Monday, 1 February 2010



When Geoff Dyer got sacked from his job, he realised that office work wasn't really what he'd love to do. Rather, it was reading books that gave him the pleasure. “So I began with writing book reviews and realised that I can write. Gradually, I built up a little name for myself,” the British author says. He was in the town for a book reading session of his novel Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi. I caught up with him before the event.

The story is about Jeff Atman, a journalist. He goes to Venice to cover the opening of the Venice Art Biennale. As part of his assignment, Jeff expects to see lots of art and go to parties. But he wasn't expecting to meet “spellbinding” Laura. Jeff falls for him. For the author, the character of Jeff is “not unrepresentative type of men living in London”. Jeff is “cynical, and sardonic, and he's trying to give meaning to his life”. But beneath that veneer, there's a man with a “simple romantic yearning, who's ready to fall in love,” says Dyer.

The same Jeff in the second part is transformed while in Varanasi, and the reader sees a different person, who's unlike the hedonistic Jeff we find in Venice. “In Varanasi, Jeff is led to different forms of articulation and he changes. But I won't say that the novel can be summarised as 'transformation of Jeff'. It's not that simple. One has to read the entire story to interpret what happened to Jeff,” the author explains. “In a way, this book is completion of Thomas Mann's story Death in Venice”.

How did the author balance between sensuality and spiritualism? “The story isn't a strong narrative. There's no straightforward plot. But there are chimes and echoes that keep the story going,” Dyer replies. “Let me give an example. While in Venice, as Laura dances in a party, there's a description of Jeff watching her feet on the rug. Laura doesn't come back in Varanasi. But in the Indian setting as Jeff watches a lady sitting on a rug and singing, Jeff feels as if the voice is dancing on a rug. So there's subtle references to the past and that's how the themes get connected,” Dyer adds.

Why did he choose Varanasi, I ask. “There are several similarities between the two places. For Venice it's the water canal that runs through it and for Varanasi it's the river. There are lots of palaces in both eh places and and both are major tourist destinations,” the author explains. “In case of Varanasi though the tourism is more of a spiritual nature”.

As a writer, Dyer depends on his experiences and is not detached from the realities. “To write my book on World War I and the Battle of Somme, I went to the cemeteries in France. Similarly, I went to Venice in 2003 with my wife to attend the Venice Art Biennale. Later, I also went to Varanasi,” Dyer says. “But that's not the case always. For my book on photography, I used to be at the library going through the books on the subject. And everyday I used to get stuck in the are called American photography. What I am trying to say, places can be formed in the mind in the form of subjects, as I ask 'What's special about this.' You could say, my writings are mostly about sense of places, if not a the place,” Dyer explains. “But my books are not the product of diligent research. They are mostly about my passion for some thing”.

Going back to his recent book I ask, why is it that western writers look at India as a spiritual land? Isn't that dated? Dyer smiles. “To some extent I have to agree that my novel is old-fashioned. But most of the current books on India that depict modernity are too secular. One has to go to a place like Varanasi to see what spirituality means to the millions in India. It's a place where all sorts of meanings converge, no matter how non-scientific some of it may appear,” the author maintains. “Even if you are secular, you are bound to be overwhelmed by that experience, and Varanasi is an indisputable spiritual centre”.

Over the years, Dyer has started to read more non-fiction than fictions. And quite naturally, he has written several non-fiction books. Noted among them are But Beautiful, the book on jazz which won the Somerset Maugham Prize and Out of Sheer Rage which was a National Book Critics Circle Award finalist. His book Paris Trance was supposed to be adapted into film. I ask Dyer about his idea on this. “I don't think it's going to happen. Frankly, I don't want to be a script writer,” he says.

Dyer is currently working on his essays; a collection of his essays is slated to be published later this year.