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Everything’s about Geoff

Sam Leith on an intellectual dandy and essayist of peculiar talent

4 December 2010

12:00 AM

4 December 2010

12:00 AM

Working the Room Geoff Dyer

Canongate, pp.400, 20

I don’t remember who it was who said ‘memory is genius’, but they were on to something. I’m not sure, either, whether they meant genius in the original sense of ‘animating spirit’ — i.e. memory as constitutive of personality — or in the modern one of ‘brilliance’. But both seem to apply equally well to the peculiar talents of Geoff Dyer.

He seems to have a photographic memory; and that’s not a figure of speech. He can remember photographs in an extraordinary way, as witness the opening essays in this collection, in which he spiels on photographers including Alec Soth, Jacob Holdt, Richard Avedon and Martin Parr.

As well as some killer phrases (Avedon’s split-second exposures mean ‘the creases in people’s faces have an air of geological permanence … Isaak Dinesen looks like she was once the most beautiful woman in the world — about two thousand years ago’), Dyer has an extraordinary ability to cross-reference; to find rhymes or contrasts in other photographs by other photographers elsewhere.

A fascinating piece sees him try to find the other photographs of Times Square on VE Day that might, in the background, have captured Ruth Orkin taking her own photograph of the scene. When he describes what interests him in photographs, he does so with absolute conviction.

And he’s as sure-footed on literature: perceptive, decisive and precise. There are generous reviews here of Ian McEwan, Lorrie Moore and Alan Hollinghurst, as well as pieces on the Goncourt journals, Scott Fitzgerald, Rebecca West and D. H. Lawrence. A deprecating appraisal of Susan Sontag’s fiction opens into a wider discussion of the relationship between critic and practitioner, and a sympathetic account of why her fiction meant so much to Sontag, and yet failed.

Dyer is a 21st-century flâneur, an intellectual dandy who shows off to a purpose. He is both self-effacing — as the habit of quotation seems to suggest — and, hilariously, not. Everything’s about Geoff. These essays tend to embed criticism in autobiography, and vice versa — which is as much as to say that Dyer is interested in sensibility: what we bring to books, photographs, music, fashion shows, sport, drugs, jobs, sex or reading, and what we take away from them.

But the Geoff Dyer of the book is a conscious performance too. Not for nothing does he admire that shameless fabulist Ryszard Kapuscinski over reporters more dully wedded to the truth. He’s having fun. In a long piece about how he met his wife, he writes that their wedding ceremony included ‘a private addendum to the regular vows — whereby I would be free to write anything I wanted about us and our relationship, irrespective of whether it was true’.

Dyer presents himself as idle, impatient, splenetic, self-mocking, tight-fisted; in love with ‘scams and dodges’ but intolerant of untruthfulness or unpunctuality. Having grown up an adored only child in a poor family — his mum was a dinner lady and his father worked in a factory — he describes piercingly but without mushiness how his bookishness and Oxford education put a gulf between him and his parents. Only half in jest, he says: ‘Because my parents had always worked hard for practically nothing I never set any store by hard work’.

In several pieces — not just the autobiographical ones at the end of the book — he harks back to what he seems to think of as the perfect life: the years he spent living on the dole in Brixton smoking grass, dropping acid and doing exactly what he felt like — which was not much.

It’s not often you find slackers who are also both impatient and obsessively punctual, but in Dyer’s way of thinking it makes perfect sense: ‘I actually valued my time — my life — so highly that I would rather waste it than work at a job.’ He evinces grateful astonishment that by making a life as a writer he doesn’t have to.

He is a determined amateur, meaning not just that he lacks a professional claim on a body of knowledge, but that he writes about his enthusiasms. Those enthusiasms are greedy, and fierce, and they carry you. Even when he’s being spectacularly nerdy about a particular jazz label (ECM, or Edition of Contempory Music; the essay, typically, is titled ‘Editions of Contemporary Me’) to an audience (myself) who can’t bear jazz, he’s both readable and persuasive.

Again, that memory: the incessant reference and allusion. He cross-refers not because he thinks of writer or photographer A, necessarily, having influenced writer or photographer B; but only because writer A makes him think of writer B. And that’s what I mean when I say he’s interested in sensibility. His own. It applies to shot-putting just as much as shot-framing.

In an eight-page piece on the 2004 Olympics we get ‘as Don DeLillo puts it’, ‘to adapt what John Berger said of Mondrian’, quotes from Wordsworth and Andrew Holleran, comparisons to David Inshaw and Chardin, another ‘as Don DeLillo calls it’ (there’s a DeLillo quote in the previous essay too), a quote from Craig Raine about dogs who ‘shit like weightlifters’, and further quotes from Plutarch, Bob Dylan, Alan Hollinghurst and Robert Calasso.

He also notices that Paula Radcliffe’s mid-marathon collapse took place on the exact day that Munch’s ‘The Scream’ was stolen, turns the lone sailor Ben Ainslie into something that looks suspiciously like a metaphor, and sideswipes into football to register his disappointment at the damp squib of the Euros.

This isn’t just the diversionary vamping of an intellectual dropped by a features editor’s wheeze into the unfamiliar territory of sport; Dyer knows shedloads about athletics and, what’s more, completely adores it. Moreover, the tone of the piece is larkily conversational. He even makes a ridiculously puerile joke (he ambles into the sexiness of athletes) about how ‘for fans of women’s weightlifting —the highlight of the Games in this respect — was probably the opportunity to see Nataliya Skakun’s amazing snatch’. Dyer’s unseriousness is well calibrated. By gosh he can be funny, when not making you groan.

Alain de Botton is quoted on the back of this book saying that ‘Dyer has mastered the art of the essay’; and he has — but these are not essays of the coolly structured academic kind. They proceed in the way that Dyer describes his book-length non-fiction as working: that only in the process of writing the book does he learn what he needs to know in order to write it. These essays show Dyer taking an idea — or an enthusiasm, or an attitude — for a walk.

Anyway, everything he has to say is interesting and the whole thing is bliss. I urge it on you.

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