Sunday, May 29, 2011

Flitting with Geoff Dyer

Originally posted here. Tweaked somewhat in the version below to reflect the passage of time.

It is fair to say that the better part of my reading life in 2010 has been spent in the company of Geoff Dyer's words. I've read Anglo- English Attitudes, But Beautiful, Out of Sheer Rage, Paris Trance, Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi, The Ongoing Moment and currently reading Working the Room. Also throw in the Selected Essays of John Berger, edited by Dyer, which is the first Dyer sample that I had.

The experience has not been mind-blowing. Instead it has been thoroughly enjoyable, illuminating, funny, reassuring, and in the case of But Beautiful filled with admiration at the utter beauty of his presentation. When you hear of Geoff Dyer, you also hear of genre-defying. Where do you put him? How do you classify? Dyer flits across subjects with alarming consistency. Every successive book is so clearly unlike its predecessor that you must be willing to catch his flight and go on his fancy ride. It helps that he does not expect you to come equipped with too many skills other than perhaps some open-mindedness. Like he admits in his essay collection Anglo-English Attitudes, he writes to learn about his current curiosity. And writes himself out of his curiosity. D H Lawrence, Jazz, Photography, Buddhism, Eastern Classical Music (Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan and Ramamani are particular favourites), Varanasi, Venice have all captured his curiosity and have all been written about with the enthusiasm and diligence and fresh insight of a learner.

In The Ongoing Moment, a compilation of the works of many mostly American photographers through the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries, Dyer's choices of photos and subjects are subjective and the reader is encouraged to read the book like she would rummage in a box of photos. He starts with the famous Paul Strand photograph of the Blind Woman and goes on to explore the fascination that photographers have had with a blind subject including Diane Arbus's photograph of Borges in Central Park and of Richard Avedon's experience of trying to photograph Borges at his home in Buenos Aires. Dyer's next subject is hands and I was intrigued by his explanation of Dorothea Lange's photograph of a Migratory Cotton Picker. The other subjects are hats, benches, stairs and so on.

In all of Dyer's books that I have read so far there are patterns. He likes D H Lawrence, Albert Camus, Rainer Maria Rilke, John Berger (his hero), and these gentlemen appear in quotes in most books. Dyer also likes to quote a lot. While this should be an irritating tic to endure, what makes it appealing is the subterfuge he employs. Quotes get worked into sentences as paraphrases, thematic nods, straight lifts of unusual word pairings etc. As a reader, it is a delight when you become suspicious of a sentence only to look at his always extensive notes and sources section to see that he tells you, 'but of course I used it cleverly, good for you that you are curious...' His sex scenes in Paris Trance and Jeff in Venice are remarkably similar, something that I would not have noticed if I hadn't read them in the same month. And unlike metaphorical sex that a lot of authors resort to, Dyer prefers the frank. What a relief to not read symbolism. In that sense the frankness of the sex becomes a symbol for something else.

But Beautiful is extraordinary in its lyrical invocation of the lives of the jazz musicians in the golden age of American jazz. I can close my eyes and still see Thelonious Monk sitting at his white piano wedged close to the kitchen slab, lost to the difficulty of his daily existence and tuned in to some free flowing abstraction that would become his music. I can feel Duke Ellington's spirit as he hops through all of America, to gig after gig after gig, in a battered car, sleeping in the front seat. Dyer's writing is so evocative of the rich, conflicted and tormented inner lives of these genius black musicians who created music from the very depths of their angst.

Up Next in this year's flit with Dyer is Yoga For People Who Can't Be Bothered To Do It.