BY SIMON VAN SCHALKWYK
Years ago, he had tried to impress his subjects with how astute, on the ball, up to speed and generally smart he was. This, he had learnt, was a mistake. Interviews worked much better if the subject thought you were a complete numbskull. They let their guard down, became more expansive , actually tried to compensate for your manifest failings. Not, he began to suspect, that that was going to make much difference here.
—Geoff Dyer, Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi.
My memory of the interview I conducted with Geoff Dyer sometime in October is pretty vague by now. All I have to go on is this recording. Since I’m unnerved by the sound of my voice on playback, I decide to skip and glide across the timeline of my media player until I arrive at the points where Dyer is speaking.
>skip. transcribe. skip.<
And so it goes.
Dyer was born in Cheltenham, England, but he has recently relocated to Venice Beach, LA. He is the author of four novels including Death in Venice, Jeff in Varanasi (which won the Bollinger Everyman Wodehouse Prize for best comic novel in 2009) and a series of “genre-defying” books, including Out of Sheer Rage: Wrestling with D.H. Lawrence, The Ongoing Moment (which he has called “a true history of photography”), But Beautiful: A Book About Jazz and, most recently, Another Great day at Sea: Life Aboard the USS George H.W. Bush.
Dyer has won the Somerset Maugham Prize, the E.M. Forster Award, the National Book Critics Circle Award for Criticism, and the ICP Infinity Award for Writing on Photography. He is also a fellow of the Lannan Literary Fellowship and the Royal Society of Literature.
He recently arrived in Johannesburg following a stint at the 2014 Open Book festival in Cape Town. During his visit, Dyer presented a public lecture at the University of the Witwatersrand in his capacity as Mellon Distinguished Visiting Scholar. He also hosted a screening of Andrei Tarkovsky’s Stalker (the film that provides a visual scaffold for his book, Zona), discussed photography with Ivan Vladislavić, and gave a talk about jazz before heading off to The Orbit, a Johannesburg jazz-club named after Terry Clark’s 1958 recording, In Orbit.
Dyer also played ping-pong with a friend in Maboneng Precinct, and went on a safari with Rebecca Wilson, his wife and current director of Saatchi Art in L.A.
My interview with Dyer, which took place at a guest house called Mi Casa Su Casa in Melville, happened – or got lost – somewhere between Zona and The Orbit. When I play the recording, I can hear electronic birdsong mingling with the distant blare of Johannesburg’s perpetually alarmed suburbs. I try to re-imagine our encounter, but I fail. So I focus, simply, on our disembodied voices.
I am disappointed by those parts devoted to Another Great Day at Sea. This may well be due to the fact that I had seen Dyer talk about that book with Andrew Brown in Cape Town, and because I felt that Brown had covered just about everything that there was to cover about the book during their exchange. So I decide not to include Another Great day at Sea here at all.
Instead, since Dyer and I are both, in different ways, far from home – he is on tour, and I (conveniently) regard my recent relocation to Johannesburg from Cape Town as a form of involuntary exile – I decide to focus on questions of travel. I begin by asking Dyer if this is his first trip to South or Southern Africa.
“I’ve been to Namibia, if that counts,” he replies. It’s nearby. I was in Zambia for an afternoon once. They were both to write travel pieces. And both were incredibly up-market safaris. Namibia was great because my wife and I would drive ourselves between places along these beautifully empty roads, and then we’d go to some gorgeous tented safari camp.”
“I’ve been to lots of places,” he continues, “but if I were to say what’s the single most spectacular place on earth I’ve ever been to I think it would be Deadvlei – that bit in Namibia that you always see in photographs with the salt bed and the orange dunes and the dead trees.”
I’ve seen the pictures. It’s not my idea of beauty.
Nevertheless, Dyer’s admiration for the Namib reminds me of another desert – the one that Andrei Tarkovsky wanted to use as the setting for Stalker. Stalker is an impressive cinematic achievement. It’s also impressively slow. Dyer’s Zona, a scene-by-scene description of and digressive meditation on Tarkovsky’s film, remarkably manages to slow things down even more. I’m not sure that I’ve formulated these suggestive, vague and factually debatable remarks into a question, but Dyer seems unruffled.
“Tarkovsky was first going to shoot Stalker in a desert location somewhere in the East,” he explains, “and then later on, during the Telluride Film Festival, he was taken on a trip through Monument Valley. But you’re absolutely right. He did say that it was a sign of the terrible vulgarity of America that they could only make Westerns rather than praising God or some such nonsense.”
Dyer may not participate in some Tarkovskian hallowing of desert spaces ( “the religious thing would be a huge difference”, he says) but he admits that nothing, in his writing life at least, has been as important to him as the cultivation of a sense of place.
“That’s one of the few things that holds true for both the fiction and all the non-fiction. They’re all rooted in a place. The novels really explicitly: Paris Trance, Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi. The Colour of Memory is set almost entirely in Brixton while Yoga for People Who Can’t Be Bothered To Do It is very much about place.”
But what’s place, I wonder, without travel?
I point out that Zona, Dyer’s “Book about a Film about a Journey to a Room”, opens with an epigraphic allusion that might be traced to at least two writers for whom travel meant very different things. The epigraph, attributed to W.H. Auden, derives from Joseph Brodsky’s collection of essays, Watermark. Auden, who happily renounced his adolescent role as “fellow-traveller” in order to adopt the guise of “a minor trans-Atlantic Goethe”, played an influential part in securing Brodsky’s safe passage to the United States, via Austria and Venice, following his exile from the Soviet Union in 1967.
Auden and Brodsky are both, I suggest, writers of the peripatetic or fugitive moment. Are they important to Dyer in this respect? Does he think of his own engagement with place and travel in a similar sense?
“I don’t think of it as a tradition so much as a little series of linkages,” he replies, “an attempt to track literary changes. I felt I was another link in that chain. I would say that I associate myself with a very different series of travel-writers. DH Lawrence is important to me. Rebecca West as well. Rebecca West, of course, gets a great deal out of Lawrence.”
Dyer admits that he finds Auden increasingly “cheesy”, and that he struggles to feel much affinity for his “very upper middle-class English thing”. His affection for Brodsky, by contrast, has more to do with “his weird, abbreviated metaphysics” than with questions of travel.
“I love the way that so much of the energy in Brodsky’s writing”, he says, “is coiled up in what are really quite boring phrases: “On the other hand”, or “If you like”, or “It seems to me”. Rhythmically and tonally, I like that.”
Weird, abbreviated metaphysics; rhythm and tone. These phrases key us in to Dyer’s intellectual interests on the one hand, and his sensitivity to what Seamus Heaney has called “the mouth-feel” of language — the shape, sound, weight and texture of words — on the other.
I’m well aware that Dyer has very little time for the brand of intellectualism housed within the walls of academic institutions. He has referred to “dim-witted academics” and, in Out of Sheer Rage, he has claimed that academic writing “kills everything in touches.”
At the same time, however, a book like The Missing of the Somme slips easily into the groove of “academic criticism”. I mention this, adding that I found that book to be both wonderfully easy to read, academically rigorous, and intellectually compelling.
“That’s music to my ears,” he exclaims. “But there is a crucial difference between ‘academic’ and ‘intellectual’. The problem with academia, for me, is that the ideal academic way of writing doesn’t have a voice. That it shouldn’t show any sign of emanating from a human. And voice is important for me. To quote Auden, ‘All I have is a voice’”.
“I really like stuff that’s voice-driven,” he continues. “When I read a book, what typically keeps me going beyond the first ten pages is whether I like the tone or not. And the tone, or the voice in which I expressed that anti-academic position [in Out of Sheer Rage]… there’s a degree of exaggeration and hysteria in there. At that point I was totally in the grips of my [Thomas] Bernhard addiction. That’s where the ranting and raving comes from.”
“Since then”, he confesses, “I’ve spent increasing amounts of time on university campuses in one way or another, so I’ve also grown out of that rather adolescent dislike of academia. But academics do seem to have a rather strange relationship to literature, and one that is not mine at all.”
Dyer’s interest in voice might explain his attentiveness, in his writing, to the sound and shape, the heft and heave, as much as to the sense of words. I mention, by way of example, how the narrator of The Colour of Memory is struck by his sense that the word “apricot” seems to contain “more sounds than can logically be accounted for”.
Elsewhere, Dyer has made humorous observations about fears of DIY-ing and, in Death in Venice, a sign at the hairdresser’s declares, as if haunted by the ghost of Sylvia Plath, that “Dye-ing is an art like everything else, we do it really well, we do it so it looks real”.
Dyer responds by recalling another word-game from The Colour of Memory.
“There’s a bit where a woman on the roof is taking off her sneakers and, wondering if her feet smell, she grabs her toe and sniffs it in that yoga way… and I say that it was a “supple gesture”. And of course, the difference between “subtle” and “supple” is such a subtle one.”
Subtle, yes; but humor is a notoriously fickle mistress. Fortunately, Dyer seems to recognise this, and he is quick to add that he is not the kind of writer who tends to fall for the seductive games of wordplay.
“I don’t feel any great affinity with that Oulipo-thing. But you’d be hard pressed to find any writer, even one as pared down as Hemingway or as minimalist as Carver, who wasn’t into the fun of moving words around on the page. But I’m very happy to hear you say this about the attention I give to words,” he continues, “because so often people describe my style as ‘casual’ or ‘conversational’. In actual fact, much of it – the Lawrence book in particular – the sentences are quite elaborate. It’s not just chatty and casual.”
“What I’ve said before,” he adds, “is that, for me, the writing process quite often the first version. Usually the first draft comes through rather uptight and only then do I actually relax it. So that kind of conversational, casual style that people have noticed is actually the product of having gone through it many times. Quite often the idea is that you’re tightening things up, but you’re loosening things up as well.”
I suggest that a willingness to play with words might contribute to an interest in testing conventions of form and genre. In The Search, for example, a readiness to acknowledge the sonic and visual kinship between the words tracking and trafficking adds surprising depth to the well-worn tropes of the hard-boiled detective novel.
Dyer agrees. “In that book I wanted to emphasise that at some level it’s a version of the classic noir-ish thing.”
If The Search mediates the conventions of noir via the tone of Carver or Chandler, it also manages to move far beyond the dreary tropes of “genre fiction”. The same principle applies to his more general perception of the novel as a literary form.
“I’ve never shared this kind of absolute reverence for ‘the novel’. It’s like those Sherpas in Nepal who worship Everest… ‘A God lives up there!’… I’ve never regarded the novel in that way. Possibly as a way of justifying my own limitations as a writer.”
It’s difficult to tell if this self-assessment reflects Dyer’s good manners or his modesty. Perhaps it says more about his confidence in the kind of “quietly innovative” approach to literary productions that he has identified in the work of John Berger, and which he has arguably been producing for years.
In response to these remarks, Dyer refers to his role as adjudicator for the Goldsmith’s Prize.
“It’s partly to reward innovation or experimentation in fiction. But it seems to me that they would have been better advised not to limit it to fiction because then you’re automatically saying ‘OK, it’s a prize for innovation but it’s got to be within this very strictly defined area.’ I think that in so much of the stuff that’s interesting the innovation is precisely in the fact that you don’t know exactly what it is formally. So that may be important.”
“And then,” he adds, “there’s such a long tradition of experimental writing, and that itself seems to be a rather conventional thing. My feeling is that most innovation is being done not in order to be experimental, not just to do something new, but because the culture has a need for it… because people are a bit bored with novels or because there’s stuff you can’t say in that form.”
Dyer’s interest in traversing the borderlands of form or genre, I am relieved to hear, does not emerge from an attempt to align himself with the more exaggerated pronouncements of “the avant-gard”. I mention the fact that the chapters in The Colour of Memory count down from 060 to 001 as an example of the kind of quiet innovation Dyer might have in mind.
“Yes,” he says, “In The Colour of Memory there’s the sense of time running out… time running out for that lifestyle. It’s not possible to live like that in London now. And tensions arise…. I think the aim is voice,” he says, “irrespective if it’s in the novel or in my journalism. I think the situation in any given book, the relationship between the characters, generates a certain kind of drama. The word I always come back to is ‘traction’: there’s something to give it some traction.”
“And it’s funny,” he adds, “it took someone like [Karl Ove] Knausgård to make people realize how superfluous the perceived need for plot was if you went at it with sufficient… relentlessness. Plot’s always bored me as a reader. You can so often see it trundling through the gears to get to a satisfactory conclusion.”
The recording plays on in the background — I am asking Dyer a fairly inane question about his favorite book – but this seems like a good place to stop. It’s getting late, and we have reserved a table at The Leopard. As we head off, Geoff tells me that he has been there before, and that he always orders the Basil & Parsley Beef Meatballs with Bell Pepper and Pan Juice Muddle.
We continue to talk – about why Middlemarch is a great book… for teenagers; about Lee Marvin’s “iron boots” in John Boorman’s Point Blank; and about how I really know very little about Argentina’s continuing economic default — but all of that is off the record.
Photograph: Jason Oddy