Monday, 30 March 2009

Jeff in Venice OR The Dyer's Hand

Or do I mean Geoff in Tennis? I sort of do. Geoff Dyer was reading and talking tonight at the university and since I am a genuine admirer of the Mind of Geoff, I must go, and C comes with me. Geoff is reading from the new book, Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi.

I suppose I had better say what I like about the Mind of Geoff, having said it at the end of the reading when there was a question of him being a satirist of some sort, a suggestion that, he said, somewhat 'stuck in his craw'. I said I didn't think he was a satirist. What he was writing about was the meeting point of the ludicrous, the marvellous and the terrifying, which he confronts with a kind of infuriated bemusement.

I think this is a particularly English angle to the world, as his book of essays Anglo-English Attitudes suggests. The tendency to reach a paroxysm of puzzled rage while being bemused is the true anglo-angle. The way Geoff does it is a little like John Cleese in Fawlty Towers, beating his car with the bough of a tree, except, in Dyer, there is always irony, an overarching, superior kind of irony, as if to say: I am behaving like John Cleese but only to demonstrate the fact that I am not John Cleese. Trying to corner a real Dyer emotion is far from easy, at least in his fiction. Regarding the question of satire a parallel with Jonathan Swift was suggested, but for my money a better parallel would be Lewis Carroll. 'I do think you should stand at the back of queue,' said Alice is the tone. The meeting point of the ludicrous, terrifying and marvellous stands in queues.

There is, in fact, a wildly funny description of waiting in a queue at Varanasi, that starts like this then moves into Basil Fawlty territory, the whole superbly timed and extended. GD knows precisely how far to extend a piece of elastic.

And then I realise I am not, after all, English, and that this aspect of the ludicrous is not quite mine. The ludicrous in my mind ends in massacres. In the Mind of Geoff it ends in embarrassment. And there, sir, there precisely, lies the key to the whole damn boiling.

Embarrassment is the flip-side of imperial confidence; it is modesty with battleships. I know about it in theory: I can feel its tremors under my feet: There goes modesty with its battleships heading for the bloody Gulf of Embarrassment, I mutter to myself, knowing I have no battleships, in fact nothing to match its form of diplomacy. Except a kind of horror, and laughter of a not-very-redemptive sort. And love of course, the kind that springs out of such things as command nothing very much.

But then maybe I am just tired. And I have been laughing.

1 comment:

The Plump said...

And I am laughing at "modesty with battleships". Splendid phrase - and true.