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.
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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.”