Friday, 29 August 2014

Back to Admiration

Geoff Dyer is my man.  For now at least. 

Every once in a while, a writer comes along that pulls me into his, or her, orbit.  The tug is irresistible.  The one-sided relationship is either serendipitous or in this case, a casual introduction.   As before, the friend responsible for the introduction has provided me over the years with books and recommendations that have given me my most meaningful literary discoveries. He’s never let me down.

But back to Geoff. 

The first book of Dyers I read was called ‘Out of Sheer Rage’, a book he had wanted to write about D.H. Lawrence.  He had the desire to write a meaningful book about his hero but somehow life got in the way, so he more or less settled for writing about his indecision in how to best go about writing this book which in fact never does get written. He seriously does look for the man and we go with him on his journeys to Italy, Sicily, New Mexico, a Greek island and Nottinghamshire which all turn out to be a disappointment but somehow add to our enjoyment.  His witty, digressive, ramblings hooked me. I’m a sucker for disclosures of uncertainties.   Lawrence was there but Geoff Dyer was more there.

I’m not sure why I didn’t immediately search out another but not too long after I bumped into ‘Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi’ at a library sale.  These two stories have a watery connection and we understand through the title that Thomas Mann's presence is felt..  We follow Jeff, a journalist and somewhat of an alter ego, through the Venice Biennale in the company of a beautiful girl and through Dyer’s observations we experience the sexy buzz as well as the hollowness of this renowned Art Fair.  In spite of dismissing the art world Jeff seems to understand and find meaning in contemporary art as does Geoff. This bellini soaked experience eventually leads Jeff to his next assignment in Varanasi where the art world is replaced by a cultural kick in the head and among the ghats on the Ganges reality is gradually altered to a place of no return.  As usual, I was amazed by the writing and thought ‘‘this man ‘gets it’. He feels so close to his material.

Amazement can sometimes be ramped up a notch which is what happened when I recently read ‘But Beautiful’, Dyer’s self confessed historical fiction of several of the early jazz greats. Thelonius Monk, Charles Mingus, Bud Powell, Ben Webster, Chet Baker, Duke Ellington and others live here. He has said that it was one of his easiest books to write and I can only guess that it was because he completely inhabits this music.  His writing was jazz.  His understanding of the men and their music was breathtaking to the point where I felt I had to read some of it out loud. I did and was exhausted after.  The fact that Dyer himself is a jazz aficionado contributed to the soul of this book but the empathy for the broken lives of many of these men comes from Geoff Dyer the man.

And now, in ‘The Ongoing Moment’ once again I am entranced.  Okay, I’ll confess that in his introduction to this book about photography, he said that it might irritate some people.  I was one of them for a while.  There was too much description of photos that weren’t reproduced in the book and I still think this was a mistake.  AND….the photos that are there are too small and printed on poor quality paper. That being said, after I had rifled back and forth for a bit I decided that no way was I going to abandon a book by my current hero.  ‘Okay Geoff’ I said, ‘It’s back to the beginning. I’ll give this another go and see where you’ll take me’.  How could I have doubted him? 

Dyer introduces us to, or reacquaints us with, some of the early artists of photography - most of European background.  William Henry Fox Talbot, Eugene Atget, Alfred Steiglitz, Edward Steichen, Edward Weston, Paul Strand, Dorothea Lange, Andre Kertesz, Walker Evans, Brassai.  I must stop as this list misses many and does nothing to tell you about the essence of this book. The first sentence will give you some idea. 

 Dyer writes: ‘I am not the first researcher to draw inspirations from a ‘certain Chinese encyclopaedia’ described by Borges.  According to this arcane work ‘animals are divided into (a) those that belong to the Emperor; (b) embalmed ones; (c) those that are trained; (d) suckling pigs; (e) mermaids; (f) fabulous ones; (g) stray dogs; (h) those that are included in this classification; (i) those that tremble as if they were mad; (j) innumerable ones; (k) those drawn with a very fine camel’s-hair brush; (l) et cetera; (m) those that have just broken the flower vase; (n) those that at a distance resemble flies.’

Although the wonderful eccentricity of this list is not in evidence, it does tell you a bit about Dyers leaning towards ‘seeing’ these photographs through an organizing principle that is uniquely his.  He draws connections for us through the photographs taken over the years and if he talks about photographs of men wearing hats, perhaps also wearing an overcoat; or maybe a photo of a room with a hat in evidence, a hat has never felt more like a hat than when he draws our attention to it. He sees what is there and gives it its due dignity.  Even if it’s a battered dignity. The details we wouldn’t have noticed without him create a desired intimacy. He talks about the many photographs containing stairs, benches, blind people, barber shops, never ending roadways and the doors and windows that he uses to pull us in to a world seen through the recognized creative awareness of these artists. The writer is one of them.

You can tell that this book captivated me and what might have been a dry read, in the hands of Geoff Dyer, became another book of enduring admiration.