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Geoff Dyer with Jed Lipinski

Portrait of the artist. Pencil on paper by Phong Bui.
Portrait of the artist. Pencil on paper by Phong Bui.

Geoff Dyer is the author of But Beautiful: A Book About Jazz (winner of the Somerset Maugham Award), Out of Sheer Rage (a finalist for a National Book Critics Circle Award), Yoga For People Who Can't Be Bothered To Do It, and The Ongoing Moment, among other titles. His newest book is scheduled to be published by Pantheon in 2009. Recently, Dyer took time to speak with Rail contributing writer Jed Lipinski about his life and work.

Jed Lipinski (Rail): In an interview between Greil Marcus and Don DeLillo in The Believer magazine last year, they agreed with Walter Pater’s statement that all art aspires to the condition of music. Your third book, But Beautiful: A Book About Jazz, has such a musical quality to it; it’s in my opinion your most stylistically attractive book. Do you agree with that idea: that art tends to aspire to the condition of music? What is it about music that makes it so attractive a thing for art to aspire to?

Geoff Dyer: I fear that the truthful answer to this question is also the most boring: it depends. Obviously the thing about music is that it’s content-free and many novels are content-heavy. Not simply in the sense that they have content in them, but that their worth is defined in large part by the nature of that content, by what happens in them. Personally, I’m not that interested in content. But Beautiful is obviously very musical because it’s about music—that’s its content! But I think The Ongoing Moment is probably the most musical of my books in terms of its structure: strange in a way since its content is photography.

The most musical writer I can think of is Thomas Bernhard. I was re-reading bits of Correction the other day, and the way certain word-motifs start threading themselves into the thing, building up, establishing themselves, mutating and then fading away and returning—wow, it’s amazing, like a string quartet or something. To take an obvious example, he mentions “sifting” and then “sifting and sorting” on page one. These are the key words in the whole novel and they come slyly back in before building up to that amazing crescendo passage—the funniest thing in literature—where he just goes crazy and instead of sifting and sorting just empties the contents of his rucksack all over the sofa. I also like the old-fashioned, swelling cadences of Tennyson.

Rail: Rebecca West’s Black Lamb and Grey Falcon had a significant influence on you, and you quote her in an essay on Serbia and Montenegro (included in The Thinking Fan’s Guide to the World Cup): “Only part of us is sane, only part of us loves pleasure and the longer days of happiness, wants to live to our nineties and die in peace, in a house that we built, that shall shelter those who come after us. The other part of us is nearly mad. It prefers the disagreeable to the agreeable, loves pain and its darker night, despair, and wants to die in a catastrophe that will set back life to its beginnings and leave nothing of our house save its blackened foundations.”

Your book about D.H. Lawrence, Out of Sheer Rage, and your more recent book of travels stories, Yoga for People Who Can’t Be Bothered To Do It, are both concerned with this fondness for ruination. It reminds me of the part in Down and Out in Paris and London where Orwell feels relief at having finally gone to the dogs, after worrying about going to the dogs for so long.

Dyer: Yes, or Solzhenitsyn talking about the relief of finally getting arrested, after having dreaded it for so long. On a general level, people like ruins and have for a long time. Different ages see different things in them, but I think the underlying thing is that in the course of becoming ruins, something about the essence of the place that was there—its primordial circuitry—is sometimes laid bare. The photographs by Kenro Izu in his book Sacred Places make this very clear. In the Yoga book, the idea of my going to ruin works as a kind of structural and thematic way to anchor—and provide an internal commentary on—all the talk about actual physical ruins. And there’s that nice play off—if you don’t mind my saying—where I use Gibbon’s famous description of how he came to write Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire “as I sat musing amid the ruins of the Capitol” to counterpoint the failure of my own hopes to write a book about the ruins of classical antiquity. This, of course, is how those thwarted hopes are eventually realized.

The Rebecca West quote is an altogether more troubling and profound observation, borne out, I think, by what happened in Yugoslavia half a century after she wrote it.

Rail: There’s a beautiful passage in But Beautiful’s chapter on Bud Powell, in which you describe Bud’s return to the piano after his head injury, and the fragility of his playing: “It was like watching a gymnast and taking such agility and strength for granted until there was a fraction of an error and he crashed to the floor. It was only then that you realized how ordinary the barely possible had been made to appear—and it is the crash rather than the perfect somersaults that expresses the truth, the essence of the activity; that is the memory which stays with you forever.”

You can see this idea represented in the wipeout section of skateboard videos, which is usually the most dramatic and guiltily exciting part. Even though skateboarders have individual styles, similar mechanics are required to pull off a trick, whereas everybody falls off a skateboard in a different way.

Dyer: This is very interesting. I always like seeing the outtakes, rejected bits from films, CDs, etc. It’s like seeing a trick and learning a bit about how it’s done—but the magic still remains. But I slightly disagree with you about the skateboard wipeouts. In this book I’ve just finished writing the narrator is watching exactly such a compilation on TV and realizes that the bit he really loves—the sublime bit if you like—is the interval of weightlessness between the trick going wrong and the person smashing up on the ground. As far as I understand it, the history of music in the twentieth century has been in large part about ruining or busting up an earlier idea of beauty or harmony or whatever. You can see it in the course of Coltrane’s career whereby it gets noisier and screamier. Because Coltrane died young, we didn’t get to hear what tends to happen eventually: the re-entry, the return.

Rail: Related to this interest in seeing beauty dismantled is the Belgian poet Maeterlinck’s idea that “Happiness writes white.” People tend to want to read about sadness and catastrophe rather than happiness. And if you’re going to write about happiness, it seems necessary to smuggle it into a book under the guise of some sadness or darkness. You’ve said before that Wordsworth pulled off straight happiness fairly well. Who else do you think can make happiness work, and how do they do it? You manage it in your 1998 novel Paris Trance, but by occasionally hinting at the suicidal despair behind the main character Luke’s, and many lonely ex-pat’s, twenty-something condition.

Dyer: Oh, the temptation to blow one’s own trumpet! Yes, Paris Trance, for me, is a depiction of happiness, or my idea of it at any rate, and you’re right that it’s backlit or highlighted by our knowledge of what comes later.

As you’ve read all the books you’ll see that one of the persistent themes is a longing to give up, to put down the tools, to quit. But in terms of my personal happiness, I’ve had to do the opposite, to accept, reluctantly, that work makes me happy. Or at least work means that I’m not so vulnerable to those things that really piss me off—the weather, for example, or disappointing cappuccinos—and that get me into a state of such fury and despair I can hardly face living another day. By work obviously I mean book writing. Work wards off the depression to which one is prone if one is idle and untested. That’s one of the things about Luke in Paris Trance: by not having any work in the deep, fulfilling sense, he is too vulnerable to everything else that is happening. So, yes, I try to be happy, but that is the hallmark of the basically unhappy person. Plus, I’m one of those people who was sort of born bored.

Rail: One of the distinctive qualities of your style is the literal “turns” of phrase you use, the way your thoughts often double-back on themselves mid-sentence. This tendency might come from your awareness of something Whitman said which you’ve quoted several times in your books: “I do not doubt that interiors have their interiors, and exteriors their exteriors....” Things rarely turn out the way one expected, and more often they turn out to be the opposite of what one expected—perhaps simply because, being the opposite, they were the least prepared for result…

Dyer: Well, I think it’s this basic wager at the heart of all writing: you aim for some kind of universality, but the chances of achieving that are increased by remaining true to all the vagaries of one’s own nature. I think that everyone is prone to a version of these reversals that I am describing. Again, the absolute master of this is Thomas Bernhard. He’s pushed it to this completely pathological—but still recognizable—extreme. But also, just on the level of style, that kind of reversal is the basic form of many jokes, isn’t it? My friend Clarissa Stadler made what for me is a classic joke—I use it in one of the books but can’t remember which. She was talking about the way artists should not write, they should just paint. I said, “Nonsense, what about Van Gogh? His letters are amazing.” And she replied: “Yes, but have you seen the paintings?” That could almost be used in a textbook on the rhetoric of humor.

Rail: Your writing also seems conscious of the difference between the idea of restraint and restriction. Restraint facilitates production, the way not researching jazz as thoroughly as you might have allowed more room for your imaginative while writing But Beautiful; whereas restriction prevents production by giving you an excuse not to do something. As you say in Out of Sheer Rage, the life many people really want is “precisely a compound of all those thwarting circumstances.”

As someone who is repeatedly described by critics as a slacker, how do you reconcile the ideas of productivity and laziness? You mention in Out of Sheer Rage, for example, that Rilke suspects our idle days are more productive than what we consider our productive, accomplishment-filled days.

Dyer: I am both very industrious and incredibly lazy. How I long to do nothing! And I do actually squander huge amounts of time doing nothing—but not because I’m doing something stupid like watching crap TV. No, I end up doing absolutely nothing because I can’t quite settle on anything worthy of my time. So, for example, instead of reading a particular book I’ll waste a whole day doing absolutely nothing except thinking to myself “What shall I read? Is it worth committing to this particular book? Wouldn’t I be better off reading this one? Or this one?” It’s awful. You can feel your life gnawing itself away like that, just as a starving person starts eating up their body’s own reserves of fat. As for work, writing, well, it just fills one with such dread, the effort and concentration involved, so sometimes it’s difficult to reconcile oneself to getting down to it. But then, on a Friday, you feel so dreadful when you have failed to get anything done and so good when you have succeeded in making a bit of progress.

Rail: Your non-fiction books can be very personal and confessional. How conscious are you of what you divulge when writing non-fiction, and do you feel you do it at your own risk?

Dyer: This is very pertinent to a couple of books I read recently: Edmund White’s My Lives and John Lanchester’s Family Romance. I know both Ed and John a bit. So, in Ed’s book he writes, for example, how he sucks off his boyfriend while the boyfriend is taking a crap. And you think to yourself, “Oh yes, good old Ed, still at it!” Now the John Lanchester memoir is not revealing at all like that. But because in his other books he’s such a reserved writer, it is perhaps not shocking…but certainly the stuff he does reveal gives one pause. I’m very much of the Ed White school of perpetual revelation. Having said that, I hate people seeing my stuff in manuscript. Then, once it’s printed, I feel it’s got nothing to do with me. Basically, I just don’t care what people infer about me as a person from the books. It’s hard enough writing books without worrying about what people will think about you as a result of reading them.

Rail: In Out of Sheer Rage, you refer to Kundera’s dream of “creating a work in which the bridges and the filler have no reason to be and in which the novelist would never be forced—for the sake of form and its dictates—to stray by even a single line from what he cares about, from what fascinates him.” Elsewhere you say the kind of novels you like “bare no trace of being novels” and that your favorite “novelists” aren’t exactly novelists (eg, Nietzsche, Thomas Bernhard, Roland Barthes, Ryszard Kapuściński). Where do you think this instinct comes from, to not want to bother with the formal constraints of the novel?

Dyer: It comes partly from inability and partly from impatience. If I was the kind of writer capable of thinking up stories and plots or with a greater capacity to develop character I’d probably be more into that kind of thing. Don’t get me wrong. I love it when you’re completely immersed in a great novel with characters and everything else. But it’s when the novel becomes purely conventionalized as it is does—as it must—in the hands of less gifted writers that I lose interest. Personally, and I’ve said this many times before, the fiction/non-fiction distinction means nothing to me. For me the fiction is no more or less autobiographical than the non-fiction—and vice-versa. There are distortions in both.

Don Paterson, the poet, writes somewhere about the way that poetry is possibly a way of reading more than a way of writing. I think you can apply that to prose, too. Certain expectations are raised by the novel: you open a novel and you’re programmed to anticipate a certain kind of reading experience. Now, that experience is often not assessed qualitatively, or only indirectly so. The question is how closely does this approximate to what I expect a novel to be and the book is then ranked according to some kind of recognition index. With things going on outside that zone of category recognition—when a book is not behaving like a novel—the whole capacity to judge begins to break down. Rebecca West’s Black Lamb and Grey Falcon is very significant in this respect. It’s so obviously more important than her novels; it’s clearly her greatest achievement, but it lies outside the parameters that tend to demarcate the area where literary value is gauged.

Rail: Why do you think fiction is still considered the higher, grander form, when everyone seems to read less and less of it?

Dyer: I want to give the novel all the praise that it’s due. It makes unique demands on a writer and those demands are being made when he or she is away from the desk: the ability to observe, to notice, to discern the psychological freight of the smallest gesture and the tangle of motives that constitute an individual’s moral relation to the world. Then that has to be allied with all sorts of verbal skills and—although this is something I’m not so interested in—marshaled into some kind of story. But it’s incredibly parochial to think that the novel is inherently the only or ultimate proving ground. It’s that thing I mentioned earlier of recognizing a certain kind of writing, rather than a quality of writing.

Rail: In the chapter on Thelonious Monk in But Beautiful, you write “People think of whimsy as doing whatever you feel like—but there’s less to whimsy than that. Monk did whatever he wanted, raised that to the level of an ordering principle with its own demands and its own logic.” What sort of sacrifice is involved in not bothering with plot and character development?

Dyer: Other stuff has to do the work: for me it’s all about tone, precision, clarity—and structure.

Rail: To some extent Don DeLillo seems to have achieved such a wide readership in the U.S. by couching a lot of information and facts in his novels. He’s a novelist with a lot of ideas, which is something James Wood, a defender of the traditional novel form, takes issue with. You’re a fan of DeLillo’s. Why do you like him so much?

Dyer: Because he’s great. For me the key book is The Names. That’s the breakthrough, not just for DeLillo personally but for the novel at large. I find it completely new and completely inexhaustible. A new paradigm almost. Of course, White Noise is great, and Underworld. Blah blah. But since Underworld DeLillo has been a disaster. To quote a friend, Cosmopolis is pure self-karaoke. Falling Man wasn’t quite as bad but it wasn’t much better. It happens to all the great stylists. Hemingway became self-derivative like that as well.

Rail: Can you discuss the process you go through in writing your books? They would seem to require a very different preparation each time out. The highly visual style of But Beautiful, for example, made me wonder whether you weren’t smoking an unusual amount of pot while writing it. But it could have been that you were just listening to a lot of jazz….

Dyer: Yes, it’s a kind of method writing! I like total immersion in a role, a subject, for a while. Let’s say Yoga was a kind of travel book. After that was The Ongoing Moment, which is a staying-in book. Just me at home, looking at books of photographs. Totally different. But in a way photography was this whole country that I went to live in for a couple of years. It was up there in my study, waiting for me every day. Novelists, of course, would say the same thing about the imaginative country they create. For me, though, photography wasn’t a country I created; it was a place I explored, found my way around, got to know the locals, learned to speak the language a bit. I used to find smoking grass very helpful for writing, especially the jazz book because grass is so great for listening to music. I used to wander round New York with my Walkman—how quaint that sounds now, in the iPod era—listening to whichever musician I was writing about, stoned. And because of the way headphones completely fill your head with sound, it was like a kind of synaesthesia, the music translating directly into what I was seeing around me, and vice-versa. It was the easiest book I’ve ever written. In recent years I’ve found grass altogether less efficacious, partly because, in England at least, that super-strong, brain-damaging skunk has completely flooded the market and it’s not helpful creatively in the way that nice, gentle, floaty grass used to be. I am blaming the product, but perhaps it’s me, getting older.

Rail: You have a funny kind of contempt for Bruce Chatwin, the Australian author of The Songlines. Nevertheless he falls in line with your fascination with restless writers like Kapuściński, Lawrence, Kerouac, maybe to a lesser degree, John Berger. Common among them is the bending and rattling of genres, as if their exciting lives dictated the form of their writing. You quote Nietzsche on this in an article about Kapuściński: “Something very rare but a thing to take delight in: a man with a finely constituted intellect who has the character, the inclinations and also the experiences appropriate to such an intellect.” Is this something you try to live up to?

Dyer: Yes, though I’m also aware of the contrary thing. Was it Camus who said you could have a life of great adventure without leaving your desk? For the record I’ve got no interest in Chatwin. I just use him as a seal who is always within critical clubbing distance, always there, ready to get his poncey blonde snout bloodied! He’s one of those writers—on the basis of his books, I mean; I never met him—who I just dislike intensely. His so-called “ideas” seem pretty brainless to me. I guess on the experience question I’m like a very inefficient car in that I use up a huge amount of experience per page. Maybe there’s a thing like an mpg: epp (experience per page). I have very little capacity to make things up; I’m only able to extrapolate, so I need to have things happen to me.

Rail: The Housing Benefit and Social Security during the Thatcher era allowed you to live “on the dole” during your post-collegiate years in England, which may have encouraged a feeling of kinship with the Beats and the bohemian way of life. But in New York City at the moment, where everything’s so expensive, there’s a suspicion that certain people can afford to live like bohemians—to sit in cafés and try to write novels, for example—only because they’re supported by trust funds, don’t have to pay off student loans, etc. Do you think that bohemians still exist, and if so, where?

Dyer: In Williamsburg! Bohemians have always been rich, either because they’re sons or daughters of industrialists or financiers or, as in Paris in the 1920s, because of the exchange rate. You know, Thoreau has his dad’s pencil factory behind him and a free place to live on Emerson’s land—I forget the exact details of the arrangement. Burroughs has his…whatever it was that he had! Living poor has often been an indulgence. I suppose I’d throw the question back at you and ask if you don’t think that is quite a good way for privileged kids to spend their time, trying to write a novel? It’s more honorable than being a merchant banker.

On a very different level, we have Lawrence who, although he hated bohemians, led what might be seen as a bohemian life and certainly hung out with a load of boho toffs. Obviously he didn’t have a lot of money and he was unbelievably thrifty. (One of the delights of the Brenda Maddox biography is seeing just how thrifty he was.) But at the same time, he always knew what a huge privilege it was, living as he did. So what if he had to travel third class? The countless small economies counted for nothing in the face of the huge freedom to do what he wanted. Same with me: I had to get buses instead of a taxi—big deal. At least I didn’t have to get up in the morning and go to work! And I still feel the same actually, still can’t bear to take taxis. My background is working class and it’s proved difficult to shake off the habits ingrained in me my by parents, who of course lived through the depression of the 1930s. I could live quite happily on very little money, because most of the shit on offer isn’t worth having.

More generally, I was very lucky in that I was the beneficiary of a particular extended phase of British history. Free school, free college (Oxford), and then living on the dole. The biggest break was having the state pay the rent on my flat and then having that rent fixed, by law, at a very low level. The great thing about London back then was that it was possible to live very cheaply. That’s gone now, I think, and the city is all the poorer because of it. Everything costs a fortune. I look back on that time as idyllic. I became very nostalgic for it in Berlin recently, where there was still that thriving sort of alternative scene.

Rail: John Berger, about whom you wrote your first book, Ways of Telling, has had a powerful influence on many writers of your generation, particularly Lawrence Weschler, whose books tend to be as unclassifiable as your own. Did you consider Berger a spiritual or intellectual father? If so, did you feel you would someday have to “kill” him?

Dyer: Berger was a total intellectual father to me. But also a moral father as well, because his behavior and the way he related to the world was so exemplary. But this question of whether, as I got older, I harbored any patricidal impulses is very interesting because that had already happened. Berger had this disciple, Peter Fuller, who said Berger taught him how to write art criticism. Now the important thing is that Fuller, although he developed his own way of writing about art, never became anything other than an art critic, so it was ugly but not surprising when he violently turned on Berger in an article in New Society. To maximize the insult, he said that Berger’s views on art were like those of the Tory government. So Berger wrote a letter to New Society saying that someone steeped in psychoanalysis could surely recognize the patricidal thing going on there. It was so easy to imagine Fuller sitting there, boo-hooing in to his Rice Krispies after that. I have no patricidal feelings about John, only love and admiration, and I think the reason for this is that, even when I was most deeply under Berger’s influence, my voice remained intransigently my own. At a literary festival in Paris I was saying how big an influence Berger had been and then, after I’d read out something of mine, this academic said, rather snootily, that he didn’t detect any Berger in my stuff: that is, my stuff was too stupid and light in comparison. A rather unsophisticated response in my view, but it is, precisely, that kind of thing that has meant I’ve never become a Fuller-like acolyte bent on some kind of revenge.

Rail: Your books are sometimes labeled obsessive, in that they tend to harp on certain ideas, examining them and turning them inside out. But this obsessiveness, a word with negative undertones, seems more like an openness to other interpretations in your case, rather than a narrowly focused perspective on a certain idea, image, or activity. If anything, you seem obsessed with the number of possibilities or interpretations of any given thing.

Dyer: Actually, I don’t have any problem being labeled obsessive. It doesn’t seem that rude to me. Maybe, as I’ve said before, I’d use the more modest words like “hobbies” and “interests”. I have lots of hobbies and interests and I write about them. In my personal life I think I do show increasing signs of OCD in that, having always been very punctual, I now like to arrive for appointments absolutely on the dot. Recently a friend came to pick us up, to take us to a festival at 11:30. At 11:31 I said to my wife “He’s late!” At 11:35: “He’s really late.” Auden, as I bet you know, was a maniac for punctuality. But actually, on reflection I don’t think it’s about obsessiveness, it’s about things that make one happy. For example, I realized the other day that charging things up makes me really happy. I love knowing my Bose headphones and iPod are fully charged, are not going to run out of juice. I just love being sensible about everything, sensible to the point of mania!

Rail: Maybe you could say something about the idea of masculinity, which comes up here and there in your work. You’re a tall and slender man, much like D.H. Lawrence. How much has your body type influenced your writing, or your perception of yourself as a man, or your relationship to other writers?

Dyer: Being tall and skinny has been all-defining for me. I could never write from the point of view of a short person, for example. I think you can be skinny and still be a man, but you need to have some kind of strength and virility. Being good at sport has always meant a lot to me, and recently I was unable to play tennis for a year because of injury. I hate going to the gym and so for a year I just went to pieces. It was really emasculating. Now I am playing again and after the first significant victory of my come-back, I went and ate a burger on my own in this restaurant and I just sat there with this drug coursing through me. An amazing feeling of….victory!

Rail: What have you been working on lately?

Dyer: I’ve just finished this book, set half in Venice during the biennale—a kind of version of Death in Venice—and half in Varanasi. The whole thing will be called either Jeff in Venice or Death in Varanasi. That was filling my head to the exclusion of everything else. Now? Nothing much. My head’s pretty empty most of the time, in fact, except for the usual swarm of mild irritations.


Jed Lipinski

JED LIPINSKI used to play tambourine in the band Hexa.


The Brooklyn Rail

FEB 2008

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