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Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi Paperback – April 6, 2010
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A wildly original novel (what else would we expect from this fearless and funny writer?) that explores the underbelly of erotic fulfillment and spiritual yearning.
Every two years the international art world descends on Venice for the opening of the Biennale. Among them is Jeff Atman—a jaded, dissolutely resolute journalist—whose dedication to the cause of Bellini-fuelled party-going is only intermittently disturbed by the obligation to file a story. When he meets Laura, he is rejuvenated, ecstatic. Their romance blossoms quickly but is it destined to disappear just as rapidly?
Every day thousands of pilgrims head to the banks of the Ganges at Varanasi, the holiest Hindu city in India. Among their number is a narrator who may or may not be the Atman previously seen in Venice. Intending to visit only for a few days he ends up staying for months, and finds—or should that be loses?—a hitherto unexamined idea of himself, the self. In a romance he can only observe, he sees a reflection of the kind of pleasures that, willingly or not, he has renounced. In the process, two ancient and watery cities become versions of each other. Could two stories, in two different cities, actually be one and the same story?
Nothing Geoff Dyer has written before is as wonderfully unbridled, as dead-on in evocation of place, longing, and the possibility of neurotic enlightenment, as irrepressibly entertaining as Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi.
About the Author
Geoff Dyer is the author of three previous novels and five nonfiction books, including But Beautiful, which was awarded the Somerset Maugham Prize, and Out of Sheer Rage, which was a National Book Critics Circle Award finalist. The winner of a Lannan Literary Award, the International Center of Photography's 2006 Infinity Award for writing on photography (for The Ongoing Moment), and the American Academy of Arts and Letters' E. M. Forster Award, Dyer lives in London.
Questions for Geoff Dyer
Q: What is this book about?
A: At the risk of being cowardly, I'll take refuge behind a line from one of Kerouac’s letters: "It's my contention that a man who can sweat fantastically for the flesh is also capable of sweating fantastically for the spirit." (See also answer to question 4.)
Q: Is it a modern twist on Death in Venice? If not, what's up with the title?
A: Yes, the first part is a version of the Mann novella--the opening sentence is ripped straight out of the opening line of the original--but mine operates at a far lower cultural level. His protagonist is a world-famous composer, mine is a hack journalist. And whereas in the Mann, Aschenbach's obsession with the young boy, Tadzio, is tied up with some quest for ideal beauty, in my book the romance with Laura is very carnal and hedonistic--though that could itself be said to represent some kind of ideal.
Q: Why Venice and Varanasi?
A: They're actually very similar: both are water-based, old, with crumbling palaces facing onto either the Grand Canal or the Ganges with alleys and narrow streets leading off into darkness and sudden oases of brilliant light. And both, in their ways, are pilgrimage sites. I'm not the first person to be struck by the similarities. There are quite a few occasions in his Indian Journals when Ginsberg is so stoned walking by the Ganges that he thinks he's in Venice, strolling along the Grand Canal!
Q: Are the two parts of the book, two stories in two different cities, or are they the same story? How are they linked? One early reviewer claimed that the protagonist in each story wasn't the same person, but two people--is it the same person or not?
A: Well, these are huge questions and this, in fact, is what the book is about. By asking questions like these the reader is hopefully confronted by several more, about what kind of unity the book has, about the ways in which a novel might be capable of generating an aesthetic unity of experience that is not narrative-driven. Regarding the person in each part, I'll opt for what governments call the N.C.N.D. response, neither confirming nor denying. It is never made clear whether the un-named narrator in Varanasi is the same as the protagonist in Venice. And although sequentially it comes afterwards, there is nothing in the book to suggest that part 2 comes chronologically after part 1. I actually wanted to subtitle the book "A Diptych" but was dissuaded by my handlers. I didn't mind: it so obviously is a diptych there's no need to call it one!
Q: You've clearly spent a lot of time in Venice and Varanasi. Have any of Jeff's adventures happened to you?
A: Yes, I've been to three biennales and spent a big chunk of time in Varanasi. As I've said elsewhere, I like writing stuff that's only an inch from life but all the art--and, for me, all the fun--is in that inch.--This text refers to the Hardcover edition.
From Publishers Weekly
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved. --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.
More About the Author
Top Customer Reviews
In the novel's first half, "Jeff in Venice," Dyer introduces Jeff Atman (in a sly nod to the second part of the book, the word means "soul" or "true self" in Hinduism), a cynical 45-year-old British journalist who has just dyed his hair for the first time and taken off for Venice. He is headed there on assignment to cover the Biennale and write a piece on the ex-girlfriend of a prominent artist (the latter a task he bungles spectacularly). Jeff seems more intent on sampling the pleasures of the Italian city (a torrent of bellinis and never-ending helpings of risotto the most prominent). There, he meets Laura Freeman, a ravishing young woman who works for a Los Angeles art gallery. The two zip around the city's waterways on its fleet of vaporettos and quickly tumble into a relationship that features copious bouts of sex (described in NC-17 detail) and cocaine, interspersed with a mind-numbing swirl of parties and gallery visits.
Astonished by the ample, unanticipated pleasures of his encounter with Laura, Jeff strides the streets, dumbly celebrating his good fortune: "He swaggered through Venice as if he owned the place, as if it had been created entirely for his benefit. Life! So full of inconvenience, irritation, boredom and annoyance and yet, at the same time, so utterly fantastic." Though it seems the two have made a connection that transcends the purely carnal, Laura departs for Los Angeles after three magical, if inexplicable, days.Read more ›
Reaching the end of the first piece and shrugging, we move on to India with a nameless 1st-person protagonist as our new host. This novella, less "modern" in feel, comes off like a travel book, rich in details about the squalid Indian city, the filthy Ganges, and the constant funeral pyres -- metaphoric, perhaps, for a tandem of books that don't quite mesh and don't quite grab the reader by the lapels?
Fans of parties, booze, and sex (Round One) and fans of Hindu rituals, travel writing, and kangaroos (if you get that far in Round Two, you'll see) may be confused as to why these odd bedfellows share a dust jacket, but the writing isn't bad and Dyer's a gamer -- too bad he just can't get it off the ground.
This gem is an exception and I am so glad that I picked it up for an evening's break from my own work. Geoff Dyer creates an amazing blend of travelogue and fiction in his tale of a journalist adrift in mid-life. The protagonist begins his journey of dissolution in grey England, then accepts a writing assignment in Venice at the Bienale art circus during severe heat, where he meets a portentous figure in the form of a woman from California nearer his age at a jet-set party (a woman named Laura, who is a sly, quiet homage to DuMaurier and Roeg's Laura Baxter of "Don't Look Now") who is giving up journalism for hedge-funding in Varanasi, India. Synchronicity lands him in this other Venice where he penetrates the fiction of self and the Disneyworld "ridiculousness" and beauty of existence, itself, in his examination of Hinduism and life in the amazingly detailed Varanasi. Yes, yes: echoes of The Razor's Edge, maybe, and themes that echo Steppenwolf and other novels of self-discovery, but unique in its blend of travelogue, comedy, self-effacement and insight.
Dyer's hand at description is impeccable and arresting. It is such a lovely, vivid and humorous work. While I know Venice well, I have never visited India, and his tale left me more than curious about what "me" I might find if I went "there".
I came away infatuated with this writer, and his wonderful book.
The second part of the book, which takes place in Varanasi, improves just slightly. Varanasi is a strange enough city that it would be hard to make it boring. But again, I found myself bored, found myself reading on with impatience and dismay, wondering what happened to Dyer's clever insights, his heart, his humor, his sharp imagery. The whole thing is just really slack. In the last thirty pages of the book the pace picks up a little bit, but mainly because things become a bit surreal and a tiny bit imaginative. A lot has been made of the fact that the two cities in this book are based on the water that flows through them. Big deal. For this reason the book is described as a "diptych". Who cares? With what Dyer has made of it, it's completely meaningless.
I almost had the feeling Dyer just dashed this book off and hoped he could get away with it. He didn't get away with it, believe me. If you want to know what Dyer can do as a writer, avoid this one and read Out of Sheer Rage.
Most Recent Customer Reviews
So far I've just read the Jeff in Venice part. I enjoyed it. It was artist, writers, insiders at a very cool and illusive art conference in Venice. Read morePublished 4 months ago by Sharon S.
well written and very interesting. second half (Varanasi) can be experienced as a vicarious spiritual journey along with the author.Published 6 months ago by DennisV
Dyer's an interesting writer. I'm not sure what my verdict is yet. I think I've read all of his books by now, but I'm not sure. That's one of the problems. Read morePublished 6 months ago by ignacio f.
As a constant and enthusiastic traveler I was awed by the the authors ability to capture the feelings associated with finding oneself in an exotic land.Published 10 months ago by Jeffrey S. Pechter
This book could have been so much more compelling and insightful than it was. Geoff Dyer is clearly smart and verbally dexterous, and I can see why he thought parallel narratives... Read morePublished 11 months ago by Martin Rowe