Geoff Dyer to speak at UEA literary festival
Keiron PimHe has been called the poet laureate of the slacker generation and hailed as one of Britain's best writers. Keiron Pim spoke to Geoff Dyer ahead of his forthcoming appearance in Norwich.Keiron Pim
When a novelist named Geoff writes a book about a character called Jeff, it is not unreasonable for readers to suspect that the author is portraying a thinly disguised version of himself.
Geoff Dyer accepts this up to a point. Like Jeff Atman, the protagonist in 'Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi', Dyer is tall, thin, a writer, a habitu� of the Venice Biennale, occasionally fond of ingesting proscribed hallucinogens and stimulants, dry of humour and languid of disposition.
'I do accept I'm only capable of a very limited kind of fiction,' he says. 'Because I have never been much of an imaginer, it's no accident that I say he is tall and thin. I can't imagine writing about someone who was short and fat.
'As I have said many times I like to write stuff that is only an inch from life, but for me all the fun and interest is in that inch.'
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Within that inch he is quite brilliant; the new novel bears a quotation from a Daily Telegraph review calling him 'Quite possibly the best living writer in Britain,' which is debatable but not absurd. His output is prolific and distinctly non-linear; he writes about whatever is currently occupying the Dyer mind - jazz, photography, DH Lawrence - and does so in a way that is deeply personal while also making interesting and original connections with universal resonance. In conversation he is discursive and well-spoken, happily chattering away about Bob Dylan and Jack Kerouac (both heroes of his), not least because he admits that this interview is helping him avoid getting down to finishing an introduction to a John Cheever book.
This is a recurring theme with Dyer's writing: underachievement, indolence, passivity, people aiming to do things but finding that life gets in the way. Paradoxically he is a prolific chronicler of his own procrastination. His collection of travel writing was tellingly titled Yoga for People Who Can't Be Bothered To Do It, the Lawrence book was more a memoir about Dyer's inability to finish a proposed biography, and Jeff in Venice revisits the idea.
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'A big difference between Atman and me is that one of the things he is annoyed about is that he has never got round to writing a book,' says Dyer, who has written 11 books now: four novels, a meditation on those missing at the Somme, an idiosyncratic history of photography called The Ongoing Moment, to name a few of the others. It's rather a scattergun approach, and indeed a criticism levelled at him has been that he hasn't yet produced the major, substantial piece of work of which his talent and intellect suggest he is capable.
'Well, if you imagine that the trajectory of a straightforward novelist is that you start with a novel and it shows promise and by the fourth or fifth novel everything that has been hinted at before is contained in that, then that is a vertical progression,' he says.
'For me it has been a horizontal thing. I wouldn't be able to say that there's one single book that is a summing up of what has gone before. It depends on what you're interested in. If you're interested in jazz, read the jazz book.' The jazz book, But Beautiful, was published in 1991 and is a gorgeously written series of eight vignettes of musicians including saxophonist Lester Young and pianist Thelonious Monk. Here, as ever, Dyer's method was solipsistic, blending biographical fact with prose poetry that captured the music's ability to elevate the soul. This kind of rhapsodic writing is evident again in Jeff in Venice, which Dyer, who's 50 and lives in London, will be discussing in Norwich on March 30 as part of the UEA Spring Literary festival. He knows the university well, having taught for a spell on the MA in Life Writing established by the biographer Richard Holmes.
'It was great for me, perhaps less so for my students. I was Richard Holmes for a while, while he was finishing his book The Age of Wonder… it felt good, far better than being me,' he laughs. 'And I have always enjoyed the New Writing Worlds events,' he says, referring to the Norwich-based New Writing Partnership's regular festival of writers from around the globe.
'I like the way you are in the self-enclosed world of the event. You do get all the social sense of belonging. So to go back to the Venice thing, there's that anxiety of parties,' he says, referring to the feeling that there's always a more glamorous party happening elsewhere that you're missing. Dyer attended the 2003 biennale with his wife, who was working for an art magazine, and as in the book the temperature was inescapably hot.
'The crucial thing I guess was that in 2003 there was this mad heatwave, which gave it a mad intensity. In Venice at the biennale everyone is in this place, it's your world for a few days.'
Jeff Atman is a journalist on a junket, trotting around the biennale with half an eye on the cold array of pretentious conceptual art exhibited around the city's palazzos and rather more interest in grabbing free bellinis, risotto and lines of cocaine, in the company of Laura, a beautiful American with whom he conducts a passionate and explicitly described affair. Later the novel shifts to Varanasi in India, another city by the water, this section narrated in the first person by a character that may or may not be Jeff Atman. It's a fresh, pacey and often acutely funny novel. Atman is an entertaining curmudgeon and bon viveur who remains likeable, just about.
'Initially I was going to make him a much more debased or depraved character like John Self in Martin Amis's Money, but I found that was too limiting. And he couldn't be a complete pig because there's no chance of this woman being attracted to him at all.'
Dyer knows what works and in this sense draws on an earlier writer who laboured deceptively hard to create an air of off-the-cuff inspiration.
'I keep coming back to Kerouac; he just wanted it so badly and worked so hard to become a writer. We know he kept revising On the Road to make it more spontaneous.'
And in that apparent paradox, you have the blend of graft and grace that also characterises Dyer's approach to writing.
Geoff Dyer appears at the UEA Literary Festival on Mnday March 30, beginning at 7pm. Tickets are �6. Call 01603 508050 to book.
Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi is published by Canongate priced �12.99.