15 of 21 people found the following review helpful
This review is from: Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi: A Novel (Hardcover)
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In the first story, a writer experiences the excitement of Venice in a few brief days. Jeffrey Atman drinks, parties, tours, does his job (more or less) and has an affair with a beautiful woman. As our hero keeps reminding the reader, almost everything is going right for him.
Jeff's tastes have remained remarkably constant as he has aged whereas "other people's ideas of a good time underwent well-established changes as they got older." Jeff approaches life as if it were an extended frat party; other people "ended up raising children, buying sheds or playing golf." With his adolescent value system intact, Altman is on top of the world for 48 hours.
Dyer writes visually and feverishly about the Venice Art Festival. He creates tension around Altman's pursuit of Laura and beautifully about their time together. Laura's flight out of Venice, however, and the end of the festival happen rapidly for both Altman and the reader. In a few pages, the reader moves from envy for the hero to pity even though these changes are foreshadowed and inevitable.
The second story is also about a writer's journey to an alien environment. In this case, the unnamed scribe begins to work in Varanasi, deteriorates physically, renounces material life and, finally, embraces the spiritual much as Altman had elevated the carnal.
The relationship between the two stories is left for the reader to ponder. At one point, a character describes Venice and Varanasi as "incredibly similar. Versions of each other. Twinned." The readers' challenge is to sort and compare the lessons learned in each locale. In the first, the hero adopts, after his loss, a Victorian view of life: "I can't have this forever, therefore I'm miserable." The narrator of the second story has few positive experiences and, as a result, little disappointment. His life lesson is a different one: "there are only a limited number of moments that count for anything, that make up and define a life...The only real crime or mistake was not to make the most of it." The first attitude leads to resignation and the second to renunciation.
I loved the Venice story (5 stars), liked the story set in India (3 stars) and am still working on what the two of them say when they are "twinned." The strength of the main characters, depth of the imagery in both versions of the story and light-handed author's touch are all reasons to read this book. In the light of full disclosure, as someone who has experienced children, sheds and golf, I greatly enjoyed the vicarious pleasures of Altman's time in Venice regardless of its brevity. As limited moments that define a life, they are superficial but seem to be a lot of fun.