One of the first three books reviewed on this blog was Paris Trance, by Geoff Dyer. While I would love to say that it was careful consideration that produced those first three, it was anything but. It was the first week of January, a pretty boring reading time most years. In addition to Paris Trance, I’d just finished reading Patrick McCabe’s The Holy City and Edith Wharton’s The House of Mirth. And finally I was feeling guilty that I was clogging up the comments section of other people’s blogs with thoughts of increasing length, too lazy to maintain a blog of my own.
So on the afternoon of January 7, I signed on to wordpress.com, registered KevinfromCanada and wrote a quick review of The Holy City. I thought I’d sleep on it, check the review in the morning and then, if I decided to proceed, draft reviews of the other two (and maybe a few others) and then launch the blog. Rookie that I was, I didn’t even realize that I had inadvertently linked to a few other blogs — and when I got up the next morning to check my draft review, I was greeted by two comments from fellow bloggers welcoming me to the blogging world. Like it or not, I had two reviews to produce that day to get up to speed.
Talk about a “soft launch” — KevinfromCanada was launched without the creator even deciding he was going to do it. I have loved every moment since and, like many a proud entrepreneur, couldn’t stand the idea of waiting for a full year before celebrating a blog birthday. So, when I discovered the Geoff Dyer’s Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi was due for release in Canada on April 7, the end of the First Quarter for the enterprise KevinfromCanada, I resolved that it would be the subject of the first quarter report. Dyer was my favorite of those first three books and I have read many good books in the last three months — but I am delighted with this choice as the “first quarter report” . This marvelous book definitely stands in the front rank of all those good books.
One of those welcoming messages was from John Self at Asylum (one of the blogs I had been clogging up). It was also John who had introduced me to Dyer with a review of The Missing of the Somme (that review along with John’s thoughts on this book can be found here). John’s recent review also pointed me to an excellent Guardian interview with Dyer — the quotes and observations from the author that appear here come from that interview.
As its title suggests, Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi comes in two parts. Dyer comments:
With my usual unerring eye for commercial suicide…I originally wanted to entitle 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.
Okay, we’ll take the author at his word — we are dealing with two stories. But the nature of a diptych (as opposed to a book of two novellas) is that some sort of relation between the two is implied.
The central character of Jeff in Venice is Jeff Atman, a London-based freelance journalist who has an assignment from Kulchur magazine to produce a “colour” piece on the 2003 Venice Biennale. Jeff and the world do not get along very well — he would quit his job, except as a freelance journalist he pretty much has already done that. He also has an issue with what he calls “muted karaoke”:
A woman pushing an all-terrain pram glanced quickly at him and looked away even more quickly. He must have been doing that thing, not talking aloud to himself, but forming words with his mouth, unconsciously lip-synching the torrent of grievances that tumbled constantly through his head. He held his mouth firmly shut. He had to stop doing that. Of all the things he had to stop doing or start doing, that was right at the top of the list.
As my wife could tell you, I have exactly that habit when I am upset (fortunately, it seems to be ebbing). One of the great things about Dyer is that these wonderful little observational time bombs keep exploding right there on the page. Consider this description a few pages later of the airline that Jeff is flying from Stansted to Venice:
Ailrines like Ryanair or EasyJet tried to dress up their no-frills status; Meteor basked in theirs. What you saw was what you got. More accurately, what you didn’t get. 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 neighboring city C, or even country D.
Anybody else ever flown Meteor Air? Sure enough, Jeff lands a long, hot and smelly coach ride from Venice.
Art may be the excuse for the Biennale but it is not what it is really about (Jeff’s already invented his line for the Biennale: “But you write mainly about art?” “Not really. I’m not a very visual person.”) . While you do visit the pavilions during the day, it is about the parties and the free food, drink and drugs that are part of those parties. In Jeff’s case (and many others), it is also worrying constantly about the parties to which you don’t have an invitation. Film has Cannes, Sundance and similar festivals — the art world has the Biennale, Basel and some others. The medium may be different, the carnival is pretty much the same.
Also, you want to get laid — maybe even mainly get laid — even if you are a failure (with just-dyed hair) in his mid-forties, like Jeff.
The action part of Jeff in Venice starts at his first party when he meets and falls in Biennale love with Laura Freeman, a curator from a gallery in Los Angeles. It takes a day for them to reconnect (during which Jeff actually visits a number of exhibitions); from then on, this story is about how they experience both Venice and each other. Their conversation, like the art they criticize, is banal. On the other hand, the sense of touch with which they experience each other and Venice is anything but banal. Shortly before his death, John Updike was given a lifetime award for bad sex writing — with this book alone Dyer ensures he will never be awarded that dubious distinction.
Between this creepy veneer of parties, drinks, drugs and sex, however, there is a powerful undercurrent: the art, not just of the Biennale, but of Venice, does matter. In the Norwegian pavilion, Jeff is intrigued by a lengthy wall of circular yellow and black dartboards that are, in fact, dartboards. Viewers are invited to throw darts with red and green flights at the boards — the color and texture of the installation obviously changes as the day goes on. (Like quite a bit of Dyer, this isn’t fiction — it is a real installation from the 2007 Biennale, interesting pictures of which can be found here.) He also quite likes an installation (oh for the days when we could go and look at paintings instead of “experiencing an installation” — but I guess my age is showing) in the Finnish pavilion:
A simple wooden boat was adrift in a frozen sea of broken, multi-coloured Murano glass — discards and fragments, presumably from the factories near Venice. Painted a dull red, the interior of the boat was gradually filling up with water dripping from the ceiling. Every now and again — so infrequently Jeff wondered if he was imagining it — the boat rocked slightly.
Yes, real again from the 2007 Biennale — see it here. Even if you decide not to read the book, do check out those images. As for me, I can’t imagine how frustrating it would be to read Dyer before Google existed.
Those two installations are only part of the art sub-text however. On the way to Venice, Jeff was reading a Mary McCarthy book, Venice Observed, that discusses Giorgione’s The Tempest (here), so he goes to see — and is impressed by — that. And when Laura has left, with the future of their affair-relationship uncertain, he seeks refuge in the Tinteretto’s at the Scuola Grande di San Rocco (images here, but this one is tough because it is hard to convey since they cover all four walls and the ceiling).
Consider for a moment: These two are installations, albeit from more than 400 years ago (I retract that lamentation of a few paragraphs ago). Just as the dartboards and boat created a reason for celebration and festival, they too were produced for celebration, and the occasional festival (there is a reason this post is going up on Good Friday, after all). Jeff’s visit to the Scuola comes in the final pages of Part One — it is a spoiler to say how it ends.
The central character in Death in Varanasi is a mature freelance journalist based in London who has been given a last minute assignment for a travel piece on Varanasi (also known as Benares, the City of Light and a number of things). While the first part was told in the third person, this is a first person narrator and we never know his name. Dyer says in the Guardian interview he may or may not be Jeff Atman — this review will assume he is. It is also not stated whether this story takes place before or after the first. (And I promise there will be no distracting links in this part of the review.)
If sight and touch are the senses of Jeff in Venice, Dyer wastes no time establishing that sound will be a primary sense in this story:
From the airport to the hotel, Sanjay had used the horn excessively; now that we were in the city proper, instead of using it repeatedly, he kept it going all the time. So did everyone else. Unlike everything else, this did make sense. Why take your hand off the horn when, a split-second later, you’d have to put it back on?
Loud sound is a constant feature of this book; Jeff even takes to wearing his iPod, turned high, just to escape it. That doesn’t work. Even the concerts that are a part of this story (sound is the dominant sense) feature the discordant, physical Indian music that certainly raises no thoughts of an adagio.
The secondary sense, but almost as great as that of sound, is smell. The remnants of defecation — animal and human — are everywhere, forming a kind of tar. Vegetable waste adds to the overwhelming odor. Even the marigold garlands thrown around Jeff when he visits the temples (for 50 rupees, please) have a rotting stink. Not to mention that Varanasi is a crematorium site and the funeral pyres are constantly burning.
Unlike the chic Venice of the Biennale, Varanasi is about as horrible an environment as you can get. But where our first character fled when he could, our second can’t leave. He moves into a more central, less grand, hotel — becomes its only long-term guest. As the narrator observes, he does not so much go native as become an older version of the dread-locked trekkers, except that while they flow through, he stays on. Eventually (no real surprise this) he discovers some things about himself.
While the two stories have some superficial similarities, this is obviously a diptych in the literary version of a Francis Bacon triptych where the relationship between the parts is not just obscure, it seems non-existent. It is not a common form — in most two-part books, Part Two flows from Part One. Having said that, I can think of two recent similar examples — Anne Michaels The Winter Vault (my review is here) and Michael Ondaatje’s Divisidero. I think both those authors failed — Part one in each book was interesting, the second half merely baffling. I think Dyer succeeds — why?
I am indebted again to John Self for supplying the clue to my interpretation (and I emphasize that others are certainly possible) with a piece of knowledge from his review I did not have:
When the protagonist’s name – Jeffrey Atman – was disclosed in the opening sentence of Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi, a little something in me died. I recalled from Siddhartha that Atman was a Hindu spiritualist term for the eternal soul, and I dreaded the onset of a new age tale of ‘finding oneself’. But I needn’t have worried: at least, not yet.
I think it is safe to assume that Dyer’s choice was deliberate and, carefully structured and hidden by witticisms as it is, there is an element of soul-searching, if not eternal soul-finding, in the two parts of this diptych. And my interpretation is that the unifying link is the counter-intuitive use of the four senses that Dyer employs in the book (taste is present in both parts, but is used in similar ways).
Sight (as in contemplating art) and touch (as in caress) are normally thought of as creating the kind contemplative peace associated with finding oneself. Sound (as in blaring traffic) and smell (as in rotting shit) would seem to produce the exact opposite. Yet in this book, the first two senses generate a form of contemplation avoidance — the latter nourish introspection. The author leaves it to the reader to figure out why.
Am I over-interpreting? Maybe — I am the kind of reader who likes to start the thinking process anew when I close the cover of a book and this book obviously did that for me. I certainly don’t want to leave the impression that that is the only interpretation — or indeed that any interpretation at all is required. Dyer is a wonderful writer to read (I finished all but the last 20 pages of this book in one read on the day it arrived — and I only stopped there because I wanted to save the ending for the next day). But this is not just a satisfying book, it can be challenging as well — there is a lot of “reader control” in just how far you want to take it, which is the mark of a truly good book.
That is the conclusion of my first quarter report. My thanks to everyone who has visited KevinfromCanada in these first three months and special thanks to those who have taken the time to observe and comment — I hope you will keep on visiting and commenting. And I hope that the thoughts here are at least on the positive side of neutral in terms of enhancing your reading experience. I already know what the theme of the sixth month report will be. And there will be no prize for guessing the subject matter of the nine month report — the ManBooker Prize is announced on October 6, so I’ll be moving that report up one day to salute the jury on their decision to agree with my selection — or, more likely, whine (yet again) about why my choice was ignored. Cheers.