May 15, 2012

Life and Art: Geoff Dyer at AWRF 2012

One of the most valuable things the AWRF did for me this year was to include Geoff Dyer in their line-up, thereby allowing me to solve one of my longest-running literary doppelganger cases (my personal term for those pairs of authors you always mix up), that of Geoff Dyer and Geoff Nicholson. I’m not saying that I’ll never be unsure again as to which one wrote Bleeding London and which one wrote Paris Trance, but I have definitely locked the name Geoff Dyer to the tall, skinny, gelled-hair, supercilious (at least publicly) guy who writes about art and jazz, which means, by default, that Geoff Nicholson is the long-haired, slightly chubby fellow who writes about rock guitar, food, and interesting obsessions.

At the Opening Night Party, having “found” myself next to Geoff Dyer while reaching for a glass of wine at the bar, I seized the moment to tell him how much I was looking forward to his session, and, since he is clearly a person with a sense of humour, to tell him about being one of my literary doppelgangers and ask him if he had a suggestion for a mnemonic which might help me keep my Geoffs straight.

He looked puzzled, but not, as you might be thinking, by the concept of the literary doppelganger. No, he was having a hard time identifying this other “Geoff”, also a writer, of twenty books, from the same generation, who had also made his name on the London scene, whose first book had appeared practically simultaneously with his. “Geoff who?” he said, drawing his brows together and peering over my head into the distance. “Nicholson? Nicholson… Nicholson…”

Eventually he got it. “Ah yes, Geoff Nicholson!” So did he have a suggestion? He put his head back and laughed, but as he brought it back down a gleam was forming in his eye. I am sure he was going to rise to the challenge. This is a man who thrives on cleverness. Unfortunately, I will never know, because at that moment Karl Maughan appeared and took him by the arm. “Geoff has to meet his new publisher!” he said, and carried him away (or as some might say, saved him from me). How had I forgotten that when writers are on the circuit, they are always working?

By the time Geoff Dyer’s session rolled around, a talk about “Life and Art”, I realised I no longer needed the silly mnemonic anyway, although of course need had never really been the point (I hope you all got that!). But the capsule description offered by the event chair Gregory O’Brien in his introduction was interesting. “Public intellectual, writer, journalist”, he described him. I’ve always considered Geoff Dyer first and foremost a writer, and it’s not that common, I was thinking, that a writer is also a “public intellectual” (as compared to the “public intellectual” who writes books, Isaiah Berlin, say, or Umberto Eco). Nikos Kazantzakis comes to my mind first, but he’s dead; Pasolini, same. Also Leonardo Sciascia and Vaclav Havel. Of people alive today, who? Amos Oz, Wole Soyinka, maybe Ha Jin.

What’s the first thing you notice about that list? Was it this? “Traditionally speaking,” Geoff Dyer pointed out, “English fiction has been hostile to the idea of ideas”. His own description of what he set out to do was “Criticism, commentary, original… that 'in-between' space was a place where I thought I could operate” and “I’m at odds with the idea that the novel is the sole outlet for creative writing”.

He says he is not what he calls a “career writer”, someone who finishes a book and then starts a new one, and he writes about non-mass market topics. “Would jazz be an example of that?”, asks Greg O’Brien. “Actually, it was quite a canny move. Jazz has had three revivals during my lifetime” Dyer says gleefully.

His first book was about John Berger, a “huge figure” as Dyer calls him, a writer about art, whose novel G won the Booker Prize. Dyer says his book about Berger was unbelievably boring – “It was my surrogate PhD” -- but then he met Berger, who was incredibly encouraging. "John Berger is the one who taught me about creative non-fiction” he testifies.
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His new book, Zona, is a meditation on film, art and life, all through the lens of the Andrei Tarkovsky science fiction film from the seventies, Stalker. Tarkovsky’s film can be told in two sentences, he says, and then does it in one. “People in a place where at the centre their dreams come true.” “You don’t have to have seen the film. My publisher hasn’t seen it yet. I’ve come to view the film as being a trailer, an advert, for my book.”

The Geoff Dyer mannerisms amuse me. He is a good story teller. He story tells as images from the film show on the screen. I loved it. “The book is about an obsession. There is just one train station now in Cheltenham, where I grew up. When I was growing up there were four. My father used to take me to watch the trains at xxx (mumbled name of closest station). It closed when I was four, but at eight or nine I used to go play there with my friends. It was all rusted, decayed, tracks overgrown with weeds, nettles, dandelions.”

“Here we are” says Stalker. Home at last.

The book’s epigraph is from Camus. “After all the best way of talking about what you love is to speak of it lightly."

As Dyer likes to say, “Whatever else people think of my books, the epigraphs are fantastic”.

As the hour draws to a close Greg O’Brien says the three adjectives that come to his mind about Dyer’s writing are “Boredom, impatience, and xxx (mumble).” What could it be? I'd happily give my vote to "candour". Or was it "irritation"? This is, after all, the man who wrote a book called Wrestling with D.H. Lawrence about not writing a book about D.H. Lawrence, and who had this to say to Gregory O'Brien and the public at AWRF 2012 about his new book, the one he had come to talk about:

“I stop listening when someone starts to pitch a book to me and especially if the pitch is about the contents. Of course the only thing to pitch is the tone, so take a look at the first paragraph and if it irritates you, go ahead and read it anyway!”

I plan to.

Ditulis Oleh : tosca // 03:00
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