‘Working The Room,’ Geoff Dyer
Once again breaking my ‘one author per blog entry until I have blogged on every single author in history’ rule, I am featuring Geoff Dyer for a second time after (briefly) reviewing his ‘Yoga For People Who Can’t Be Bothered Doing It’ back in entry 39. This was my fourth Dyer, (although technically my first, since I began it upon first moving to London back in February 2012, when it became my ‘bedside book,’ and, after a couple of chapters, sat by that bedside unread for most of last year). Since transplanting my London book collection back to my family home, the last few weeks before I left the UK for Guatemala was a chance for me to knock off these unfinished tomes, and I’m glad I did: this was the best Geoff so far.
Although let me qualify that: bits of this were the best Geoff so far, but as proven by the fact that the book sat so long unread by my bedside, the early sections were often hard going. This collection of essays, (which I appear to be partial to lately, enjoying Salman Rushdie, Martin Amis, and Jonathan Lethem in essay form over the previous few months, after hardly ever having dipped into them before), was divided into four thematic categories: ‘Visuals,’ ‘Verbals,’ ‘Variables’ and ‘Personals.’ Reading Dyer on obscure photographers and artists, (it’s possible they weren’t obscure: maybe I just don’t know enough photographers and artists!), had the effect of making me feel vaguely uncultured, but also convinced me that it’s often not that much fun reading about things you know almost nothing about.
Things picked up when he turned his critical skills on authors, (he was an Oxford English major, after all), drawn together from various articles and book introductions; but it is when he is free to write about himself, his life, and whatever he is thinking about in the final two, sadly shorter sections that his writing becomes electric, fascinating and, often, hilarious. (I was actually SOL’ing (Snorting Out Loud) in a coffee shop as I finished reading it).
Perhaps this is because I identify with Dyer in a freakish amount of ways: from his quirks, (a phobia of responsibility and settling down and having children and sitting still), to his basic biography, (cruising through his Oxford degree, writing as a way not to have a real job, regularly ripping ankle tendons playing sports, enjoying collecting things, finding free time simultaneously the best thing in life and something to be filled, a vague obsession with the Burning Man festival, a belief in the importance of pastries, a love of Ryszard Kapuściński, having lived in France, Italy, London, etc). Not to mention his writing style: writing about anything he cares about, whether he knows anything much about it or not, and making his writing as much about his connection to the subject as the subject itself, (an example of a typical Dyer self-introduction coming in his essay on Rodin: “To be strictly accurate, it is not just the poem itself but the way I encountered it that makes it so pertinent…”)
But mainly, it’s because he has a lot to say, about a ridiculous variety of things, (see paragraph above), and an often wonderful way of saying them. By the end of ‘Working The Room‘ I found myself a feeling a little more intelligent, and a lot more like I don’t know nearly enough to become a writer, (a sensation I got ten-fold reading Rushdie, but that seemed to matter less, as Rushdie has always seemed to me to be someone from another planet, whereas Dyer seems like just another guy who loves writing).
Here begins the longest stretch of quotes featured in my blogs so far, an indication of both the breadth of Dyer‘s interests, and my interest in his interests. Beginning with his view on something close to my heart, Japanese tourists:
“At the risk of being racist, the Japanese – the ‘lens-faced Japanese’ in Martin Amis’ phrase – seem to take particular comfort in being photographed in places where everyone else is being photographed…”
(I would say it’s more Martin Amis who has to worry…)
On the subject of art history and photography:
“Art history is the opposite of wilderness camping: you’re meant to leave a trace; that’s the point…”
“‘Anyone can take a great picture,’ [US photographer] Soth has said, ‘but very few people can put together a great collectino of pictures’…”
(This has always been one of my major quibbles with ‘photography’ as an art form: sometimes it seems like anyone can take a good photo, and sometimes it seems that professional photographers are only famous for taking several dozen photos of the same theme. This is the first time I have heard a definition: whether it’s a good one or not, I am still undecided).
A wonderfully phrased observation on Antipodean geography:
“Settlement in Australia is centrifugal. Cities cling to the rim of the island-continent…”
“‘If you want to be famous,’ [Czech peeping tom photographer Miroslav Tichý] has said, ‘you have to be worse at something than everyone else in the world’…”
On the odds of love:
“I remember being crushed by the way the simple mathematics of desire refused to come out right: there were so many women in the world, how could it be so difficult to find one? The question contains its answer: it’s that tormenting and beckoning one, the chance in a million which non-mathematicians call love…”
On an author I now have to read more of:
“[F.Scott] Fitzgerald …had a sufficiently subtle understanding of such moments to know that the characteristic of a turning point is that, as often as not, one fails to turn…”
“Fitzgerald was one of the first writers to grasp the enervating horror of infinite leisure…”
On the Art of Writing:
“Asked if I am disciplined in my writing habits I always respond that I am actively hostile to the idea of writers lashing themselves to their desks for six hours a day, irrespective of how they feel…”
(Hearing this from someone who writes in a style, and indeed has a lifestyle, not a million miles from how I would like to write, (and live), was a great relief after years of reading interviews and hearing advice from innumerable authors, most recently J.K.Rowling, saying the exact opposite, and turning what, to me, is the joy of writing into essentially just another 9-to-5 job).
On an author I myself recently discovered, James Salter:
“…he is both underrated and occasionally over-praised…”
And Dyer quoting Salter quoting a renowned French film director, (if you can follow all that):
“There was a line of Jean Renoir that struck me: The only things that are important in life are those you remember…”
‘Protean’ English author Rebecca West is quoted by Dyer with this classic:
“‘Ibsen cried out for ideas for the same reason that men call out for water, because he had not got any’…”
On master of the short story form John Cheever, (whose complete works are sitting on my desk downstairs in my Guatemalan apartment, waiting to be read for the first time), Dyer charts the stages of his homosexual awakening to its conclusion, the:
“…realisation that real harm was not caused by one’s sexual nature but by ‘the force that was brought to crush these instincts and that exacerbated them beyond their natural importance’…”
(a finer definition of the dangers of Catholic-style sexual guilt you’ll go far to find).
Here, in this monster catalogue of quotes, I pause just to point out that the above quotes all came from the first 300-pages of the compilation: the following come from just the next 28. I really enjoyed these three essays!
On being a spoiled only-child:
“My mother often quoted with approval the maxim ‘Spare the rod and spoil the child.’ Unfortunately she thought this was intended as an exhortation rather than warning…”
“My mother worked as a dinner lady – serving school dinners (i.e.lunches)…”
(How had I never before questioned why lunches were called school dinners?)
“Many times when I asked my dad if I could have something that had taken my eye in a shop, he responded by saying, ‘You don’t want that.’ To which I wanted to reply, ‘But I do.’ And then after a while I stopped wanting things. (I now wonder if my father was unconsciously using ‘want’ in an earlier, archaic sense of ‘lack,’ a distinction capitalism has since pledged all its energies to rendering obsolete…)”
Echoing a recent discovery I had made in Daniel Kahneman‘s ‘Thinking, Fast and Slow‘, and which you can read about in more depth here:
“I spent years living on the dole, more than happy with the trade-off: little money, lots of time…”
On the dubious nature of parental advice:
“When I was trying to decide which (English school exam) A-levels to do my father said not to bother with History because it was all in the past. He also gave me another piece of advice that I have come particularly to cherish. ‘Never put anything in writing.’ From the age of about sixteen on, most of the advice my parents gave me was best ignored…”
On attempting to teach old dogs newer, healthier tricks and encountering stubborn parental logic:
“‘You know, you really shouldn’t be eating egg and chips the whole time,’ I say. ‘Well, we’ve been eating them for our whole lives and it’s never done us any harm,’ says my dad. ‘You don’t think the fact you had cancer of the rectum and have had a colostomy counts as harm?’ ‘Get away with you,’ says my dad. ‘That was nothing to do with that’…”
Echoing my own theory that, having once calculated how much my free time is worth to me, no-one can afford to hire me:
“London was exciting to me back then. There were many things I wanted to do – like going to Kensington market to buy clothes – and having a job seriously interfered with my ability to do these things…I realised that it was not for me, this world of work, that I was too selfish to do a job, that I actually valued my time – my life – so highly that I would rather waste it than work at a job…”
(And, as he goes on to clarify, whilst he may well have wasted whole swathes of his life, at least it was he who was wasting it, not a job he didn’t want to be doing).
Finally, summing up life on social security in 1980’s England, we get this gem of relativity:
“Mass unemployment might not be a desirable social or economic goal but it does man that there are plenty of other people to hang with in the afternoons…”
Thanks for making it through all of that: I hope you enjoyed Mr.Dyer’s mind as much as I did, and will check out his other books and essay collections, (as well as my other blogs on him, and everyone else). Don’t you feel a little more erudite now?