Sex, Soul and a Tale of Two Cities
Gibbs, Jonathan, The Independent (London, England)
Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi By Geoff Dyer CANONGATE Pounds 12.99 (296pp) Pounds 11.69 (free p&p) from the Independent Bookshop: 0870 079 8897
If ever there was a book of two halves, it is Geoff Dyer's first novel for over a decade. His last fictional excursion (though for Dyer the division is largely artificial) was Paris, Trance, a druggy elegy for Ninties romanticism that was partly a reworking of Hemingway's The Sun Also Rises.
Dyer tipped his hat by repeatedly slipping lines from that novel into his, as if trying to inject it with Hemingway DNA. He pulls a similar trick with Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi, though no prizes this time around for guessing his source. Dyer's conceit is to fillet the quasi-Eastern philosophy of renunciation at the heart of Thomas Mann's story and separate it out into two discrete narratives that intricately reflect and inform each other.
In the first part, discontented freelance journalist Jeff Atman (the last name references the Hindu concept of soul) is briefly lifted out of his usual round of junkets and meaningless think- pieces to cover the Venice Biennale. Venice, so often seen as the repository of a vanished past, is repainted as the ultimate in Western excess - a shimmering canvas crammed with art-world players and liggers. Trying to get into a party at the Peggy Guggenheim Collection, Jeff notes, "It was as if the government of Venice had fallen and the last helicopters were about to take off from the Guggenheim."
Whereas Mann's tragic hero, Aschenbach, is the model of a pious aesthete, Jeff is exuberantly shallow, belting back Bellini after Bellini, skimming the exhibitions and falling into a miraculous tryst with beautiful American Laura. In contrast to poor Aschenbach's never-to-be-consummated desire for the teenage boy Tadzio, Jeff gets two great, uninhibited sex scenes. …