Sunday, August 16, 2009

On "Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi"

So, while I was up in NH, I read Geoff Dyer's new novel, Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi. I'd heard of Dyer before but never read anything by him, and the main reason I picked this one up was the Varanasi in the title.

It is a sad fact (to me, at least) that there are very few good novels set in Varanasi--or, if they're around, I've never heard of them. There's one I couldn't get through (Sister India by Peggy Payne) and another I started with anticipation and finished in great disappointment (Pankaj Mishra's The Romantics. Even more irritating were the glowing US reviews, including in the Washington Post and New York Review of Books, which had me muttering, "What book were you reading?" (The Indian reviews were mixed.)) Charlotte Bacon's lovely second novel There is Room for You has a section set in Varanasi, but I don't think that can count as an actual Varanasi novel.

So, I picked up the Dyer mostly for that reason. And then there were the blurbs. Down the back cover of the book, there they were, from Michael Ondaatje (who can do no wrong in my mind), William Boyd (a couple of whose early novels I liked and whose recent Restless was one of my favorite books to listen to over the past few years), David Mitchell (okay, I never made it through Cloud Atlas, but I enjoyed the earlier Ghostwritten), Joshua Ferris (Well, I did find And Then We Came to the End rather tedious, but lots of other folks liked it) and Zadie Smith (I really enjoyed On Beauty, and, you know, she's Zadie Smith.) It was a bit daunting, thinking that all of these bigwigs had said such nice things about Geoff Dyer and the book--what would it say about me if I didn't like it?

Geoff Dyer is known, apparently, for writing non-categorizable books. There are a few novels there, but there are also some cross-genre books such as one titled Yoga for People Who Can't be Bothered to Do It as well as a book about not writing a critical study on DH Lawrence (Out of Sheer Rage), one on photography (The Ongoing Moment) and one on jazz (But Beautiful).

But I felt at a disadvantage from the beginning because the first part of Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi, which is set at the Venice Biennale in 2003, is clearly a riff on Thomas Mann's Death in Venice, which I have not read. So, when I was trying to explain to my friend what the book was about, I had to say something along the lines of, "Well, it's about a jaded journalist named Jeff who goes to the Venice Biennale to write about art and ends up going to lots of parties and drinking a lot of bellinis and snorting a lot of cocaine and having lots of sex with a beautiful American he meets there. Oh, and his last name is Atman, which is a word used to describe the soul or the universal self in Hinduism and Buddhism." "Nothing you have said so far makes me want to read it," she said. I pointed out that it was well written and sometimes quite funny, though the most definite thing I gained from it was the knowledge that, had I had much of a yen to do cocaine before I read the book, it would have been gone by the time I finished.

As for the second part, another journalist, this one unnamed (possibly Jeff, possibly not) takes a last minute travel writing assignment to go to Varanasi and then doesn't leave. (The purest bit of fiction--are there any newspapers left who would fly someone, even a big time writer, business class to Delhi and then on to Varanasi and put them up at the Taj Ganges for 5 nights all for a 1200 word piece on Varanasi? I realize I don't travel in very elevated writing worlds, but in these days of vanishing newspaper travel sections, it seems pretty damn unlikely.) Eventually, he moves from the Taj Ganges to the Ganges View (which, as it so happens, is right next door to Anami Lodge, where I've stayed the last few times I've been in Varanasi) and settles in, losing track of time and his passport and desire itself.

This is taken from the roof of Anami Lodge, and the terrace with plants on it, in the foreground, is the Ganges View.

Geoff Dyer has clearly spent some time in Varanasi, and I really enjoyed his take on it--there are some great (and very accurate) descriptions, and as a journey to a place I know and love, I enjoyed his vision. For someone who hasn't been there, this could read as a travelogue with bits of plot attached. And there are filaments of connections between the Venice and Varanasi sections, images reflected and refracted, so it doesn't feel like you're reading each section in a vacuum.

So, I liked the book. I'm not sorry I read it. But where I find the disconnect is between what I felt about it and what various distinguished critics and writers felt about it. In a glowing New York Times Book Review review, Pico Iyer calls it "profoundly haunting and fearless" and ends the review by saying, "In the weeks since I devoured 'Jeff in Venice,' I don’t think a day has passed without my thinking back to it." In the New Yorker, James Wood (who I think is generally rather cranky) is a fan, giving the book and Dyer a serious and thoughtful review, ending with the comment that it is an "original, affecting, and unexpected book." In the New York Review of Books, it gets two full pages by Tim Parks. I actually enjoyed this review quite a bit, until the last column, when he starts talking about the connections between this book and D.H. Lawrence's travel writing as well as the connections with Thomas Mann again, which got me wondering.

Am I not the ideal audience for this book because I haven't read Thomas Mann? Or because I haven't read more D.H. Lawrence? (I'm not sure having read Women in Love, about which I had very mixed feelings, in grad school counts for too much.) Or because I haven't read more Geoff Dyer? I also wonder, as I often do, if it's a gender thing. (The authors of these glowing reviews are all middle-aged men, as is Geoff Dyer.)

It turns out that the New Yorker did an online book club a couple of months ago where they talked about Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi and Geoff Dyer himself shows up to answer questions. ( The first part starts here.) One of the questioners mentioned having gone back and read the Venice section again after having read the whole book and said that it read completely differently. To that, Geoff Dyer says, "I would love it if people followed your example and read the book if not twice then at least one and half times because, yes, the Venice part does change in the light of the Varanasi part, i.e., it’s not just sex and coke and party banter!" Except, on first read, at least, it kind of is.

On the one hand, I'm slightly curious to see if this is true. On the other hand, I think maybe I have to accept that while this is a Varanasi book that I enjoyed, it's maybe not my Varanasi book. (Maybe my Varanasi book I'll just have to write myself.) There are definitely books I've wanted to start over immediately upon finishing them. Maggie O'Farrell's gorgeous first novel After You'd Gone comes to mind as does one of my favorite Indian novels ever, Amitav Ghosh's The Shadow Lines. But I got to the end of Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi, and my first impulse was not to flip back to the beginning. (Sorry, Geoff Dyer.) I finished and was kind of done except for wondering why I hadn't seemed to appreciate it as much as everyone whose reviews I read. It's almost easier, when reviewers have loved a book that I didn't like at all. (Claire Messud's The Emperor's Children comes to mind here. Fine, it was well written and culturally relevant, but I found it very cold and don't like investing time in a long novel when there are no sympathetic characters at all, no matter how well their unsympatheticness is portrayed.) In this case, I feel like we all read the same book except that they got a layer of meaning out of it that I missed completely.

In any case, I am leaving shortly for a few days on Cape Cod with my charming nieces (and their parents), and the book is staying here, so I guess that answers the re-reading question. At least for now. I'll report back if I spend the next few days thinking about the book and wanting to re-read it. Or, maybe, I'll just find a nice fat mystery and read it on the beach and call it a day.

1 comment:

Maureen said...

Hey Sue -
Happy to find a new post from you! I have not read this, nor will I probably. Like you, I seem to just prefer women writers.
I am slogging through Atlas Shrugged - not sure why.
I have been chatting with your friend Cara.
Thinking of you!