The Idler: On Geoff Dyer
In 1978, when Geoff Dyer was 20, he read William Hazlitt’s essay “My First Acquaintance With Poets” and was entranced by an autobiographical passage: “So I have loitered my life away, reading books, looking at pictures, going to plays, hearing, thinking, writing on what pleased me best.” On the spot Dyer decided to become a professional scribbler. He kept that promise to himself, and since 1986 he has published novels, travelogues and essay collections, but also wide-ranging volumes on jazz, photography, World War I and John Berger.
Dyer, who was born in England, adopted Hazlitt’s tendency to loiter, as well as his conception of literary freedom. (Hazlitt’s blazingly acerbic language did not leave an impression.) Indeed, it’s freedom that defines Dyer’s professional identity—freedom to write what he pleases, freedom to trespass on literary genres, freedom to ridicule academia, freedom to travel the world. Open a Dyer book and you will see him wandering through Paris with a joint in one hand and a desirable woman in the other; enjoying himself on the beaches of Mexico and Thailand; reading a book on the waterfront of New Orleans; strolling through the Pushkin Museum in search of works by Gauguin; or taking the bus to Franco’s “Valley of the Fallen” near Madrid. To read his work is to step into a parallel universe of art, literature, jazz, friendship and sex, all of which are set against a backdrop of bohemia, squalor and existential distress. It’s a formula that has won Dyer a cult following and plaudits from peers: his recent novel Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi (2009) carried blurbs from the likes of Zadie Smith, William Boyd and Jan Morris.
Dyer knows that he has managed a rare feat on Grub Street: in an age of academic specialization and journalistic decay, he has earned a living by the poise and productivity of his pen. “As I grew older I came increasingly to feel that my working life should be virtually synonymous with living my life as I wanted, irrespective of whether I was doing any work,” he declared in the introduction to his 1999 essay collection Anglo-English Attitudes. “Effectively, as my American publisher put it, I had found a way of being paid for leading my life. I liked that a lot, naturally.” But freedom entails risks; one wonders if Dyer—whose literary persona is an uneasy synthesis of idler and intellectual—has ranged too widely and written too much. Of his dozen books, only one is first-rate; a handful of the rest are worthy of the bookshelf. Dyer is extremely gifted, but he is also a writer in search of his ideal subject. It is not Geoff Dyer, contrary to what Dyer might think.
* * *
Dyer’s first book, a study of John Berger called Ways of Telling, was published by Pluto Press in 1986. (It has never appeared in the United States.) In this dense and airless book—“dull” is how its author has since described it—Dyer moves chronologically through each phase of Berger’s life and career, summarizing and assessing his works, placing them in their historical and intellectual contexts and launching counterstrikes against Berger’s detractors. Ways of Telling is a tribute to Berger—“the hope of this book,” Dyer writes in the preface, is “that he may be seen not as an exception but as a model”—but Berger never comes to life on the page, as he does so effectively in Adam Hochschild’s Mother Jones profile from 1981. Visiting Berger at his eighteenth-century farmhouse in the French Alps, Hochschild observed, “It has cold running water only; across the driveway is a two-hole outhouse with snow drifting through cracks in the walls.”
Ways of Telling is full of insightful passages, and Dyer’s account of the British art scene in the 1950s is admirably comprehensive. But the book has the whiff of the library and the left-wing bookshop: it’s the work of a young Oxford-trained writer calling attention to his intellectual grooming. A typical sentence reads: T.J. Clark’s “books on Courbet are definitive in a way that none of Berger’s could be.” Other passages are incoherent: “Literary taste is nurtured, in general, in the English faculties of institutes of higher education. The aesthetic consensus that results is, ultimately, given the social function of these institutions, ideologically informed.”
Still, Dyer backed into a fruitful subject. John Berger has always been a compelling and neglected figure, and anyone with a serious interest in Berger will eventually have to consult Ways of Telling. The book, it seems, served a salutary function in Dyer’s career. From Berger—who has devoted his life to Marxist-oriented art and cultural criticism, as well as fiction, reportage, personal essays and screenplays—Dyer gained a very expansive sense of form, an unwillingness to dwell in a single genre. (From his immersion in Berger’s shelf of books, Dyer may also have learned the virtues of laughter, the absence of which mars Berger’s work.) Dyer’s ties to Berger have remained strong: in 2001 he edited Berger’s Selected Essays, to which he contributed a stirring introduction.
In 1989 Dyer published his first novel—The Colour of Memory, a chronicle of bohemian life in Brixton in the ’80s. The themes are familiar and the writing is mostly mundane (“I caught a cold and passed it on to someone else. I went out; I stayed in.”) But one facet of the novel, beneath the principal narrative line, catches the eye and the ear. Dyer appreciates jazz, and writes about it with flair: “The clean, intelligent emotion of Jan Garbarek’s tenor filled the room. Audible landscapes formed and re-formed themselves around us. Morning music, mist melting in the sun.” Dyer ended up taking stock of his talent as a music writer and finding a form for it: in 1991 Jonathan Cape published what is still his most vibrant work—But Beautiful: A Book About Jazz. (An American edition appeared from North Point Press in 1996.) It consists of seven atmospheric vignettes concerning major figures in jazz, including Thelonious Monk, Charles Mingus, Lester Young, Ben Webster and Art Pepper; other giants, including Coleman Hawkins, make fleeting appearances. Sewn into the narrative is a silver thread about Duke Ellington traveling the country by car: “Duke had said many times that the road was his home and if that was true then this car was his hearth.” The book artfully combines fiction and nonfiction: some of the events described took place—for instance, the assault on Chet Baker in 1966—but the material has been transmuted by Dyer’s imaginative interpretation of old black-and-white photographs, court transcripts, archive footage and clippings from the New York Herald Tribune. “As a rule,” he writes in the preface, “assume that what’s here has been invented or altered rather than quoted. Throughout, my purpose was to present the musicians not as they were but as they appear to me.” The various threads form a seamless whole.
A substantial imaginative leap separates Ways of Telling from But Beautiful. The quasi-academic language of the Berger book is gone; Dyer’s prose in But Beautiful is akin to a musical instrument: it has the swirl, beauty, flexibility and range of a tenor saxophone as blown by one of the masters. (Keith Jarrett, in a blurb for But Beautiful, compared the book to a “great solo.”) The section on Lester Young unfolds in a dingy Broadway hotel, where the ailing Young is subsisting on Chinese food and booze:
When they jammed together Hawk tried everything he knew to cut him but he never managed it. In Kansas in ‘34 they played right through the morning, Hawk stripped down to his singlet, trying to blow him down with that big hurricane tenor, and Lester slumped in a chair with that faraway look in his eyes, his tone still light as a breeze after eight hours’ playing. The pair of them wore out pianists until there was no one left and Hawk walked off the stand, threw his horn in the back of his car, and gunned it all the way to St. Louis for that night’s gig.
This is how Dyer begins his section on Mingus:
America was a gale blowing constantly in his face. By America he meant White America and by White America he meant anything about America he didn’t like. The wind hit him harder than it did small men; they thought America was a breeze but he heard it rage, even when branches were still and the American flag hung down the side of buildings like a star-spangled scarf—even then he could hear it rage. His response was to rant back, to rush at it with all the intensity that he felt it rushing at him, two juggernauts hurtling toward each other on a road the size of a continent.
Here is Monk strolling in Manhattan, gazing over the Hudson:
As he looked out across the river a smear of yellow-brown light welled up over the skyline like paint squeezed from a tube. For a few minutes the sky was a blaze of dirty yellow until the light faded and oil-spill clouds sagged again over New Jersey. He thought about heading back to the apartment but stayed on in the sad twilight and watched dark boats crawl over the water, the grief of gulls breaking over them.
But Beautiful is not flawless. Because Dyer has a better command of diction than of narrative, some of the chapters feel shapeless and made me yearn for A.B. Spellman’s Four Lives in the Bebop Business (1966), an insider’s nonfiction account, which, among many other virtues, has a brisk narrative pace. Dyer is acutely aware of the ways American racism marked the lives of his subjects, but sometimes his treatment of race is too abrupt and heavy-handed. On other occasions, Dyer pushes his deft ventriloquism too far, as in this passage describing Mingus in his wheelchair: “Even talking was becoming difficult. His tongue lay in his mouth like an old man’s dick.”
These are minor imperfections. But Beautiful is powerfully concise: “Booze, junk, prison. It wasn’t that jazz musicians died young, they just got older quicker.” There are intriguing musical insights: Mingus “wasn’t like Miles, who heard the music and then simply transferred it from his head to the instruments. Mingus didn’t hear music until he was making it.” But above all there is the kind of emotional power and lyricism often associated with the writing of the late Whitney Balliett, whose jazz criticism graced The New Yorker for four decades. The apex of But Beautiful is a snapshot of Art Pepper in his prison cell at San Quentin, unfurling a blues on his alto saxophone while his mind expands with visions of the debauchery for which he was renowned. Pepper’s solo has an entrancing effect on his cellmate, Egg, who is snugly ensconced on the top bunk. It’s a vignette of great resonance and beauty.