1. Back in 1995-6, the Journalist demanded to know if i’d read Geoff Dyer. Dyer, born in 1958, has written about jazz and photography, and so seemed to fit right into the Journalist’s expected repertoire of avant-garde bollocks.
The Journalist’s reading was broad and seemingly undiscriminating – he read apparently everything, without forming any opinion – the only book which left an impression on him was Colin Wilson’s The Outsider; assuming he read as quickly as me (i read about 2 – 3 times as quickly as my fellow undergrads at university), he had either begun reading “literature” in his infancy, or just skim-read everything without thought; the latter seemed probable, and i note that his current blog is mostly about avant-garde art exhibitions and avant-garde film. His literary tastes were all good, but i don’t believe they were really his tastes – i think he just read everything “literary” without consideration. And so i long regarded Geoff Dyer with distaste, as the kind of trendy London writer the Journalist wanted to be.
2. i finally got round to reading Dyer. His essays won me over immediately, and i can’t remember a collection i’ve enjoyed more, since George Steiner’s No Passion Spent, a collected Gore Vidal 15 years ago, and Theodore Dalrymple’s online essays in 2007-9, though Simon Leys is now also on my List. Dyer:
As i was whining about my shitty life to a Polish girl, she said (in German): “and what good things have happened?” – and i immediately replied, “I have discovered a new writer, Geoff Dyer.” In a sense i feel even closer to him than to Steiner or Vidal or Leys, because he is English and of a recognisable generation – so in his interviews he looks and sounds like one of my old tutors (of roughly the same age) – a mumbler who came through the 80s.
3. Pleasingly, Dyer and i share two tastes – George Steiner and Thomas Bernhard. Both are writers i discovered and then gorged myself on, both are masters of unordinary language and share an inhuman quality i love; Dyer is in some ways the opposite – his English is closer to Vidal’s and Ley’s – human and earthy and devoid of side. Dyer’s finest work, as i see it, is his Out of Sheer Rage, a study of DH Lawrence. i put off reading this, as i don’t like Lawrence, though i recognise his strange talent. i was reassured to find that Dyer doesn’t actually like Lawrence’s novels (i find them really unbearable) but prefers his essays and some of his poems, and his letters. i shrunk somewhat here, as i’d read Vol 1 of DHL’s letters and found them strident and egotistic and tedious – very like the Journalist’s letters – and, reassuringly, Dyer says this volume is the worst.
Lawrence is an interesting writer but i would agree with Dyer, that his supposed achievement, the novels, are not finally as good as his essays & poems. The novels are bombastic and laboured, to my taste, and his shorter writings stay closer to his real talent. Dyer has an instinct for the lodes of real talent, and has followed it in his own works, eschewing stifling forms.
i am a fan of fragments and marginal works, so i prefer Borges’ essays to his stories, Kafka’s Zurau Aphorisms to his novels, Kierkegaard’s journals to his published books, and i suspect most of Heraclitus’ worthwhile work is in the fragments that survive. If we see writing as a form of speech (and we must learn to speak before we can write), then writing is often an attempt to make concrete an originally momentary impulse. i feel that one of my difficulties has been to write without sacrificing overly to form – hence, my only really good works are my short stories, which as it were emerged from me without much thought.
4. Dyer never seems to have had difficulties finding a way of writing true to the original speech-thoughts. Crucially, he wasn’t ruined by academia, and Out of Sheer Rage has a good passage on fashionable garbage:
Hearing that I was ‘working on Lawrence’, an acquaintance lent me a book he thought I might find interesting: A Longman Critical Reader on Lawrence, edited by Peter Widdowson. I glanced at the contents page: old Eagleton was there, of course, together with some other state-of-the-fart theorists: Lydia Blanchart on ‘ Lawrence, Foucault and the Language of Sexuality’ (in the section on ‘Gender, Sexuality, Feminism’), Daniel J. Schneider on ‘Alternatives to Logocentricism in D.H. Lawrence’ (in the section featuring ‘Post-Structuralist Turns’). I could feel myself getting angry and then I flicked through the introductory essay on ‘Radical Indeterminacy: a post-modern Lawrence’ and became angrier still. How could it have happened? How could these people with no feeling for literature have ended up teaching it, writing about it? I should have stopped there, should have avoided looking at any more, but I didn’t, because telling myself to stop always has the effect of urging me on. Instead, I kept looking at this group of wankers huddled in a circle, backs turned to the world so that no one would see them pulling each other off. Oh, it was too much, it was too stupid. I threw the book across the room and then I tried to tear it up but it was too resilient. By now I was blazing mad. I thought about getting Widdowson’s phone number and making threatening calls. Then I looked around for the means to destroy his vile, filthy book. In the end it took a whole box of matches and some risk of personal injury before I succeeded in deconstructing it.
I burned it in self-defence.
i entirely understand this, have indeed gone through similar paroxysms of rage. i would feel no compunctions about burning academic books, because they contain nothing of the author – except his or her cringing apple polishing zeal, always looking slyly to the accepted strictures of the time, to make sure their worthless Polonial polishing drivel will be accepted and published, if not read, since virtually no one reads academic books, not even other academic polishers. One could say that modern (say, from the early 90s) academic writing is the triumph of form over humanity; not even inhuman like Steiner, but rather below human, a kind of corruption and mockery of the human, whatever original nature there is, subdued, fit to be burnt. i don’t think any academic today would really care if their books were all burnt, as long as they could keep their titles and gross emoluments.
5. Dyer has said that Out of Sheer Rage was influenced by Bernhard, and indeed i almost stopped reading it after the first page, which is almost a pastiche of Concrete. However, it breaks free of TB, and Dyer manages to assimilate that coloration to his own native wit and perception. This is somehow both Bernhardian and also Dyer:
If I’m stuck in traffic I mutter and curse beneath my breath. If I am kept waiting at a shop or supermarket I curse and mutter beneath my breath. Whatever happens I curse and mutter beneath my breath. When I am not reacting to some immediate cause of anger I am rehearsing what I am going to say to X or Y the next time I see them, thinking how I’m really going to give them an earful so that beneath my breath there is a constant rumble of abuse. You fucking stupid twat, you slow-witted mother-fucking asshole, you fucking piece of shit…That’s it, that’s what’s going on in my head. Laura has said that it is obvious I am a writer because as I walk along my lips move, as if I’m mentally going over some passage I’ve written. Yes, that’s it exactly, I say, except this particular book consists entirely of variations on ‘you fucking stupid cunt, I’m going to smash your fucking head in if you don’t hurry up.’
So, ladies and gentlemen, you have the great Geoff Dyer.