Wrestling with Geoff Dyer

Posted on | April 11, 2011 | 4 Comments

Geoff Dyer’s new collection of essays and criticism is suddenly everywhere, but I have only just finished Out of Sheer Rage, which he published in 1997.  That I am behind schedule on Geoff Dyer feels appropriate, however, given that Out of Sheer Rage is, in essence, a volume about procrastination.  “Wrestling with D.H. Lawrence” is the subtitle, but this is deliberately generous; it’s in fact a book about wrestling with Geoff Dyer.

I always feel a bit sheepish about my affection for Lawrence—his novels have more emotional mood swings than a teenager on prom night, plus there’s the dubious sexual psychology—and I picked up Out of Sheer Rage in part because I imagined Dyer might rescue him from the graveyard of embarrassment.  No luck there.  The only Lawrence I know is Lawrence the novelist, whom Dyer holds in mild but chronic contempt.  Of re-reading The Rainbow, he writes:

My impressions of the book were more or less unaltered.  It remained a book which I had no desire to re-read; as soon as I had finished re-reading The Rainbow it reverted to being what it was before I re-read it: a book which I had read and had no desire to re-re-read…As for Women in Love, I read it in my teens and, as far as I am concerned, it can stay read.  If we’re being utterly frank, I don’t want to re-read any novels by Lawrence.  And not only do I not want to re-read some of Lawrence’s books I don’t even want to read all of them. us on line casinos

This passage above is typical of Out of Sheer Rage: it is a masterpiece of digression, a performance piece on the nature of procrastination. Dyer has the ability to turn a passing, even banal, observation, into an expansive revelation of metaphysical portent.  I will quote a section so absurd that it demands to be related in full:

I’ll say this for Italian TV: you’re never more than a few channels away from a western.  She was watching TV in that way of night porters the world over: they watch for hours but never become so absorbed in anything that they mind being interrupted.  Given that there are a finite number of westerns and infinite number of nights in which to watch them they figure that any gaps can be filled in later.  To them, each film is really no more than a segment of an epic ur-western spanning thousands if not millions of hours, offering a quantity of material so fast it can never be edited into a finished form.  The western thus takes the place of the great myths of antiquity: shifting glimpses of character and situations, variously recurring, but manifesting through the very fact of their myriad transformations, the existence of some stable, changeless order.

For a man claiming writer’s block, his words are bountiful.

I knew, in picking up the book, that it was not exactly a study of Lawrence.  It is, after all, a book that the Boston Phoenix called “a brilliant wank.”  But when, I kept wondering, does this book about not writing a book about Lawrence secretly become a book about Lawrence?  The answer is eventually, kind of.  When Dyer gets around to literary criticism, the broader purpose of his undertaking shifts into focus: “The best readings of art are art,” he quotes George Steiner, and this is clearly the tradition to which he aspires.  He wishes to make a case for criticism as a kind of living not with but through literature.  The Lawrence Dyer admires isn’t the novelist, but—fittingly—the man who struggled to be a novelist.  He likes Lawrence the letter-writer, Lawrence the critic, Lawrence the grump.  He likes the Lawrence who bears an uncanny resemblance to Geoff Dyer, but for the fact that Lawrence—unlike, supposedly, Dyer—had a rare ability to inhabit the present, an affirmative relationship to life.  As Lawrence’s widow, Frieda von Richthofen, put it in one of her letters, “To me his relationship, his bond with everything in creation was so amazing, no preconceived ideas, just a meeting between him and a creature, a tree, a cloud, anything.  I called it love, but it was something else—Bejahnung in German, ‘saying yes.’”  Dyer finds in Lawrence’s letters and idle jottings an artlessness that, in the end, makes for greater art than his novels: “Could my own preference for writers’—not just Lawrence’s—notes and letters be part of a general, historical drift away from the novel?…One gets so weary watching authors sensations and thoughts get novelised, set into the concrete of fiction, that perhaps it is best to avoid the novel as a medium of expression.”  His paean to Lawrence, it turns out, is actually a eulogy for the novel.

Comments

4 Responses to “Wrestling with Geoff Dyer”

  1. Anthony Brown
    April 12th, 2011 @ 10:52 am

    This was my entry level to Dyer, but, unlike Lawrence, I read every word Dyer writes. His ‘But Beautiful: A Book About Jazz’ is still top of my list, though much less discursive than his others. ‘The Colour of Memory’ is also brilliant.

  2. Levi Stahl
    April 12th, 2011 @ 4:21 pm

    I feel much the same way about Lawrence, and about Dyer’s book, which I cherish. I read a lot of Lawrence when I was 19, and even then it was all a bit too feverish–but all the same, The Rainbow glows in my memory as a masterpiece of sorts.

    But I also find myself responding sympathetically to this take on Lawrence, grouchy and conservative as it may be, from Anthony Powell: “[H]is whole approach seems largely inappropriate to the world of literature. Lawrence was a frustrated politician or preacher. He wanted power: to force people to do his will. He was temperamentally unable to understand that different people by their nature may require to live different lives; and, accordingly, to find their expression in different forms of art.”

    So maybe Lawrence will stay where he is now: in that space reserved for our younger passions, best remembered from a distance?

  3. JMM
    April 12th, 2011 @ 7:33 pm

    My glancing encounters with Dyer have generally just confused me. Who is this guy, I wonder, and how does he get paid to ramble about things he hasn’t approached in any particularly methodical or new way? I’d kind of like to see his book proposals aired publicly. I imagine exchanges like this:

    Dyer:”Pretty much, I’m going to just splice together anecdotes combed from the introduction to photographers’ monographs with some gnarly descriptions of well-known images.”
    Publisher: “Just what the world needed. You da man. Sign here.”

    It could be that I just have a hard time respecting someone who goes gaga over John Berger.

    In any event, you should read Lawrence’s criticism…as Dyer apparently suggests, it’s far better than his fiction. Studies in Classic American Literature and Apocalypse are both great. SiCAL pretty much rampages through the American canon, assuming that DHL has the only appropriate theory of life and art and that all greatnesses and shortcomings can be explained by it. He is, as the last commenter noted/quoted, a kind of lay preacher–but why that would be considered out of place among artists baffles me, as I’m pretty sure all art grows out of religious ritual.

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  4. e.
    April 19th, 2011 @ 10:07 am

    “His paean to Lawrence, it turns out, is actually a eulogy for the novel.”

    Didn’t you mean “elegy”?

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