Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Geoff Dyer is a Very Strange Person

Three by Dyer:

Out of Sheer Rage: Wrestling With D.H. Lawrence

The Ongoing Moment

Yoga for People Who Can't Be Bothered to Do It

I always laugh when I think of Eric Idle in Monty Python and the Holy Grail saying (of the Frenchman who is taunting King Arthur) "What a strange person!"  Though he's extremely smart and one of the most engaging writers around, when I read Dyer I feel that either he is a very strange person (and wouldn't be offended to hear you say it and would be great fun to get drunk with) or he has perfected a literary persona who could be a member of the cast of Fawlty Towers.  In my favorite of his books, Out of Sheer Rage, a memoir/biography/travelogue circling around the subject of how Dyer manages to avoid writing a book about D.H. Lawrence, Dyer channels a strange brew of Thomas Bernhard and Rodney Dangerfield--an intellectual malcontent who travels compulsively, is misanthropic and self-absorbed, hedonistic (Dyer often smokes weed and, despite his minutely categorized physical deformities, is never without a beautiful woman with whom to have lots of sex), untrustworthy, opinionated, and, come to think of it, not all that different from David Herbert himself.  It didn't occur to me until late in the book that Dyer was channeling Lawrence--a writer so self-absorbed, priapistic, and clueless about other people as to invite exactly the sort of parody served up by the witty Dyer. But even more than Lawrence--a writer I have never been able to warm up to, and whose books I read only for the sake of some grad school course--the presiding genius of Out of Sheer Rage is Bernhard, as here, in Dyer's send up of academic literary criticism:

"I burned it [the book of lit-crit essays about Lawrence] in self-defense.  It was the book or me because writing like that kills everything it touches.  That is the hallmark of academic criticism: it kills everything it touches.  Walk around a university campus and there is an almost palpable smell of death about the place because hundreds of academics are busy killing everything they touch."

That's Bernhard: no complaint is worth making that can't be made three times.  And no grievance is ever anything less than fatal--compare Dyer here to Bernhard's Concrete or Gargoyles for the origin of a style that recognizes life as neither comic nor tragic but farcical. Dyer's riffs on where to live, on why he hates eating fish, on bathing at a nude beach in Mexico, on not speaking foreign languages, on his long-suffering girlfriend Laura, are funny in the sense of not servicing that annoying ironic urge of educated people to laugh at everything, but in the sense of Dyer's being willing to focus on how foolish we are when we can't control our contrary desires.  

Dyer is likely to make you laugh out loud.  As when he confesses he honestly can't even read Lawrence except for one or two of the most obscure of his travel books; Dyer would rather read Rilke than Lawrence any day, and much of the time the observations about Lawrence and on literature that Dyer makes draw on a sensibility that is Germanic and Rilkian rather than English and Lawrencian.  That is, a sensibility that is Apollonian rather than Dionysian, or formal rather than felt.  Dyer's ambivalence toward DHL extends to England itself: away from home on some distant "research trip" in New or Old Mexico, Dyer waxes nostalgic about England but can't think of anything he misses but the telly.  One of the best bits comes when Dyer leaves Paris and agonizes over where to live--he hates children so he's footloose and could live anywhere--he tries Rome but ends up, of all places, in Dullford, Oxford, land of academics and bores. But of course Lawrence loathed England, left early and didn't return, but remained an Englishman all his (brief) life.  Dyer's play with these facts of Lawerence's bizarre, restless existence (how did DHL ever get any work done?) are really quite brilliant: I'm rather surprised Dyer didn't perish of TB by book's end.  But then, the ending of Out of Sheer Rage is extraordinary, not to be given away here.

The most obvious influence on Dyer's work isn't Lawrence or Rilke or even Bernhard but John Berger (right), the remarkable novelist, art critic, travel writer,  and cultural critic.  Dyer edited Berger's Selected Essays and contributed an admiring essay to the volume (which I have been enjoying, an essay a day, for a month now).  Other evidence of Berger's influence on Dyer is the latter's The Ongoing Moment, a smart and incisive book-length essay on the photography of Stieglitz, Paul Strand, Walker Evans, André Kertész, Edward Weston, Dorothea Lange, Diane Arbus, and William Eggleston.  Dyer looks at clusters of related photographs, including portraits of the photographers by their peers. His insights into the art of the photograph are impressive for an amateur--the book contains so many interesting ideas that I couldn't make up my mind which quotation to include here.  How about this:

"In Stieglitz, the will to power was both highly and insufficiently developed.  Highly developed in that he had to overcome others; inadequately developed because he was powerless to achieve the ultimate Nietzschean project of self-overcoming."

As someone who knows very little about the history of photography, I profited from Dyer's close readings of particular artists and their styles--for example how Dorothea Lang approached the composition of thematic scenes--her sequence of blind beggars, for instance.  Dyer also sent me back to books on Kertész and Walker Evans, photographers whose images of New York evoke a beautiful city that is now gone.

As for Yoga: well, the reviewers claim to have loved this collection of essays about Dyer's vertigo-inducing travels; I've renounced travel myself, so a vicarious adventure in Thailand isn't unwelcome.  But I didn't care for this book.  I made it through three or four of the "essays" (actually, loose bits of memoir) but quickly tired of the book.  My Dyer problem began when he tried to outdo Bruce Chatwin: What's the weirdest thing you've ever done in a foreign country?  How gross were the poor people?  How vile were the accommodations?  I do have sympathy for the traveler who hates everything about going places; when I used to travel I would find everything about my journey insufferable aside from the memories of the journey once I was safely at home.  While I enjoy Dyer as a travel writer, that isn't his strength--he's best when he's at home (wherever that might be) just being himself, thinking, paying attention, looking at pictures or people, complaining.  Anyway, my all-time favorite gonzo travel writer (who I want to plug here) is Redmond O'Hanlon (see if you can lay hands on In Trouble Again) who is, if anything, crazier than Dyer.  

If you haven't read Dyer, pick up one of his books. There's plenty of them.  I'm just starting on his fiction now and am looking forward to his book on jazz, But Beautiful.  Here's Dyer's workroom.  The red walls seem right: manic color for a manic writer.


 George Ovitt (May 21, 2014)

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