Ben Dutton's Reviews > Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi

Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi by Geoff Dyer
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Feb 06, 2012

really liked it
Read in October, 2010

** spoiler alert ** Jeff Atman is a journalist. Sent to cover the opening of the Biennale in Venice, he is expecting to see too much art, drink too many bellinis at too many parties. What he is not expecting is to fall in love. In the second half of the novel, Jeff is sent on assignment to the Indian holy city of Varanasi, where erotic love and spiritual awakenings will transform his life forever.

Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi won Geoff Dyer a river of praise from critics and fellow writers, and earned him the Bollinger Everyman Wodehouse Prize. Writers as diverse as Michael Ondaatje, Lionel Shriver, Zadie Smith and William Boyd lined up to comment upon it, and many made it their book of the year. It received some criticism as well – with many citing the lack of continuity between the two halves of this novel as a major stumble in Dyer’s otherwise magnificent ability.

I found Dyer’s prose wonderfully electric – it has the looseness that comes only through many hours of hard graft and an ability to tighten the prose to breaking point. The two separate stories, though narratively disconnected – the Jeff in one may not be the Jeff in the other – there is a sense of growth, of a man coming to understand the world a little better. With some very graphic sex thrown in for good measure.

Written in an overwhelming tense first person, the first half of this book sizzles with the kind of banter that graced those old screwball comedies – as Jeff’s relationship with Laura blossoms over a weekend in Venice, you can feel the heat, taste the bellinis, and imagine the great movie this first half would make. The second half increases the tension, but the romance of the first half is replaced by an increasingly unhinged mental state that leads to a wonderfully surreal ending that indicates Dyer spent a long time reading William Burroughs. There are also, contained within the narration, clever connections made to another famous novel that gives Dyer his title: Thomas Mann’s Death in Venice. That novel hangs over this once, scenting its narration like pungent perfume. One keeps getting echoes, half-remembered quotes bubbling up and slinking away. The effect of it is wondrous.

I ended Jeff in Venice thinking that perhaps the negative critical reaction from British newspapers was because at heart this is a writers novel, not a readers novel. It is infused with a sense of the writers life, and perhaps only a fellow writer of novels could understand the nuance of it. It would explain why other British writers reacted so warmly towards it. I began Jeff in Venice not certain whether I would like it: I ended it hoping to read it again very soon.
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