Bookforum talks with Geoff Dyer

A couple of weeks ago I spoke with Geoff Dyer on the phone about—well, what, exactly? The idea was to discuss his new book, Zona, but we ended up drifting over so many other topics that I never even bothered to ask him why he wanted to write about Tarkovsky’s The Stalker in the first place. Before the actual interview began we chatted about his review of Richard Bradford’s Martin Amis: the Biography, and by the end he was giving me advice about which David Markson book I should read first. Our interview, in other words, assumed the shape of a Geoff Dyer book. But even though we never made it to Zona, we still managed to discuss some of its major themes: the war against genre, literary failure, artistic commentary. Not to mention our mutual hatred of seafood.

Bookforum: A few days ago I was trying to imagine an American reader coming across your work for the first time in the past year: picking up a collection of essays and reviews, then a book about the First World War and memory, then a book about a Russian film from the seventies. I imagine this hypothetical reader, knowing nothing about you, would be pretty perplexed...

Geoff Dyer: I don’t think this hypothetical reader you’ve come up with is so hypothetical, because there has been this quite long lag—not of in me getting published in the States because that’s been going on for a while—but between the individual books. They would initially get read by the constituencies interested in the subject matter of a given book. So people interested in the First World War book [The Missing of the Somme] would read that, people interested in D.H. Lawrence read the Lawrence book [Out of Sheer Rage], and so on. It’s taken a very long while for the idea that maybe there was a connection between these different books to stick, and that connection was the person who wrote them. It’s one of the things I’m really pleased about; that the distinctive quality of what is—although I shouldn’t use this rather pompous word—a very variegated body of work, is now achieving an authorial identity.

BF: Yeah, and one of the unifying elements of this identity is the voice, the style. One of the epigraphs to Zona is taken from Albert Camus and reads: “The best way of talking about what you love is to speak of it lightly.” This seems to be something you picked up early in your writing life, the ability to write thoughtfully about art without ever being prissy or priggish.

GD: Well, the other thing I should have said is that the order in which the books are being published in the States is slightly distorting. I think it was probably while writing the book about the First World War [The Missing of the Somme], which originally came out in the mid-90s, when I started to realize that I could mix criticism and commentary and comedy without any problem of shifting between voices. But it was in the book immediately after that, the D.H. Lawrence book [Out of Sheer Rage], where I found a tone that could move fluently between two or more modes that tend to be kept quite distinct in writing. Whereas in real life they’re not. One of the things about friends that you get on really well with is that you flip back and forth between talking seriously and joking. So I appreciate your making that comment.

BF: It’s funny because Out of Sheer Rage was actually the book that I thought about most when I was reading Zona, I guess in part because you frame Zona as a failure to write anything else, in the same way that Out of Sheer Rage was framed as the failure to write a serious academic study of D.H. Lawrence.

GD: Yes, except that it was always—

BF: It was always a conceit.

GD:—Right. Whereas with Zona it really, genuinely was the result of a failure in that I was contracted to write a book about tennis. And I literally was bunking off writing this book I was meant to be doing. It’s one of these things in life where what you joke about at one point you end up being quite sincere about when you’re older.

BF: But the idea of failing to do what you set out to do still interests you.

GD: Oh yeah, that’s a good point. Failure is quite interesting, and it’s something I have a certain amount of experience with. I wasn’t a failure in the way lots of people are failures—I could always get published, that was pretty straightforward. Literary failure is funny because it’s not like you get this massive slap in the face and become a figure of ridicule. It’s more that you do this thing, you write this book, and then this big thing is poised to happen on publication. And nothing happens. It’s just a weird non-event. The literary Richter scale doesn’t register any kind of tremor. That was happening to me for a very long while, and then I managed to persuade myself that these serial failures were perhaps a kind of liberation in that it meant I was free from any kind of pressure from publishers. The stakes were so low that it didn’t really make any kind of difference to anybody that I went from writing a novel to writing a book about the First World War. So I’ve certainly known what it’s like for a book to simply, well, disappear.

BF: You say at one point in Zona that Tarkovsky is a sanctuary from cliché, which made me think of Martin Amis’s claim that all writing is a war against cliché. And I think it’s fair to say that your work is written in part against clichés of genre, clichés of convention.

GD: Oh, indeed. Absolutely. That’s one of the reasons why I’ve drifted away from fiction as a reader as well as a writer. We can all agree with Amis about avoiding saying things like, ‘It’s raining cats and dogs,’ but there is a much larger cliché whereby some novels can actually be conceived at the level of cliché. The whole idea of what we want from a novel sometimes is for it to conform to a very familiar set of conventions. I did feel for a long while that I was doing something particular in reference to England, which I felt was sort out of whack in terms of where to look for literariness. But I guess in the last ten years or so there have been more of these neither-one-thing-nor-the-other books.

BF: Yeah, I don’t know if you read Ben Lerner’s Leaving the Atocha Station, but that was a very interesting novel—a novel made out of an aversion to the novel form, of not really wanting to be a novel...

GD: Oh dear, this is going to sound like one of those interviews where we faked it in some way, because I was just reading Lerner’s novel three days ago. And yes, it really, really is something else, isn’t it? It’s all in the voice and it’s just so new. So new without any of that sterile sense of it being an experimental novel, and we all know what they look like anyway. I’m hoping I’ll review that when it comes out in the U.K.

BF: I suppose in general that it is a kind of exciting time for this blending of genres and especially for literary essay writing. I know you were very fond of John Jeremiah Sullivan’s Pulphead.

GD: We’ve tended in the past when asked ‘Who are the great stylists’ to immediately confine our search to fiction, whereas I think now there’s a realization that actually—and Pulphead exemplifies this—it’s all in the style. I have zero interest in about half of the things Sullivan’s writing about, but I’m so locked into his voice. It’s really remarkable.

BF: In Zona you make a very persuasive and inspiring case for the value of artistic commentary, claiming in effect that commentary can often be as valuable as the work of art itself.

GD: Yes, although I wouldn’t want to claim too much originality for that—even though in But Beautiful I say with this arrogant, youthful sounding of the kettledrum, ‘This is a book of imaginative criticism,’ as though I’d invented the idea. But there is a long tradition of that, a tradition I tend to associate with European writers like Walter Benjamin and Barthes, even though there is also an English-language version of that, particularly John Berger, whom I sometimes forget to mention because he’s been so absolutely central to my formation.

BF: And what’s next?

GD: Well, I actually spent a fantastic two weeks as writer-in-residence on the S.S. George Bush in the Arabian Gulf and have a short book to write about the experience. The downside is I’m finding it really, really difficult because I’ve already had the experience. All my books have tended to be journeys of inquiry where I find stuff out, whereas with this I knew why the experience was so great while it was happening. So I’ve not been able to find a tone for it. But I do have a great incentive to finish it because it has now become an obstacle to the little glimmer of an idea of a book I want to write after that—a book that would owe more than a little to David Markson.

BF: You have a quote from Dave Markson at the end of Zona.

GD: Yes, that was one of things where it sounded like something Writer had said in Tarkovsky’s movie. And, you know, whatever else people have thought of my books, they would all have to agree the epigraphs have been really great. Since Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi I got in this pattern where I’d have an epigraph left over, so I’d put it at the end. Does that make it an epitaph? I don’t know.

BF: I have one last, utterly pointless question. In Out of Sheer Rage there’s a wonderful passage about how much you hate seafood. Do you really hate seafood?

GD: Oh yeah, absolutely. There’s a lot of stuff in the books that isn’t true, but nothing is more to the heart than that. I really think that if I’ve said anything wise in the book it’s that line where I say that seafood is a delicacy in the sense that you’ve got to cook it just right or you’ll be shitting squid ink for a week.

BF: Good, because I justify my hatred of seafood by saying that Geoff Dyer hates it too.

GD: My name is Geoff Dyer and I endorse this.