Fionnuala's Reviews > Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi

Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi by Geoff Dyer
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Jan 25, 2015

it was ok
bookshelves: art-related
Read from July 02 to 04, 2012

'Dazzling', 'wonderfully entertaining', 'extraordinarily reflective' 'Dyer can write as beautifully as Lawrence and Proust', are just a small sample of the critics' comments from the inside cover of this book. So why have I given it only two stars? Yesterday, when I finished it, my review might have read as follows: 'I have nothing to say about this book because I am unwilling to spend any more of my precious time trying to think of something to write that won't be too harsh and dismissive.' Instead, I decided to sleep on it and see if a new day might offer me a different perspective and indeed today I did find some positive things to say.
The book is full of literary and artistic references which I always find interesting but I do like them to have a purpose and I did not always understand their purpose in this novel. Direct references are made to Thomas Mann, Mary McCarthy (Dyer used the quotes from her very well), D H Lawrence, Henry James, Somerset Maugham and other writers too, but nothing much is made of the references. Dyer also refers to some Venetian artists, to Giorgione, although I failed to understand why he kept underlining the threatening storm in Giorgione's version of The Tempest, and to Tintoretto's paintings in the San Rocco church which was one of the better bits in the book. He also mentions many, many contemporary artists. This is valid referencing since the first part of the book is set during a Venice Biennale but eventually the listing of names became boring. There were also some more veiled literary references, the most intriguing for me were the subtle evocations of Dante and his Beatrice, especially in the pieces about Isobel, in the second part.
Considering all of this literary citation, I expected the writing to be more polished but instead I found it very variable in quality, even awkward at times, forcing me to reread some sentences in order to grasp their meaning. I didn't find the the story elements in the Venice section compelling in any way. The 'Julia' theme might have been interesting but Dyer didn't develop it at all and by the end of the first half, I was ready to abandon the book but then the story veered off in a different direction, to Varanasi in India, this time with a first person narrator. Ah, I thought, now it will be interesting, especially since I'd just read Damon Galgut's 'In A Strange Room' which has a section about India. Damon Galgut's writing is part travelogue, part story and he is very good at weaving together fact and fiction without losing the reader through boredom or incredulity. Galgut isn't interested in plot as such but the reader quickly accepts this and follows the story wherever it leads because his writing is so good and his voice is so deeply human. I tried to apply this principle to Dyer's Indian section as it seemed to be some sort of travel writing. I tried very hard to follow the narrator without question in his wanderings around Varanasi but Dyer kept throwing in plot hooks which distracted me and lead nowhere and the narrator's voice sounded so banal, even smug at times. On several occasions, thinly disguised references were made to elements of the Venice section leading the reader to suppose that some connection would eventually emerge between the two. I didn't particularly need this connection to be made but Dyer did lead me to expect it. Instead he offered a different resolution. Not death as the title might suggest but a sort of living death, for the narrator, and for the reader. I was relieved when it was over.
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Comments (showing 1-12 of 12) (12 new)

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message 1: by ·Karen· (new)

·Karen· I'm sure Galgut must spoil the ground for the next book.

Fionnuala Yes, Karen, it was unfortunate for Dyer. Was I too harsh?

message 3: by ·Karen· (new)

·Karen· It sounds as if you were scrupulously fair, you found positives and none too few.

Fionnuala I feel that this is where goodreads reviews really score: we have no agenda unlike the writers who write the blurbs for their friends or their publisher's clients' writing. Michel Ondaatje wrote a positive blurb for this - !!!! - maybe I missed something really important here. Michael O, if you are out there, tell me why...

message 5: by Cheryl (new)

Cheryl Great review, Fionnuala

knig I think I agree that in terms of writing style and plot, Dyer is overrated. He has a great number of fans and I was also looking forward to this book, which turned out to be an airport read at best. But in the end I got engrossed in what I perceived to be the narrative 'message', and so I was a bit more lenient with my stars. The connection between the two novellas might be that it is the same protag, once in Venice and then after a time, in Varnasi. I chose to play with that concept a little, and looked at it from the viewpoint that it was the same person but not 'sequentially': just how things might turn out (differently)depending on circumstances and life choices. The saving grace of 'Venice' was that there was no sugar coating of the stench of mundaneness in life. Jeff starts off as a washed out has been and he ends up an even bigger one if possible. Varnasi intrigued because although it didn't offer a redemption as such, it allowed a way to make peace with 'the stench'. Which is to say that although I don't merit the book for the reasons you do, a thread of thought within it touched me nevertheless. Like you I was wondering why he was so obsessed with the tempest. the only thing I can relate it to is that the Madonna (? is that her suckling the child?) is (nearly naked) which is unusual. It correlated to the naked portrait of the celebrity rocker groupie he couldn't get his hands on to publish: the idea of a woman unencumbered by her nakedness. I recently saw this which reinforces that concept

Fionnuala knig wrote: "I think I agree that in terms of writing style and plot, Dyer is overrated. He has a great number of fans and I was also looking forward to this book, which turned out to be an airport read at best..."

knig! - your analysis makes sense but I have to admit that I remember very little about this book although your comment and the review are a bit of a reminder. I wish I remembered more - why was sI o bothered by the Giorgione reference, for example - it's a painting I've always loved for its mystery. Your explanation about the celebrity rocker is probably a good one.
The clip of the naked artist with baby is very interesting - I had to view it without sound - watching them watching the three graces at the end - great shot.

message 8: by Ilse (new)

Ilse Phew, that's quite a warning, Fionnuala, I probably won't read this, however interesting both cities are - I'll check Galgut out.

Fionnuala Ilse wrote: "Phew, that's quite a warning, Fionnuala, I probably won't read this, however interesting both cities are - I'll check Galgut out."

Thanks for hopping over from Tabucchi to Dyer, Ilse - I'd forgotten how vehement I was in this review! And yes, that book by Galgut worked very well for me - but four years on, I still haven't read anything else by him...
I love that you're on a Tabucchi trek at the moment - if only you could hop over to Lisbon! Requiem: A Hallucination is set there and is very interesting. I also really loved the descriptions of the city in Pereira Maintains.
But if you ever read It's Getting Later All the Time, I'd be really curious about your reaction. I don't know anyone else who has read it and it left me feeling very dissatisfied.

message 10: by RK-ique (new)

RK-ique Interesting conversation. I suppose that it's time to add some Tabucchi to my reading. Where to start.

Fionnuala RK-ique wrote: "Interesting conversation. I suppose that it's time to add some Tabucchi to my reading. Where to start."

Start with Pereira, RK-ique, it's small and beautiful, and a little melancholy - but not overly so.

message 12: by RK-ique (new)

RK-ique Thank you Fionnuala. I now have the book. It is my next up fiction.

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