, even though he thinks it otherwise.
I would like to say that there’s a symmetry in the two halves of Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi, that they are reflections of one another, each shedding light on the other. In a way that’s true. And that truth would provide a kind of critical satisfaction ” — albeit of a not very novel kind —” to the experience of reading the book. But I think rather that the two halves of the book are more like an inch apart, “and, for me, all the fun—is in that inch.”