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Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi

by Geoff Dyer (Pantheon, 2009)

What kind of book is Geoff Dyer's newest, Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi? Although easy to read, it is not easy to place. Is it one novel or two novellas?  Fiction or non-fiction? We're assured that it's fiction. But while it bristles with close observations and rich renderings of lived experience, it lacks the tension that pulls stories in general and fiction in particular toward their conclusions. It's true that the narrator in the latter half of the book appears, at the end, to die, and death is certainly a conclusion. But this is a dying without death, an imagined experience wrapped up in a literary exercise.

The literary exercise, of course, is an imitation (in the old literary sense) of Thomas Mann's novella, Tod in Venedig. Mr Dyer has produced two novellas in response. In the first, a character bearing something like his own name attends the Biennale for what seems to be a second-, if not third-, tier arts publication. In what follows, an unnamed narrator describes a trip to Varanasi that is supposed to last for only a few days but that stretches out indefinitely —on might almost say, infinitely. The narrator's postponed departure thus invokes Mann's massive Der Zauberberg, an aspect of the exercise that, given its placement in a work of short fiction, amounts to a joke. Readers who have read their Mann will enjoy Mr Dyer's play. But once the exercise is finished — once it is recognized, really — the two stories vanish in a puff of inconsequence, leaving behind little the memory of some great sex writing set in Venice and some great travel writing about the city that we used to call Benares. This may be precisely the effect intended.

In Death in Venice, the artist is exhausted. He feels used up and incapable of refreshment.

It was an urge to flee — he fully admitted it, this yearning for freedom, release, oblivion — an urge to flee his work, the humdrum routine of a rigid, cold, passionate duty. Granted, he loved that duty and even almost loved the enervating daily struggle between his proud tenacious, much-tested will and the growing fatigue, which no one must suspect or the finished product betray by the slightest sign of foundering or neglect. But it made sense not to go too far in the other direction, not to be so obstinate as to curb a need erupting with such virulence. He thought of his work, of the point at which, yesterday and again today, he had had to abandon it since it had refused to yield to either patient attention or a swift bit of legerdemain. He had examined the passage anew, trying to shatter or diffuse his block, only to renounce the effort with a shudder of revulsion.

Dyer's Jeffrey Atman is just bored.

The fact that his dyed hair had sort of rolled back the years brought home how little progress he'd made in the intervening decade and a half. Here he was, doing the same shit he'd been doing fifteen years ago. Not that that made doing it any easier; it just made it more depressing. As always he struggled to get anywhere near the required word length and then, after padding and expanding, ended up with too many words and had to expend still more energy cutting it back to the required length (which always turned out to be more than was actually published). Still, by eleven o'clock he'd finished it, cracked it, done it.

It would appear that Mann's sculptural portrait of the artist as a tragic victim, as a sort of Prometheus whose inspiration is plucked out by the carrion-birds of mockery, is to be appropriated for a postmodern cartoon. Indeed, Jeff/Varanasi makes a great deal of sense as a work of conceptual art. If I'm disinclined to pronounce it a great work of conceptual art, that's because I don't believe that conceptual art can be great. The feeling that conceptual art always triggers in me is a a kind of intellectual purr, the prevailing note of which is I get it. I may not get it entirely, but I get it well enough to enjoy the feeling of getting it, of being in on the joke. It's amusing to note that Jeff gets his hair dyed in London, right at the start of his adventure — and he's not talked into doing so, either. Aschenbach is made ridiculous by the barber at the Lido hotel: the simulation of youthful looks is too extreme. Jeff, in contrast, looks great, and the friends whom he meets by the dozens in Venice all praise him for making a good move.

Aschenbach falls in love, hopelessly, with a beautiful Polish boy whom he encounters at play, with his friends, on the beach.

Separated from the shore by a broad stretch of water and from his companions by a proud frame of mind, he walked on, a highly aloof and isolated figure, his hair streaming in the sea, in the wind, before the misty infinitude. Again he paused on to gaze into the distance. And all at once, as if driven by a memory, an impulse, he twisted his body at the waist, hand on hip, into a graceful turn and glanced over his shoulder toward the shore. There sat the observer...

Jeff's experience with Laura, the pretty American whom he picks up at the Guggenheim palazzo, is rather less idealized.

They disentangled their legs and arms, feeling, he suspected, a little self-conscious now about how their faces had ended up in each others genitals.

Mr Dyer's erotic writing, which approaches but never actually touches pornography, is briskly entertaining on its own, but it becomes positively hilariously when shown alongside Thomas Mann's dreamy reserve. It is the humor of the rude, deflating gesture that clever schoolboys mime behind the backs of unsuspecting masters. This is Death in Venice as rewritten by the "man in the bast hat," the recurring, mocking figure who haunts Aschenbach.

Jeff in Venice stops well short of pornography because Laura herself, and not what she can do with her comely limbs, is a very appealing figure: we want to know more about her, and what will happen to her relationship with Jeff. But this is part of the joke, too. Nothing will come of all this good sex. What plays in Venice stays in Venice. Laura flies home: The End.

A gull swooped low over a passing water-taxi, a dead pigeon in its beak: an ill and not terribly hygienic omen. Maybe it was the pigeon he'd seen earlier. He lay back uncomfortably and looked up at the nothing sky. An aeroplane passed overhead, leaving a fine vapour trail in its wake. Slowly it expanded, becoming a line of powdered whiteness against the empty blue.

This finish is a cinematic device: turning up the lights, fading to white. As a literary move, however, it seems somewhat arbitrary. Why not end a few pages earlier, directly after Laura's departure, and before the visit to the Scuola Grande di San Rocco, where Jeff looks at (and tell us something about) a monumental Crucifixion by Tintoretto. What would work on the screen feels a bit padded on the page. As the nice write-up of the Scuola's interior hasn't fit anywhere else in Jeff in Venice, it finds a place here. In the movie, we would see the art, and grasp in a moment that it both overwhelms Jeff, spent as he is after a few days of carnal excess, and brings him back down to earth. In a story, it is a lot of writing in which Jeff's only act is to snort some leftover cocaine. Nothingness of life and all that.

Mr Dyer is an extremely accomplished writer, and spending time in his company is a pleasure. When the entertainment is over, though, there is an embarrassed moment, as the suspicion that one has been led to expect something else, something more, perhaps, but certainly something else, quietly dissipates. I don't feel that I'm being made fun of, but, as I say, there is a scent of mockery in the air.

The game that Death in Varanasi seems to be playing reminds me of Haydn's Farewell Symphony. One by one, the musicians stop playing, and suddenly (as it seems) the first violinist traces the final phrase and falls still. At the beginning, the narrator, like Jeffrey Atman, is your standard issue literary Brit brat.

Beyond the jostle was what seemed like a view, across a narrow ocean, of an empty continent, desert-dry. It was like arriving at the world's first-ever seaside resort. This resort, evidently, was in serious need of repair, but its popularity was undiminished. Whatever else had happened to Varanasi, it had never fallen into ruin — and never would. Even if every building in it collapsed, it would not be a ruin. The sky was holiday blue. Banners fluttered in the breeze. There was uncomprehended meaning everywhere, I could see that. The colours made the rainbow look muted. Lolly-pink, a temple pointed skywards like a rocket whose launch, delayed by centuries, was still believed possible, even imminent, by the Brahmins lounging in the warm shade of mushroom umbrellas. Were they imparting wisdom to disciples or just chatting with pals — India was losing to South Africa in a test match — about cricket? Enlightened or completely out of it? Both? Even the fake holy men — and I'd been warned, by Jamal, that many of them were wholly fake — were genuine.

Through the course of a hundred fifty pages, the narrator gradually insinuates himself into the local texture, abandoning the identity with which he arrived along with the desires that went with them. He ceases, bit by bit, to want. (Of course he gets to wearing a dhoti.) On the last page, he is carried to the banks of the Ganga (Ganges) by a kangaroo god that he invented fifty pages earlier. Along with Ganoona.

"Who is Ganoona?"

"Ganoona is all that which is not anything else. But it's also that which is everything else."

"Ganoona?"

"Yes. Nietzsche proclaimed the coming of the όbermensch. I proclaim the coming of Ganoona. In a kangaroo's pouch.

It is sublime, and it is ridiculous. As the narrator goes native, gets sick, and finally goes out, we move from wondering what's wrong with him and why he doesn't do something about it — the routine Western responses — to acquiescing to his immolation in the blaze of mutually-affirming contradictions that is India's holiest city.

The success with which Mr Dyer meets his challenges has a price: these stories do not read as fiction. At best, they read as "as if" sketches: what would it be like to fly to Venice and meet a dream girl with whom you could have dreamy, utterly inconsequential sex? What would it be like to go to India and just let go — to let nature take its course, to stop taking action? As such, the book is superbly successful. But these thoughts, not inspired by the narrative but positively provoked by it, act as a scrim between us and Mr Dyer's two men — if they are two men, and not one and the same Jeffrey Atman. The sympathy that is an essential part of reading fiction is replaced by the satisfaction of watching Geoff Dyer win that test match.

As I say, it may be precisely the effect intended. (July 2009)

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