What, a few moments earlier, had seemed such a persuasive notion – that ridiculousness might be the animating principle of life – seemed, in the face of this more pedestrian idea of progress, abruptly … ridiculous. No sooner had I thought this, than I’d suddenly had enough of walking. (“Death in Varanasi”)
Hmm … what has the “idea of progress” got to do with “the animating principle of life”? Geoff Dyer‘s Jeff in Venice, death in Varanasi, which comprises two loosely connected novellas, is full of non-sequiturs, paradoxes and other confusions – so much so that I’m not quite sure what to make of it, but perhaps by the end of this review, I will!
I wanted to read it because I’d been hearing about it around the traps, and had seen it recommended several times on people’s reading lists. There is, it seems, a vague autobiographical element to this book: Dyer has been to the Venice Biennale and to Varanasi, and he has written journalistic pieces as have the two (or is it one?) narrators the book. But, he went to both with his wife, not as a single man, and he is Geoff not Jeff. Methinks there is some teasing/playing with us going on here!
The first tease relates to the form. Are the two novellas connected by character? Is the third person Jeff in “Geoff in Venice” the same as the first person narrator in “Death in Varanasi”? And there are teases in the subject matter, but let’s talk plot first, such as there is. “Jeff in Venice” describes Jeff’s few days at the Venice Biennale, and particularly his falling in love (or is it lust) with the lovely Laura. There is quite a bit of explicit sex in the story: in other words, the so-called “little death” is well covered. This first story is about art, life and love – and yet encompasses, paradoxically, the idea of “death”. In “Death in Varanasi”, the main character, a freelance journalist who could very well be Jeff, goes to Varanasi for a few days to write a commissioned piece, but decides to stay. One of the first things he does in Varanasi is go to see the cremations by the Ganges. Death is all around, and yet, paradoxically, this is where many westerners turn up to find “enlightenment”, that is, to find the meaning of life. The narrator, himself, gradually drops all vestiges of his former self until, near the end, he has shaven his head and wears a dhoti.
So what is the background premise to these stories? As far as I can tell it is something to do with being in one’s mid-forties and starting to wonder what it’s all about. Jeff Atman, “stuffed with pastry, tense with coffee”, decides to dye his hair because:
For a long time he’d thought of grey hair as a symptom, a synonym of inner dreariness, and had accepted it as inevitable – but that was about to change.
There are a lot of sly little jokes and word-games in the book. When Jeff’s newly dyed hair is about to be revealed, he calls it “the moment of untruth” which, in a sense it is, though it is also his new truth. It’s all a matter of perspective isn’t it? (After all, the hairdresser had quoted Plath – a hairdresser quoting Plath impresses Jeff – at him by saying “We do [dye] it so it looks real”.) And so the new real Jeff goes to the Venice Biennale, a place characterised as much by “party-anxiety and invite-envy” as it is by exciting new art to discover. This first story is about hedonism, about booze, drugs and sex. It’s a common story in literature – a certain dissipation that follows disillusion, and leads to … well, it seems to me, back to disillusion. See, it’s a tricky book!
I enjoyed the satirical descriptions of the Biennale, of the art world and, particularly, of the more sycophantic adherents. But, I couldn’t quite believe the relationship with Laura – it felt more like male fantasy than real. Perhaps that’s how it was supposed to come across.
In the second story of the book, the tone becomes a little more meditative, lower key. I expected to meet the beautiful Laura again. After all, she told Jeff in the first story that she planned to go to Varanasi to be a hedge fund manager (of all things!). But, we don’t meet her and, if there’s a reference to her (and I think there is), it’s very obscure and does suggest we are dealing with Jeff again. “Death in Varanasi” starts with:
The thing about destiny is that it can so nearly not happen and, even when it does, rarely looks like what it is.
What happens is that the narrator’s brief stay turns into something longer term. It’s not so much that he makes a definite decision to stay as that he doesn’t decide to leave: “there was nothing to go home for”.
As I said at the beginning, this is a book full of teases and paradoxes. The narrator in Varanasi “invents” the God Ganoona who “is all that which is not anything else. But it’s also that which is everything else”. In a similar vein he talks of being desire-free:
… for the idea of desirelessness to take root, to set off in that direction, to try to free yourself of desire, surely that must manifest itself as a desire, a yearning, an urge. How then does desire transcend itself?
This book demands some mental gymnastics – not hard ones, necessarily, but ones asking you to keep on going without pondering too long or thinking each one is the answer. In a discussion about the book on The First Tuesday Book Club, English author Philip Hensher says that in all his books Geoff Dyer “seems to reinvent the genre, to make the reader think twice about what it is he’s reading … the book is constantly retreating from you” so you have to make up your own mind. And that, in my best Dyeresque way, is where I’ll leave you … it’s worth a look, even if at the end you are not quite sure what you saw!
Jeff in Venice, death in Varanasi
Melbourne: Text Publishing, 2009
(Review copy courtesy Text Publishing)