Apr/May 2009

Genres, Ganges, and the Grand Canal

Geoff Dyer talks with Bookforum

Kera Bolonik


F. Scott Fitzgerald's Tender Is the Night served as a muse for Geoff Dyer's last work of fiction, Paris, Trance (1998), but the author admits that Thomas Mann's Death in Venice, the inspiration for his latest effort, Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi (Pantheon, $24), never held much meaning for him. "It's one of those books that's part of the mythic template," the award-winning essayist and consummate enthusiast, who has written on such wide-ranging subjects as photography, D. H. Lawrence, and World War I, explained to me on the phone while he was snowbound in London one February morning. Dyer is an innovative storyteller in both his fiction and his nonfiction, and his newest is a diptych of two witty, meditative novellas hinged together on the possibility that the British hack-journalist protagonist of the first story, Jeff Atman, who unexpectedly falls in love while on a junket at the Venice Biennale, might also be the narrator experiencing an epiphany in India's holy city of Varanasi in the second. Dyer revealed himself to be both charmingly self-deprecating and refreshingly confident as we talked about romance, redemption, and revelation. —KERA BOLONIK

BOOKFORUM: A writer once told me she prefers to write about places she hasn't visited. Have you traveled to all the places you've written about in your fiction?

GEOFF DYER: I've never written about a place I've never been to [laughs]. I know there's a long and distinguished history of people setting novels in places they've only read about, but for me, the first idea for a book nearly always comes from an experience of a place. Sometimes, it might be a place I've come to know very well; sometimes, it's been that as soon as I've got to a certain place, I've had that sense of arrival, knowing this is happening. You articulate what it is about the place that's so exciting, but also you tend to ask yourself some other questions: What is it that brought me here? And what kind of baggage did I bring with me?

BF: These two novellas appear to compose one larger story. How did you originally envision them? And what made you decide to bring the two together?

GD: My wife and I went to the Venice Biennale in 2003, and I was deeply involved in writing my book about photography, The Ongoing Moment [2005]. At some point during our trip, I had this idea of writing a version of Death in Venice but set during the Biennale. In that novel, there's all this uncertainty about what exactly the young boy represents for Aschenbach. He's not just an object of sexual fixation—he's also an embodiment of the ideal beauty Aschenbach has never been able to attain in his work. I knew right from the start my book was going to be very hedonistic and carnal. I'd originally envisioned a kind of more continuous narrative. My friend who used to be my editor at Farrar, Straus & Giroux said there needed to be a stronger connection between the two parts. This was perhaps one of the most useful bits of editorial intervention I've ever been given, and I actually don't feel I need much editing help. I realized that, instead of trying to solve the problem, papering over the cracks as it were, and trying to join the two parts together, I would completely open them up so it wasn't clear Jeff [in Jeff in Venice] was the same person [in Death in Varanasi]. I felt it was much more formally interesting. I wasn't trying to make the best of a bad job: I was making a completely new job. They were absolutely conceived in tandem—I think each part is pretty meaningless without reference to the other.

BF: Venice and Varanasi juxtaposed?

GD: Before I'd written anything of the Venice part, we went to Varanasi, a city that I'd wanted to visit for a long while. We'd been down by the Ganges about half an hour, and I realized I was going to write a longer book in two parts. The two cities are incredibly similar in a way. They're both absolutely defined by the waterways they're on—the canals of Venice and the Ganges in Varanasi. There are all these decayed palaces. They're both a bit stinky, and they both have a mythology attached to them. There's a really nice coincidence: In Death in Venice, there is a cholera epidemic that eventually kills Aschenbach, and it originates, Mann says, in something like the miasmal mists of the Ganges Delta. Of course, I'm not the first to notice the similarities between the two places. There's that epigraph in my novel from Allen Ginsberg where he's off his head walking along the banks of the Ganges in Varanasi, and he keeps thinking he's walking along the Grand Canal.

BF: The third-person narration in Jeff in Venice is deceptive: We encounter all the people Jeff Atman does when he sees them and not before or after—including the wanderlusty woman he falls in love with on first sight, an LA-based gallery owner named Laura. We forget he's not a narrator, that there is an intermediary.

GD: Initially, I thought I'd try to write the first bit from the point of view of a thoroughly jaded, debased, pissed-off hack journalist. His name, Atman, is the Sanskrit or Hindu term for self. In part 1, he was going to be more like the John Self of Martin Amis's Money, somebody completely depraved. And then in part 2, we'd have this other, much more exalted sense of the self of Atman. But the problem was it didn't allow me enough flexibility of response to have this completely cynical, pissed-off person. Otherwise, I think the disjuncture between part 1 and part 2 would have been too great, where as it is, I think the slight uncertainty is quite helpful. The narrator is reading all these books about Hinduism in part 2, and he talks about the way Hinduism is so confusing because everyone is an avatar of someone else. You can't even be sure if the person you're reading about on one page is the same person with a different name. Throughout, really, there are all these little clues as to what's going on, but hopefully not in some sort of game-playing postmodern way.

BF: Despite Jeff's Biennale diet of Bellinis and parties, cocaine and cynicism, he remains open to new experiences. Cynicism isn't a point of no return. It's a nice surprise to discover that he's actually a romantic.

GD: Love is a completely redeeming experience for him. And I think he has a more romantic attitude than Laura. The traditional gender roles are reversed. You get the impression that she takes this in stride, that she's up for having a good time, but she wouldn't be the one at home waiting for his call. But for him, this is a once-in-a-lifetime, transformative experience. It's a recognition, really, of how pointless the life he's leading has become.

BF: Venice is quite a perfect setting for Jeff Atman to have an epiphany.

GD: So many people have written about Venice that there's not just a physical city but a textual one as well. You see the actual place through this palimpsest of prior accounts, which is what I dramatized when Jeff and Laura go to Joseph Brodsky's grave. There are echoes of Henry James and Mary McCarthy—there's a great sense of being in the footsteps of what's gone on there before.

BF: As a mostly nonfiction writer, are you daunted by writing fiction?

GD: I think in some ways. Fiction brings you up against your absolute limitations in a way that other forms of writing don't. When you're writing nonfiction, it's a bit more circumscribed. You're not absolutely at the mercy of yourself because there's this thing you're writing about that you can use. Much of fiction is just completely beyond your control. For someone like me who does a wide range of writing, in fiction I keep returning to the same kinds of situations. I think I'll have a much longer life writing about paintings or photographs or other books than I will have as a fiction writer.

BF: There is a line in The OngoingMoment where you write, "A road heads out of town while a street stays there. . . . The best streets urge you to stay; theroad is an endless incentive to leave." I wondered if this describes your writing process.

GD: My books recount the journey by which I've gone from not knowing very much about a subject to coming to know quite a lot, as well as understanding what about it fascinated me.

BF: Are you ever afraid you'll exhaust your passion for a subject after spending years researching and contemplating it?

GD: No, because it never happens like that. When I'm writing, I'm only fractionally ahead of what I'm knowing. The process of finding out and the process of the writing are in tandem. There's a lot of time spent organizing and shaping, but I hope in the finished text I preserve that flame of inquiry.

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