As artists, we have to find the antidote to this darkness right now, to how everything feels so compressed rather than expanded.
This interview is featured, along with 34 others, in our anthology BOMB: The Author Interviews.
As the following dialogue will make clear, I’m a stone fan of Geoff Dyer, the mid-career British author who is our leading master of the undefinable memoir-essay-perambulation on diverse topics: jazz, D. H. Lawrence, photography, travel, drugs, sex, etcetera. This procession of singular books he interrupts with novels and persuasive traditional critical essays, just to show how easily he can do those things too. These occasional essays have recently been collected, for US readers, in Otherwise Known as the Human Condition: Selected Essays and Reviews , from Graywolf Press. Coming soon, and the occasion for much of our talk here, is the first US publication of his 1994 book on the Great War, The Missing of the Somme , from Vintage, and then, in 2012, Zona , a short book on the Russian director Andrei Tarkovsky’s great film Stalker , from Pantheon.
Over the past decade I’ve had the luck of sporadically getting to pal around with Dyer, too, on his side of the pond or my own, so the email badinage that follows—which consists partly of a certain amount of trying to make him laugh with slavish impersonation of his signature wit—reproduces the flavor of my affection. We once walked around London talking about English novels, a conversation I reference in the exchange here, and when he praised Alan Hollinghurst we stood on top of a heath, looking out. By the time Geoff was talking of Martin Amis we were back in traffic, and I was nearly killed by a passing car because I was looking the wrong way.
Geoff Dyer has won several prizes, all deserved. When you read accounts of Dyer’s work you’ll find praiseful critics comparing him to vast numbers of writers, hurling their comparisons into the useless heap that follows him everywhere he goes. I myself often think of G. K. Chesterton, for the constant and dazzling flow of paradoxes in his prose.
Jonathan Lethem When I agreed to play the role of your interviewer in this exchange, I felt that immediate freshening of the spirit I associate with occasions where I’m expected to talk about someone else’s work instead of my own. It then immediately occurred to me that despite this momentary reversal, you were much cleverer than I was because you seem to have made that pleasure into much of your life’s work—from the jazz book to the Lawrence, the photography, and so on. Of course it leads you around to yourself, but in a much more tolerable way. Was there a point where you became conscious of always wanting there to be a “room” in which you “worked,” other artists in between, or amid, you and your writing?
Geoff Dyer Well, first up, how unusual for us to be having an email exchange with proper sentences, punctuation, and uppercase letters rather than the usual typo-riddled notes we’ve dashed off in the past! The thing is it didn’t even occur to me that I could be a normal writer in the sense of “novelist,” because I could never think up stories or plots. But I didn’t want to just be a straight-down-the-line critic either. I always liked the idea of some kind of creative criticism à la Berger or Barthes. When I have written novels, there’s often been some kind of barely submerged critical thing going on—Paris Trance or Jeff in Venice were versions of, or homages to, other books. I like books that are about other books in some way. In terms of well-being or psychological health, certainly I’m extremely happy when I set out, either for an article or a book, to read and learn everything I can about a given person or subject, to completely immerse myself in it. I feel, at that point, that I have a purpose. When it comes to actually writing a book, that excitement and well-being would soon turn to boredom if it didn’t proceed in tandem with the creative challenge of coming up with some kind of form or structure that seems especially appropriate to that subject.
JL In the matter of coming up with a form or structure, I’m eager to talk with you about your new book on Tarkovsky’s Stalker. I’m actually reading it in tandem with revisiting the film—the first time I’ve seen it in 20 years. I’m halfway through both book and film as I write this. The short book that covers another artifact—a book, a film, an album—in scrupulous close description (with plenty of digressions, of course)—is something I’m trying myself. Last year with a film, John Carpenter’s They Live, and right at the moment I’m writing a short book on a Talking Heads album, Fear of Music. (I flatter myself I’m in “Dyerian Mode” when I do this.) If a novel is a mirror walking along a road (somebody said this; in a spirit of Dyerian laziness I’m refusing to Google it), a book like this is a mirror walking hand-in-hand with somebody else’s mirror. I’ll admit I also became fascinated by a weird concurrence in our film-subjects: bothStalker and They Live are films that switch between color and black-and-white (and therefore both get compared to The Wizard of Oz), and both turn on a transformation of the everyday world at roughly the half-hour mark, where the ordinary is revealed as extraordinary. Of course, your film quite respectably avoids wrestlers and ghouls.
GD Here is an important difference between us. You could do these books as sidelines or diversion, almost, I imagine, writing fiction in the morning and then doing the film or Talking Heads stuff in the afternoon. I operate at a far lower level of energy and inspiration, but a higher pitch of desperation! Generally, I like the idea of short books on one particular cultural artifact as long as they don’t conform to some kind of series idea or editorial template. The madder the better, in my view. I like the idea of an absurdly long book on one small thing. I think we’d agree that the choice of artifact is sort of irrelevant in terms of its cultural standing: all that matters is what it means to you, the author. I had so much fun doing the Stalker book I am tempted to do another, this time on Where Eagles Dare. In fact, I find myself thinking/whining, Why shouldn’t I do that? Plenty of other writers keep banging out versions of the same thing, book after book, why should I always have to be doing something completely new each time?
JL Ha! I relish your image of my superheroic mornings and afternoons. I won’t do much to puncture this, except say that Greil Marcus told me he allocates six weeks for these little books on The Manchurian Candidate or “Like a Rolling Stone.” I took his encouragement and then took six months on They Live—I am now well into eight months on my hundred pages on Talking Heads (with three years of, er, contemplation behind that). But I’m glad you brought up the image of the long book on the brief artifact because what doing this kind of work has put me so much in mind of is the idea of “ratios of time”—i.e., writing about a film (or reading a book like yours on Tarkovsky, which extensively describes a film) you become so conscious of this allocation—the rate of attention-to-subject, or of prose-to-elapsed-time in the artwork. Of course, this matter is present for novelists, too, more subliminally, yet ubiquitous—the situation of the year that passes in a paragraph and the minute that takes 30 pages to describe. It becomes beautifully visible with something like Stalker—how do you write a 160-minute book? This leads me to the grave observation that for all your sense that your work is centrifugal and non-repeating, your true subject, no matter what you put in the foreground, is time. Jazz musicians—and Bob Dylan—are known to have claimed that their effort is to “stop time,” but it seems to me that’s yours as well, or to capture exactly the sensation of its passage, which amounts to the same thing.
GD Funnily enough, at one point I thought of adding a paragraph in my Stalker book saying that it could be read in real time, i.e., in approximately the time it took the film to unfold. But then the book got longer, and I realized that to get through it in 160 minutes you’d have to read it very and—given the slow pace of the film—inappropriately fast. Generally I like the idea of shrinking the gap between that which is being written about and the way that it is written about. Having said that, the test of books like these is that they should be capable of being read and enjoyed by people who have no knowledge of the thing they’re about. To that extent, the gap is increased so that one’s book about this thing becomes an independent and free-floating—forgive the pomposity—work of art in its own right.
As for time, I’m glad to hear it! I’m doing a conversation at the ICA in London with Christian Marclay in a month. It will be nice to be able to say that our shared interest in time has been independently verified. Have you seen any of The Clock yet?
JL No, I haven’t, only because I haven’t been in any of the cities where it was on view, but by now I’ve read so many compelling descriptions of it—particularly Zadie Smith’s—and responded so extensively to those, and gone on to see or re-see some of the films that are mentioned as being included, and noticed the moments of clocks in those films, that I feel I can quite competently weigh in on Marclay’s piece and claim myself as having been influenced by it. I hope you’ll be sympathetic to this stance as being somewhat more than being totally full of shit, or somewhat less than totally, since from your Lawrence book and a few places in Working the Room I think of you as being receptive to the influence of books you haven’t read completely, or have forgotten reading, or only heard paraphrased.
GD How interesting: to have seen bits of Christian Marclay’s The Clock quoted, as it were, in the films he’s lifted them from! I think of you as being one of two ideal viewers of The Clock(the other would be David Thomson), partly because of this issue of appropriation and creativity—”The Ecstasy of Influence”—and the obsessiveness you share with Marclay. But I also quite like the perversity of your continually missing it through the serial mishap of being in the wrong place at the wrong time! Anyway, I think you’re not quite right about time being my big theme: I think the big recurring theme has been the desire to give up, to quit. I’m always on the brink of no longer being a writer. (That, needless to say, is exactly what’s kept me going all these years!) Stalker lends itself very well to addressing this because the character called Writer is a washed-up writer going to the Zone for inspiration. His is the mirror I’m looking into on this journey. But yes, I think you’re right in that I’ve always wanted to preserve certain moments. I’d trace this back to my teens, to reading Wordsworth and what he calls “spots of time,” though for me they’ve tended to be scattered through my adult life rather than concentrated in childhood as he claims in The Prelude. It’s part of a general romantic yearning, but I like the way that in Wordsworth it’s so deeply earthed rather than being part of a more ethereal oohing and aahing such as you get in Shelley. Following on from this, it’s inevitable that those spots of time in Wordsworth are absolutely rooted in very specific places. Being in the right place at the right time! That’s been a real constant for me: place. Especially places where time has stood its ground, where the temporal manifests itself in the spatial, where history becomes geography.
JL That’s especially true in your book on the Great War, The Missing of the Somme, isn’t it? I’m in the middle of that one too—being half-done with two of your books, and having to race back and watch the rest of Stalker before I can allow myself to finish one of them. This seems like a particularly Dyerian—I’m sorry I keep using that annoying word—place to be. I’m glad the Great War isn’t only half-finished, though! Reading the Somme book, I was struck by the way you capture an image of the whole of England acting as one great grieving and commemorative and self-flattering consciousness in the wake of the war—as if England became a kind of artist, grappling with a theme (or became a mirror walking down the road of history, for a while). This idea of capturing “spots of time” seems to fit here, too. The way the British public and its poets all began anticipating going on this journey of sorrowful remembrance before the occasion had actually taken place reminded me, strangely enough, of Geoff Dyer’s, or “Jeff’s,” approach to going on vacation in books like Yoga for People Who Can’t Be Bothered to Do It, or Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi, i.e., always speculatively laying the groundwork for retrospect.
GD Yes, right. Lutyens’s Memorial to the Missing of the Somme at Thiepval is where I became fully conscious of this time-in-space thing. The grieving collective consciousness is certainly there in the 1920s and ’30s—though by the mid-’30s it takes on another, forward-looking quality as people realize that actually the peace had been a long time-out and soon we were going to have a go at the Germans—again. The self-flattering idea is very interesting too. In his history of the First World War (published in 1998, well after my book came out in UK), John Keegan writes: “The Somme marked the end of an age of vital optimism in British life that has never been restored.” Quite a claim! Now, apart from its accuracy, which is questionable—given the euphoria of various times—the swinging ’60s in London, beating the Germans in the World Cup final in 1966, or the ecstasy years of the late ’80s and ’90s, for example—there’s the tacit celebration of this loss of optimism (and maybe even an implied nostalgia if it ever returned!). But as with all myths, it contains a certain truth about British life, one that is so profoundly depressive as to be unimaginable in America.
As for speculatively, and similarly, laying the groundwork for retrospect in Jeff in Venice orYoga—I don’t see it at all: just a preservation of special moments, i.e., good ole-fashioned lyricism!
JL I finished the Somme book last night. I had no choice but to stay inside the trance of it to the end, once I’d gotten any momentum at all. It’s outstanding, one of your best things, I think. Amazing to me that it hadn’t been published in the US before, and that I hadn’t read it before, which shouldn’t amount to the same thing but apparently did in this case. On page 100 (of this edition, anyway), you make room for a pretty bad joke about a friend’s bad driving and for a friend’s good joke about dying in a car crash being good publicity for your unwritten book. It’s an amazing act of confidence and generosity, I think, toward your friend and the reader both. It struck me that with your willingness to court inanity, even in the midst of your topic, you’d authorized yourself to be the writer of a book about such unspeakable sorrow—much more absolutely than you had, for instance, by telling us that your grandfather was in the war. Many thousands of people could say the latter and, there’s no way to be polite about this, I mostly wouldn’t want to read their books. They wouldn’t have known to include the friend’s joke, or even the friend in the first place.
A simple question: do you reread your old books? I don’t, but I wonder about this situation of an older book becoming “new” in this edition, and whether that tempted you into looking into it.
GD No, like you, I don’t suffer from that masturbatory habit! But yes, the delay is quite interesting in that the combination of subject matter and photos inserted in the text—albeit with captions—gives it a rather post-Sebaldian quality. It was an important book for me in four ways, all of which are, of course, inextricably related: 1) in terms of my coming to feel at home in this neither-one-thing-nor-the-other hybrid territory; 2) in the development of a tone that could move between the kind of joking around you describe and rather solemn stuff, and a bit of history and literary criticism, etcetera, without any obvious changing of gears; 3) the evolution of a form that did without the structural prop of chapters in favor of something more organic and free-flowing; and 4) not even trying to be thorough, ignoring completely the stuff that didn’t interest me.
JL And now, right on cue, I’ve finished your other new short book (this one authentically new, as opposed to just US new), Zona, and it appears to me, very happily, that you have just described the whole of Tarkovsky’s brilliant movie in order to passingly (and for me, unmissably) explain why you’re actually glad you don’t own the film on DVD, as well as what you think of Lars von Trier, and why you and your wife don’t have a dog yet. The freedom to digress is, of course, your great signature, and I was thrilled that you put it in footnotes, because every generous footnote now is a blow to reclaim footnotes from the judgment of an ill-informed audience that believes that David Foster Wallace invented them and therefore no one else gets to use them. This in a world where Nicholson Baker plainly invented the footnote! As a footnote to my own non-question here, I’ll also mention that your two short books are officially the only two books I will have finished this summer, because what this spate of Dyerian study has interrupted for me is my summer of reading the new translation of Musil’s The Man Without Qualities. You licensed this digression by mentioning Musil in the Somme book, toward the end, which reminds me that one of the best qualities a very short book can have is the appearance of somehow having mentioned everything that exists.
GD But I do have a DVD! How d’you like them bananas! I needed to have one to refer to the film from time to time, to make sure I wasn’t getting things totally wrong, although my book is not necessarily a reliable record of what’s going on in the film. Thank you for being so generous regarding the capaciousness of the little Stalker book. I know we share a fondness for Roberto Calasso, who was the biggest influence on this book. I love that line of Calvino’s about Calasso’s early book, The Ruin of Kasch: that it “takes up two subjects: the first is Talleyrand, and the second is everything else.” As for digressions: I love what one might call the integral digression, or to put it another way, books where the very idea of the digression is rendered meaningless, as it is in Calasso, Nicholson Baker, and in quite a few of those American monologue-type novels. I’ll return to this in a moment. But, for now, sticking to the film, I would just say that this idea of integral digression is integral to Stalker since the route they take through the Zone is, as Stalker points out to Writer and Professor, necessarily meandering and indirect. Now, a point of comparison: it seems to me in some ways that you and I are rather similar. We are both hobbyists, obsessives, inventoryists who have pursued these hobbies and interests outside of academia. That’s the overlap of sensibility. But you have nailed your primary colors more loyally to the novelist’s mast, to narrative fiction. Let me put this distinction another way: you are American; I am English. The American novel is able to accommodate a tendency to digress, whereas I feel the English novel is sort of to one side of where my main enthusiasms are, so I’ve found a way of digressing from the national norm. I throw this out as an off-the-cuff thought, so feel free to debunk. But I honestly, if mistakenly, believe I would have been more thoroughly a novelist if I’d either been born in America or had moved there—as I should have done—ten or 15 years ago. (Oh, and in passing, I have never made much progress with the Musil.)
JL I’m very interested in where you end up in this sequence of thoughts, since I’ve always noticed that when we talk about novels you do so very much with the conviction and investment of a fellow novelist. I remember you telling me once how much more important and transformative a figure Martin Amis was from the perspective of an English novelist (which I wanted to resist, but had to take your word for) and (more happily) that Alan Hollinghurst was the greatest living English novelist. I don’t know whether these were studied positions or whimsical provocations you’ll now claim to have no memory of making. The point is, it was novelists’ talk. Whereas in your public statements, even when you’re putting forward a novel, you’re rueful and self-effacing about the role. I like the idea that you’re sure you’d have been the novelist you aren’t—even though you sometimes, actually, are—if you’d moved to the US. (Maybe you would have read Musil too. And you’d go to the gym more often.) How much have you followed the sometimes cartoonishly polarized debate about David Shields and the lyric essay versus the Moldering American Novel? You and your books are something of a symbolic token on the board, you know.
GD Yes, I remember, and stand by, those two claims. Reading the new Hollinghurst—and, as it happens, the new Ondaatje—served as a rebuke to my occasional antinovel sentiments, because they reminded me of exactly the all-immersing pleasure I routinely used to get from many novels. So my objection, I suppose, to mediocre—but still so-called literary—novels, is that they offer “entertainment,” when what I want is the “deep plumbing of consciousness.” The quotes are from Shields, who I think articulates this kind of stuff very well. The problem, as Sam Lipsyte pointed out to me, is that the Shields anticanon ends up being rather skimpy and a lot of the stuff he most values is actually to be found in … fiction! It’s like some command economy in which you end up having to import back the stuff that you have banished because you can’t actually live without it. But, generally, I thought Reality Hungerwas very exciting and original. Inevitably it spawned a lot of quite moronic debate over here too and people got very exercised about his alleged “plagiarism.” What a yawn, especially for anyone—you and me, both—who had the privilege of being part of that amazingly stimulating conference on fair use (actually about the nature of creativity in the 21st century) organized by Lawrence Weschler a few years back.
JL Well, it sounds like we arrived at exactly the same place with Reality Hunger, though perhaps from different sides (in a couple of senses: novelist’s ego/essayist’s ego, US/UK, and the fact that I was privy to Shields’s writing it early on—after I’d published “The Ecstasy of Influence” essay, we were in a constant dialogue). Anyway, when it came out and the conversation was all about an ostensible “attack on the novel,” I was disappointed. I mean, I guess that stuff was in the book, and consisted of a kind of provocation that couldn’t be resisted, but it seemed obtuse to take it so literally. Some novelists I know were genuinely outraged. I had to consider that he’d really struck a nerve, but it’s not a nerve I possess. I’m just congenitally complacent about the permanent vitality and relevance of the form I’ve chosen, I suppose. The fact of dull examples doesn’t threaten that complacency any more than bad slices of pizza threaten the good ones.
Weschler’s conference at NYU six years ago was a great moment, wasn’t it? How much do you fiddle around with actual “appropriation” in your prose? Do you ever?
GD Oh, yes. Those are the best bits! In Paris Trance I added a note at the end saying the text contained various “samples” from Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises. I thought I was so cool and hip, you know, saying “samples” rather than boring old ”quotes”! And there are the lines from Thomas Mann’s Death in Venice in Jeff in Venice. It adds layers and nuances, though it’s often taken as just showing off. Maybe one of the reasons I’m drawn to this free-form, quasi-essayistic kind of book is that one has more license to quote, though as far as possible I like to find ways around saying “As X writes in his book Y, etcetera …” I like unacknowledged quotations, unacknowledged till the end at least—something I got from Berger and Ondaatje.
I’d like to go back to where you say “I’m just congenitally complacent about the permanent vitality and relevance of the form I’ve chosen.” I find this really appealing and persuasive coming from you, especially in connection with the subsequent pizza point. But then I think of examples, particularly in England, where there is a generic assumption of merit in a particular slice of pizza, irrespective of its individual quality, simply because it is derived from the recipe used by Dickens or whomever. There’s a question of conformity versus originality or novelty.
JL I’d forgotten about your outright “samples.” You know, Paris Trance was the first of your books I read. It was new at the time, which tells you when I got aboard. I, of course, also take every opportunity to appear “cool and hip,” but in that particular regard, I find it leads to a distortion. There have been so many stupefyingly silly attacks on appropriation in text, which associate it with some sort of provocative or ironic postmodern impulse in order to damn both. So I’ve usually wanted to emphasize how boring and predictable a move appropriation or reference really is, how much continuity it has with all kinds of fundamental traditions of reference and intertextuality, all taken for granted. It is only the big neon arrow pointing to the act that is anything new at all!
Which actually leads in very nicely to what you were saying about the assumption of the merits of the recipe from Dickens. This is going to be another English versus American thing for us—you, there, feeling so suffocated and hidebound by weary traditionalism; me, here, feeling so exasperated with the falsehood of a constantly moving frontier and the cultural amnesia that accompanies the myth of innovation: “Make it new!” and pretend you can’t see how it’s really quite old. For me, the useful insight about novels is how deeply even the apparently radical ones rely on the tradition, the old forms, the recipe from Dickens. I like that and find it nourishing. The “conformity,” as you call it, doesn’t irritate me. Bogus revolutions irritate me more. And if a novel isn’t very surprising and memorable, in the end, and so many aren’t, we turn out to have read them anyway, because we like novels, right? What’s good in them is usually their conversation with the tradition, not whatever slightly preposterous and unworkable “new” thing they’ve done. As I’ve said elsewhere, I’d rather be trapped on a desert island with the collected works of Barbara Pym than those of Thomas Pynchon. (I don’t know if I mean what I say here, or if I just want you to have to respond to it. But of course Alan Hollinghurst is hardly a radical innovator. As Phillip Lopate said to me once, in a fit of annoyance over someone criticizing something wonderful for not being “transgressive”: “All excellence transgresses against mediocrity.”)
GD Yes, in England just now people are all falling over themselves about Hollinghurst’s new book because they’ve realized what a great straight novelist the gay writer is! Of course he’s always been a straight-down-the-line novelist, and, for at least three of the four previous books, a great one too. More broadly, these debates tend to get polarized between the traditional novel and experimental fiction—itself a largely historical relic. I like the idea of something that combines experiment and tradition: you know, Pymchon! In a version of that wonderful Lopate line, I’ve sometimes been tempted to say that all great art is experimental. But a moment’s reflection makes one realize that it’s not. As you say, a conversation with tradition is the important thing. That’s what those hip samples are really about. I fear I’m running out of steam here with regard to literature, but in jazz it’s very boring when you get bands just repeating the kind of post-bop that was being played half a century ago—however well they do it and however exciting that original post-bop was and is. What I’m interested in, to the point of obsession, is an outfit like The Necks, who come along and completely blow away the idea of what a piano, bass, and drums trio can do, to the extent that it’s maybe not even jazz. Translate that back into the realm of literature and I think that’s also where a lot of my interest currently lies.
Jonathan Lethem is the author of eight novels, including, most recently, Chronic City. His collection of essays, The Ecstasy of Influence, is forthcoming this November. Photo by John Lucas.
As artists, we have to find the antidote to this darkness right now, to how everything feels so compressed rather than expanded.