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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
Starred Review. Two 40-ish men seeking love and existential meaning are the protagonists of these highly imaginative twin novellas, written in sensuous, lyrical prose brimming with colorful detail. In the first, Jeff Atman is a burnt-out, self-loathing London hack journalist who travels to scorching, Bellini-soaked Venice to cover the 2003 Biennale, and there finds the woman of his dreams and an incandescent love affair. The unnamed narrator of the second novella (who may be the same Jeff) is an undistinguished London journalist on assignment in the scorching Indian holy city of Varanasi, where the burning ghats, the filth and squalid poverty and the sheer crush of bodies move him to abandon worldly ambition and desire. Dyer's ingenious linking of these contrasting narratives is indicative of his intelligence and stylistic grace, and his ability to evoke atmosphere with impressive clarity is magical. Both novellas ask trenchant philosophical questions, include moments of irresistible humor and offer arresting observations about art and human nature. For all his wit and cleverness, Dyer is unflinching in conveying the empty lives of his contemporaries, and in doing so he's written a work of exceptional resonance. (Apr.)
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved. --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.
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The first part of this book is about a horny Englishman who goes to Venice and gets laid (a few times). It's hot in Venice, so you have to hear about how hot it is again, and again, and again. And there is art in Venice, but the descriptions are short and uninteresting, mostly because the narrator is more interested in getting laid than in the art.
By the time I got to the second part of the book, I couldn't have cared less about the narrator. The description of the Indian city was mildly interesting, but every time you get interested he keeps dragging you back to the mind-numbing details of how he gets around the city (by boat, car, etc.), how filthy it is, and how hot it is.
There's definitely an aspect here of out-hipping everyone, even by way of self-deprecation. Geoff Dyer's just too cool. I don't think I'd want to be his roommate or even share a meal with him. Everything he writes is like one long magazine article, and his insights are on that level, end of story.
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. They enact the obligatory exchange of email addresses and phone numbers, and we're left with a feeling that seems both inevitable and somehow fitting that they'll never see each other again.
The second section of the book, recounted in the first person by an unnamed narrator with enough similarities to Jeff to let us conclude it's the same protagonist, is set in India's holy city of Varanasi, on the banks of the Ganges River. After polishing off the magazine piece that has brought him there, the narrator abandons any plan to return home, slowly adapting to the rituals and rhythms of the ancient city ("I'd come to Varanasi because there was nothing to keep me in London, and I stayed on for the same reason: because there was nothing to go home for."). But as he does so, he undergoes an emotional transformation that becomes more profound as time glides past like the spiritually pure, dreadfully polluted Ganges. "All I'm saying," he concludes, "is that in Varanasi I no longer felt like I was waiting. The waiting was over. I was over. I had taken myself out of the equation." He shaves his head, dons a dhoti and in one of the most striking demonstrations of Dyer's art, we ponder whether "Jeff" is evolving toward some higher plane of spiritual ecstasy or descending into the depths of madness.
The novel is suffused with a sharp, picturesque description of its disparate yet strikingly similar settings. "Every day, for hundreds of years," Dyer writes, "Venice had woken up and put on this guise of being a real place even though everyone knew it existed only for tourists." Varanasi, with its ubiquitous ghats and their cremation pyres, is drenched in an almost hallucinatory swirl of colors, sights and smells: "The colours made the rainbow look muted. Lolly-pink, a temple pointed skywards like a rocket whose launch, delayed by centuries, was still believed possible, even imminent, by the Brahmins lounging in the warm shade of mushroom umbrellas."
Given the superficially unconnected stories, it's fair to ask whether the work really is a "novel," or, more correctly, two novellas with interwoven themes. Regardless, the effort of teasing out the links between the two sections is one of the book's numerous pleasures. To start, both are set in watery cities steeped in history. And with a deft touch, the stories' language and images echo each other, illustrated by this handful of many such examples: begging bowls, real and metaphorical appear in both cities; the term "otter" does double duty as the way Jeff hears Venetians describe the heat and how "Jeff" imagines his "sleek" appearance at the end of the novel; there's an image of a kangaroo that surfaces at the climax of both stories; and Jeff's Venice dream of having his arm devoured by a dog becomes frighteningly real when that fate befalls a corpse in Varanasi.
Strikingly contemporary and utterly timeless, JEFF IN VENICE, DEATH IN VARANASI is an intense, vivid trip to a pair of exotic cities and an equally provocative journey into the twisted passageways of the human soul.