Magazine article The Spectator

On the Waterfront

Magazine article The Spectator

On the Waterfront

Article excerpt

JEFF IN VENICE, DEATH IN VARANA I by Geoff Dyer Canongate, £12, pp. 291, ISBN 9781847672704 . £10.39 (plus £2.45 p&p) 0870 429 6655

Geoff Dyer is the least ca te go r i sab le of writers. Give him a genre and he'll bend it; pigeonhole him and he'll break out. Clever, funny, an intellectual with a resolutely bloke-ish stance; irreverent and incorrigibly subversive, this is the man who set off to write a study of D. H. Lawrence and came up with Out of Sheer Rage, a rant against academia in which Lawrence figured as a spear-carrier.

His book about jazz, But Beautiful, started life as a critical study, and in its final form combined laconic history with poignant vignettes; short stories that uncovered the heart and soul of the music. Fiction as truth.

His most beguiling book, Yoga for People Who Can't Be Bothered to Do It, was a collection of anti-travel articles and mood pieces, with some hair-raising, first-hand drug-taking stuff, and an essay on Leptis Magna that managed to be simultaneously insightful, thought-provoking and hilarious.

Dyer is more than a cult writer; he's a virus, invading your system. You look at things differently, embracing the idiosyncratic, keeping the obvious at bay. Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi is his latest oddity.

So where does it figure in the Dyerarchy?

Described as a novel, it is in fact two novellas, set in two cities, linked only (unless I'm missing something) by the fact that the central figure is a journalist in town to write a commissioned piece. Dyer himself has called it a diptych.

Jeff in Venice begins with Jeff Atman setting out to cover the Biennale for a magazine called Kulchur. He is forty-something, tall, thin, consumed with anxieties about everything: status, job, mortality, party invitations . . . Worried about going grey, he asks if the hairdresser can dye his hair.

'Yes' he said, 'Dyeing is an art like everything else. We do it exceptionally well.'

A hairdresser who quotes Sylvia Plath is the man for Jeff. With his newly brown thatch he takes his Ryanair flight into artworld madness, and the Biennale springs to gaudy, freeloading life - the Bellini worshipped here not the painter but the alcoholic mix. He also meets the woman of his dreams, and the book changes gear: resonances mount up: like Aschenbach, Jeff is gripped by erotic fever, and fleeting glimpses of Mann's text surface through the pages. …

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