Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi-Geoff Dyer

From about half-way through the book

from Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi
Geoff Dyer

When he was seventeen he'd read The French Lieutenant's Woman and had been much impressed by John Fowles's distinction between the Victorian point of view--I can't have this forever, therefore I am miserable--and the modern existentialist outlook: I have this for the moment, therefore I'm happy. It had stayed with him ever since but it seemed absurd, now, to have any pretensions to existential contentment. In 2003, in his mind-forties, he had got in touch with his inner Victorian. In Venice he discovered that he was the last Victorian.

And so it goes.  I'm left somewhat at odds about what I think about this book because though I've given it nearly a week and a half after finishing, I'm not completely certain I've made sense of it yet.  So, for your entertainment and my public embarrassment, I shall ramble for you.

The title of the book succinctly typifies its structure--parallels. In a diptych of longish stories centered around the implausibly but symbolically named Jeff Atman, Geoff Dyer explores duality as built into the human condition and the human animal. And animal is a good word for humanity in this book.

The cities of Venice and Varanasi are chosen for their associations, the first of which is alluded to in the title--Thomas Mann's "Death in Venice."  Unfortunately for you, I may have missed much in reading (hence this ramble) because it has been some time since I last read that novella.  I remember, of course, the very broad contours of the story, but not sufficient detail to make a point by point comparison--if one were useful.

The two cities are also cities of pilgrimage. Varanasi, which is also referred to as Benares, is a holy city washed by the lambent stream--or at least periodically flooded by the holy waters of the Ganges. Many go there to cremate the dead. As Geoff Dyer writes the story, Venice is a city of pilgrimage for the art world, indulging every other year in the Biennale--a kind of bellini-laced blow-out in which the hottest artists from all over the world present their wares.  Both cities are associated with water and feature boats as major modes of transpotation.  Finally, for Jeff, both cities serve as vehicles for self-discovery and self-revelation--as noted in the starting quotation.

Each city is a city of excess. In the first part of the diptych Jeff is sent to Venice to cover the Biennale as a free-lance reporter for a culture magazine. He is supposed to interview a key person and obtain from her a portrait done by a major artist.  He scores the interview and views the picture, but decides not to try to obtain it.  The interview marks a major junction of his Venice trip at which he leaves the land of golden bellinis and starts partaking of the drug-hazed chaos that makes up this gathering of artists.  From this point, Jeff starts down the road of yet another excess--sexual.  This is described in stomach-churning detail--if it is not enough to put you off of sex, it certainly does come awfully close.  While reading I came very close to giving the book up at this point: I thought that Geoff Dyer had entered the most pointless harbor in all of Rothland and was preparing to disembark.   But I persevered with the ardent hope that things would improve.

They did. We finish the Venice episode.  A travel magaine needs a feature on travel in India (Varanai) because the writer they planned to send fell ill before even getting to India. Enter Jeff who undertakes the work as a sort of all-expenses paid lark.  And it start off as just such for Jeff.  For any normal person there is little about the experience as descirbed that sounds appealing--skip rapturous or otherwise exciting. Dyers gives us excruciating details about the filth in Varanasi, the impoverished conditions, the traffic, the hotels, the people, the animals,  and about the burning of corpses--the sights, the smells all are there for us to savor as Geoff Dyer details the excesses of religion, population, and spirituality.  And yet something about the place captivates Jeff.  Jeff, the great agnostic, if not atheist, discovers something remarkable in Varanasi.  It takes him time and a life-altering bout of some intestinal illness to come to terms with Varanasi.  This literal purging is followed by a series of symbolic actions that bring him to a new understanding of himself and his place in the world.

Here, I must make another embarrasing admission--I must admit that I am nearly completely tone-deaf to irony.  I find the device overused and often I think it takes the form of "methinks the lady doth protest too much."  That is to say, I'll be ironic about this because I'm too afraid of it to be serious.  If that is the case with Dyer, I cannot say because I did not read the book as ironic.  I read it as an astounding journey of shake-ups and insights that results in a completely changed life.

I honestly don't know what I think about this book.  Except, in a way I do.  The fact that I have been thinking about it so much since finishing it tells me precisely what I think--it is a book worth reading, and perhaps reading again.  It is a book that deserves attention to detail that I did not give it the first time around.  It is a book that is full of humor, surprises, and insights--many of which I probably missed on my cursory and uneasy first flyby.  In short it is, for those of firm enough intestinal fortitude

Highly Recommended--*****


  1. Oh great review Steven, though I'm glad that you too spent some time after reading it before being able to write your review. I usually like seeing parallels in structure and you've brought them out clearly. Somehow this book teased me so much I had more trouble than usual pulling back to make sense of things like the parallels but your discussion of them does provide a good context from which to view the book.

    I think there's a lot of irony in the book but, like you, I wouldn't read it as ironic. My end feeling was more of paradox - everything you think, see, or do seems to have an equal opposite. And that I suppose is the same as being shook up!

  2. Dear WG,

    The book mellows in memory and I think back on it after having reread "Death in Venice" and think that I need to revisit.

    Yes, the veil of Maya is pretty prominent in the book and the Atman opposes Maya, so it provides one way of looking at the book. I'm glad you enjoyed it, and I think you'll find that it pops into your head every now and then, it is a memorable book.



  3. Ah yes, the veil-veal joke. I remember but it didn't click. Funny the different things we notice/remember.


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