March 29, 2021 • By Sebastian Matthews
I’VE BEEN A huge fan of Geoff Dyer’s work ever since stumbling onto But Beautiful, his 1991 book about jazz, with its transfixing, fiction-like forays into the lives of some of the jazz greats. And then came Out of Sheer Rage: Wrestling with D. H. Lawrence (1997), which bowled me over with its wit and sheer nerve in avoiding so much of what you think a book about Lawrence should cover. I was hooked. I’ve read pretty much everything he’s published since, always on the lookout for his latest — which will be See/Saw, a compilation of his writings on photography due out in May from Graywolf Press.
Knowing he was living in Los Angeles and teaching at USC, I wrote Dyer an unsolicited email asking him if he’d be open to an interview. To my surprise, he responded the next day, more than happy to oblige my request. “I was just happy someone was showing an interest,” he said.
Author photo by Matt Stuart.
Banner image by Chris Dorley-Brown: Sandringham Road & Kingsland Road, June 15, 2009, 10:42 a.m. to 11:37 a.m., from his series The Corners.
SEBASTIAN MATTHEWS: I want to ask you about a certain propensity of yours that seems to have seeped into the syntax of your work, sentence by sentence. It’s a particularly Thoreauvian frame of mind that moves through, and forms, much of your writing. I see it as a kind of looping logic that turns back on itself. This is true, yes, but really the opposite is true. Or, you seem to be insinuating, what you thought was this is actually its opposite, that. And, at times, counterintuitively, both this and that may be true, which actually expands the notion of truth, etc. It feels like a philosophical bent of yours that’s most prevalent in your nonfiction, such as Out of Sheer Rage and The Missing of the Somme (1994). But I can hear it in your fictional characters as well, such as the main players in Paris Trance (1999), whose banter embodies this double negativity. Can you say a bit about this technique in your work?
GEOFF DYER: Well, the syntax follows the logic and illogic of thoughts. But whereas logic aims to arrive at a truth by eliminating contradictions, this style achieves truthfulness by their accumulation. And it’s closely related, of course, to a stylistic fondness for repetition, derived from Thomas Bernhard. Another component of this is the constant back and forth between serious point and joke, the mining and undermining, to the extent that, hopefully, serious point and joke become indistinguishable.
I love this idea. It makes me wonder if you have ever thought to write about humor as a subject, or to write on a particular humorist. It seems like it would be a good fit.
I’ve never had to think about humor as a subject because it’s been my subject so much of the time. I’ve written a few little things about humor that tend to come back to the same point: that a sense of humor is an entire worldview, a philosophy; that the opposite of “funny” is not “serious” — the opposite of funny is “not funny.” In early editions of my 2016 book White Sands: Experiences from the Outside World, I mistakenly attributed this last point to David Sedaris, but it’s actually G. K. Chesterton. As a statement of belief, there’s a passage in my 2005 novel Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi where one of the characters says that it’s possible to be 100 percent ironic and 100 percent sincere at the same time.
You write in the opening note of White Sands: “[T]his book is a mixture of fiction and non-fiction. What’s the difference?” You go on: “The main point is that the book does not demand to be read according to how far from a presumed dividing line — a line separating certain forms and the expectations they engender — it is assumed to stand.” People seem to love to argue over the question, “Is it nonfiction or is it fiction?” Within academic creative nonfiction circles, there’s a lot of parsing of what can and cannot be done in a work of nonfiction. You seem to shrug off the question from the start and jump right in.
The key thing is that the stakes are very low in my case since the events that are recorded in the books, either as reasonably faithful transcripts of things that happened or as embellishments, are entirely unimportant in themselves. In my books, the experiences are interesting only in literary terms, on the page, not in themselves. That would not be the case if you were reading the memoirs of Orde Wingate, say, which are likely to be of interest because of the life led, the events recalled.
In But Beautiful, you use a single photograph of a group of jazz musicians hanging out between takes. The shot was taken by Milt Hinton, a musician himself. The book features many other “jazz” photographers — including my favorite, Roy DeCarava — and countless shots taken of musicians practicing or performing, but also shots hanging out in between sessions. You also provide a foreword entitled “A Note on Photographs,” which begins: “Photographs sometimes work on you strangely and simply: at first glance you see things you subsequently discover are not there. Or rather, when you look again you notice things you initially didn’t realize were there.” The obvious assumption a reader might make after reading that note is that you collected photos of each of your major subjects and wrote “off” them in a way. Did looking at and interpreting photographs assist you in the composition of this book?
It’s important to stress that I didn’t know anything about the history of photography at that time. The pictures were nearly all defined by what they showed rather than who they were by. So, they were just useful as documentary evidence. I wrote about a couple of DeCarava pictures later, and those pieces are included in the new collection, See/Saw, coming out in the spring.
After writing three books on photography, and introducing numerous photography books, have you finally moved past the “gatecrashing” phase you write about in Otherwise Known as the Human Condition (2011)? Have you become that dreaded thing, an “expert”? If so, what are you going to do to rectify the situation?
Ah, I address exactly this question in the introduction to See/Saw. I certainly know a lot more about the history of photography than I once did, but I’m not an expert. The expert pays a high price for his or her expertise — that is, s/he is reduced by it, defaults to being inexpert or insecure in matters outside of that area, whereas I feel equally comfortable all over the shop.
Throughout But Beautiful, you use a fine-tuned sympathy to get at the characters. And, in the Bud Powell chapter, you are actually the narrator. You write in the opening: “It’s like a séance here, Bud. The lights have been turned down low, candles are burning. Pictures of you are propped all around my desk.” You go on to say that, for all the other musicians in the book, you could follow their music into the character but that, with Powell, you had to find a different way in. Does looking at and responding to photographs help in this?
Yes, it helped, but the main medium of sympathy was the music. The photographs were a way for someone who didn’t have access to the language of music to begin to visualize and articulate what was heard.
You seem drawn to the private scenes that often go unrecorded, such as the long drive taken by Duke Ellington and his bandmate Harry Carney. That scene, given to us interstitially between the chapters, works more like an 8mm film than a series of photographs (with an accompanying soundtrack!). When did you discover that narrative weave and use it as a formal device?
It came to me very early in writing the book, fortunately. Many years later I came to the more general realization that, whenever you have a literal geographical journey, you have automatic narrative interest. The wonderful thing about those Milt Hinton pictures is that they’re so intimate, because of course he was a musician who happened to have a camera, as you say.
You describe the idea of an ongoing moment at the opening of But Beautiful. Had you been playing with this idea for a long time before working on your 2005 book The Ongoing Moment?
In But Beautiful, it’s more like an extended moment — i.e., the moment in a given picture is extended by narrative — but the ongoingness of The Ongoing Moment is the tradition of photography itself. Having said that, I first became aware of tradition in this sense — of practitioners commenting creatively on what had gone before — when I was thinking of writing the jazz book. The idea is George Steiner’s, from the first part of his book Real Presences (1986), that the tradition of any art form adds up to “a syllabus of enacted criticism.” That has been a very helpful idea for me in numerous ways.
Could you elaborate on that point a little? This idea of “enacted criticism” feels like a defining characteristic of your work.
It is, indeed, in several ways. First as a violent reaction to all the time wasted reading plodding academic criticism at Oxford. I’m quoting Steiner from memory, but as an instance of what he means he says something like: while the secondary literature on Madame Bovary is immense, it is to Anna Karenina that we turn for critical assay. He says something similar about The Portrait of a Lady in relation to Middlemarch. It was one of those very helpful coincidences that I read this when I was most interested in jazz because you can see (i.e., hear) it happening so clearly in the unfolding of the jazz tradition.
The Street Philosophy of Garry Winogrand (2018) follows in a line of books on photography — books that have photographs that accompany, or pair with, the text. I’m thinking of James Agee and Walker Evans’s Let Us Now Praise Famous Men (1941), DeCarava’s The Sweet Flypaper of Life (1955), and, more recently, Sally Mann’s Hold Still (2015) and Teju Cole’s Blind Spot (2017). Do you see this project coming out of such a lineage?
Not at all. The Garry Winogrand book, for me, has one antecedent: John Szarkowski’s 2000 book Atget, which features 100 photographs with brief 300-word essays on each facing page. So, my book is a sort of a dialogue with him as much as it is with Winogrand.
I wasn’t looking at the pictures as a curator who is concerned above all with the quality of the pictures in their own right. I was always most concerned with finding pictures I had something to say about and the nature of what I might say was never determined in advance. There was a logic or ideal at work, in that Winogrand said the idea was to make a picture that was more interesting than the thing photographed. I hope on some occasions I wrote things that were either more interesting than the picture or things that made the picture more interesting than it might have seemed at first. That’s difficult, though, given how phenomenally interesting even a relatively uninteresting Winogrand picture is. So, a lot of the time I ended up just trying to do justice to the picture.
You say in the intro to The Street Philosophy of Garry Winogrand that The Ongoing Moment “posed the most complex structural problems of anything I’d ever written.” Is that because you were placing photographs by a wide array of photographers in an invented taxonomy, or was it for some other reason? With the Winogrand book, did you write out your responses to the 100 photographs in basic chronological order, or did you jump around? Were there outtakes that barely missed the cut?
The Ongoing Moment was difficult because there were no chapters for support — no structural scaffolding. It all had to unfold by association and adjacency while continuing to advance as a narrative and argument. Complete head-fuck! With the Winogrand, I wrote the pieces randomly and then organized them chronologically, which was a lot easier than The Ongoing Moment, obviously. There were quite a few pieces left over but not all of these were fully developed. Things fell by the wayside at various degrees of completion. The difficult thing about that book was the endless starting over: a hundred new beginnings.
Though they don’t actually get reprinted in the book, photographs play a big role in your book about D. H. Lawrence, Out of Sheer Rage. Throughout that volume, you rely heavily on historical photographs of Lawrence (as well as his letters) in order to get at his essence. When I first read the book, I was both taken aback and thoroughly delighted by this almost Thoreauvian contrariness. Despite avoiding most of the major novels, or maybe because of it, you ended up with a fantastic book about Lawrence without ever getting to that “sober academic study” you set out to write. Can you remember exactly when you realized that the photos and the letters were going to be your way in? Or was this something you had up your sleeve from the beginning?
Right from the start I knew it was going to be a crazy book. I had no interest in writing a sober, academic book and no ability to do so either. The claim that I wanted to was just a setup. There are plenty of sober and often very informative books about Lawrence, but none that are as Lawrentian as mine. The more serious underlying point is that perhaps Lawrence’s livingness as a writer is now more apparent in forms and genres — essays, travel books, etc. — than was the case when I was studying him (i.e., reading the canonical novels). Also, I’m always writing notes of self-encouragement saying basically, “Remember: Write the book only you could write.”
I just noticed, as I reread the novel Paris Trance, that you “sampled” Hemingway lines and phrases from The Sun Also Rises. That’s so cool, and so strange. Strange because the lines you borrow and collage into your text are very straightforward, like “It was raining hard outside” and “It was amazing champagne.” How did this little tactic come about?
I’m glad you liked that. I was very keen for it to be seen as a remix or rewrite of Tender Is the Night, and I wanted it to take its place in that whole expats in Paris tradition, so it made sense to quote from one of the defining texts. I called these “samples” rather than quotes because a) I was trying to show how cool I was and b) I was completely immersed in electronic music at the time. I very much like the way, in electronic music, that a sample can be taken from some innocuous bit in a passage of music. There was also a tiny intellectual/legal challenge: I mean, could the Hemingway estate lay claim to these nothing-y phrases that are just part of the daily anonymous routine of language? I sought out appropriately neutral lines. Oh, and I did something similar with Thomas Mann’s Death in Venice in Jeff in Venice, though in that case I just called them quotations rather than samples. There are also allusions — but not direct quotations, if I remember rightly — to The Aspern Papers (because Jeff Atman’s assignment in Venice is a downmarket version of the one in the Henry James book).
In the note at the front of a new edition of your first novel, The Colour of Memory, you write:
The book did not start out as a novel (and, for anyone expecting a plot, never adequately became one). It was commissioned as something loosely termed “The Brixton Diaries” in the hope that the life my friends and I were leading in a particular area of south London at a particular time (the mid-to-late-1980s) might have an interest that was more than local and personal.
You say a little later: “I like to write stuff that is only an inch from life — but all the art is in that inch.”
The narrative setup for Paris Trance is a little more elaborate, with a narrator who explains that he’s telling the story of the main character, Luke, in a sense for him. But, still, I get the sense that you are writing about your experience for the most part and that Luke is really a version of you, or very close to you. Are you playing with that “inch” in Paris Trance?
To an extent. I went to Paris in order to write this book, this version of Tender Is the Night. And I’ve never been a waster like Luke, but I did have a wretched time in Paris that was very like his at the beginning of the book. At that time, when rave culture was so all-consuming in England, I knew a lot of people who were having an amazing time and obviously overdoing it — overdoing drugs, I mean. I was interested in this balance between wanting to have a very fun time — splurging — but also needing to preserve the brain and a sense of purpose. So, no, Luke was no more than the manifestation of a slight urge that I was conscious of. The deep autobiographical or emotional core of that book is the Serbian girlfriend. Not a portrait of her by any means, but the heart of the book belongs entirely to Vesna, my on-off girlfriend from that time.
There are a couple of scenes in Paris Trance where Luke and Alex, two Brits living in Paris, recreate moments and tropes from movies, old and new — once with submarine movies and then with war movies that involve prisoner-of-war camps. Does your recent book ‘Broadsword Calling Danny Boy’: On Where Eagles Dare (2018) link back to those passages in any interesting way for you?
Ah, I hadn’t thought of that but, yes, I think it does in that those films — and the experience of the Second World War as recreated in films, TV shows, and many other forms — was such an important part — the crucible — of my early consciousness. And then, as one gets older, one becomes steadily more conscious of how those early things persist and endure, not just passively, as memories, but as continually active and determining parts of one’s being.
I appreciate in ‘Broadsword Calling Danny Boy’ when you write: “The getaway is the flipside of the hunt, and a significant portion of cinematic history is the hunt (where your sympathies are on the side of the hunter) or the getaway (when you are on the side of the hunted or the prey).” Your second novel, The Search (1993), definitely falls on the side of the hunt, though Walker seems to be trying to get away from something in his life and, as the book progresses, seems to be hunted as well. There’s a Chandler influence here, of course, but how much did cinema play a part in the genesis of this novel? Any specific movies you were referencing?
Point Blank! The protagonist’s name — Walker — and wardrobe come straight out of that film. Also, more generally, as in those classic adaptations of Chandler or Hammett where a woman hires the private eye for a quite specific assignment that turns into something far more complex, often existentially so. But it stretched beyond the cinema to medieval romances via Westerns.
You write somewhere that three of your novels — but not The Search — all kind of belong together. They all look at friends hanging out in specific locales — London, Paris, Venice, Varanasi. Do you think you will write (or are you writing) an L.A. novel?
As I’ve said before somewhere, I’d got to the end of the fictive alphabet with Venice and Varanasi. There won’t be an L.A. novel, but quite a bit of the stuff I’ve written, in White Sands and elsewhere, is about L.A. It’s not a place that is of particular interest to me — I just happen to have ended up here.
The Missing of the Somme carries for me echoes of Sebald in the way the photographs are placed in and around the text (or the text placed around the images), but also in the way you examine history by moving through it. This is where the fiction/nonfiction blend seems to work best. The whole “meta” arrangement works in sync with this reader’s imagination. I know the story started in one place and will end (hopefully) in another — or maybe back where it started — but I am not entirely clear what’s past and what’s present, what’s true and what’s made up, and if what’s made up is truer than what’s “true.”
Ah, when a piece in The New Yorker mentioned me as someone influenced by Sebald, I had to write in and point out that The Missing of the Somme came out before any of his books had appeared in English. I think the key thing about that book is that it generated its own form and offered a kind of experience that, at the time, was relatively unusual for nonfiction in that it was neither concerned principally with conveying information nor with telling a “true” story. If I had to sum it up, I’d say it’s my thoughts about the First World War — and that, increasingly, is how I would pitch any of my books if I were in the business of trying to write a proposal for a publisher: my thoughts on photography, or Tarkovsky, or whatever. I don’t submit proposals because the book ideas — on paper, so to speak — are completely unpublishable.
A lot of your books could be labeled travel literature. Out of Sheer Rage operates as a travelogue, in part, as does The Missing of the Somme. There are travel pieces in Yoga for People Who Can’t Be Bothered to Do It (2003), and White Sands is pretty much a straight-out travelogue. You could even throw in the novel Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi with its two titular locales. Another Great Day at Sea: Life Aboard the USS George H.W. Bush (2014) might be the most “travel writer on assignment” book you’ve written. If someone walked up to you on the street and called you a travel writer, would you think they were picking a fight or giving you a compliment?
On the one hand, I’m always slightly irritated when I’m described as any kind of writer because there are always books that lie outside that particular generic designation. On the other hand, this English tendency toward ever-increasing irritation is matched by a feeling that it’s all my fault, I shouldn’t complain, and I’m grateful for any kind of acknowledgment. I certainly don’t think of myself as a travel writer, but then The Ongoing Moment is a travel book insofar as it’s a record of my travels in (mainly American) photography.
Another Great Day at Sea seems like a slightly different book for you. That it was an assignment might be part of it. Or maybe because it works as a more straightforward narrative than the others. How did you get hooked into that project, and what was it like being the official “writer-in-residence” on an aircraft carrier?
Yes, you’re right: it was an assignment. To cut a long story short, I was offered the chance to spend time somewhere unusual, so I chose a carrier as a way of having an experience I’d not normally be able to have. What was it like? The book explains it all. Even if, formally, it’s an entirely uninteresting book, it is the record of a very interesting experience.
I agree. I ended up becoming quite fond of many of the men and women on the ship, and I enjoyed watching the experience deepen for you as the days marched on.
Maybe it’s just me, but you seem to rely on introductions to your books more than most writers. You make sure to set up not only the book’s purpose, or plan, but also the reason for and the circumstances behind the writing (or reprinting). Is this because you are often “gatecrashing” a subject, and/or fusing two or more genres together, and feel the need to provide context?
I don’t agree. With many of them — The Missing of the Somme, Zona (2012), Broadsword, Out of Sheer Rage, and the book I’m just finishing now — there is no introduction at all, nothing at all to prepare readers for the kind of experience they’re in for and then the experience just folds itself around the reader.
I am not sure the word “hybridity” speaks to you when it comes to your work — it’s often called “genre-defying” on the back jackets and in reviews — but it seems an accurate umbrella term. You’re often fusing forms — fiction and nonfiction, criticism and imaginative writing — and often turning to other media (photographs, music, film) for inspiration. You regularly feature photographs in your books. Do you see your work as “hybrid,” or is that not an important distinction?
That’s a word that has grown up around and after the fact and doesn’t apply to me at all. I mean for a hybrid you have to have an awareness of bringing two or more strains — indica and sativa — together, whereas for me I’ve just written these books which were fully and entirely themselves.
In Zona, with its fabulous subtitle “A Book About a Film About a Journey to a Room,” you write: “The Zone is a place — a state — of heightened alertness to everything.” I remember going to see Stalker as a teen in an early ’80s arthouse in Seattle. I’d never experienced anything like it before and haven’t since. I remember feeling like my consciousness was being warped, and when I walked out onto the late-night street, it was like I was stepping onto another planet. How many times have you seen Stalker? Does it still carry some of the same powerful effect it did when you first saw it?
Glad you like the subtitle. I am tempted to delete all the subtitles from my books as they’re reissued, except the books of essays. I’ve lost track of how many times I’ve seen Stalker. Writing the book did nothing to diminish my sense of the film’s greatness. Quite the contrary. I now have a heightened sense of how wonderful it is.
Reading and rereading your books these last few weeks has been fun because there are often cross-referential moments. Have you ever intentionally seeded one book with something from an earlier one?
Increasingly! The book I’m just finishing now very consciously addresses or circles around long-standing interests. In terms of direct references, there are one or two. In Paris Trance, one of the characters mentions having met one of the characters from The Colour of Memory. But I’m also conscious of how one accidentally or unconsciously comes back to certain things, certain kinds of moments, especially in fiction. The moments of falling in love in my books are all very similar and tend to involve the same kind of woman — a little like the way Deborah Kerr pops up in three incarnations in The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp, each of whom he falls for.
Many people I know who read your work put Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi up there as a favorite. Do you have a favorite? Or is it more a matter of being wrapped up in the one you’re working on?
There’s something in all of them that I like. The Winogrand book means a lot to me as I had the desire to do a book in that format, modeled on the Szarkowski book on Atget, for such a long time before the opportunity and an appropriate subject came up. But, you know, I’m not like Graham Greene or someone whose books build toward or fall away from a couple of superior examples of more or less the same thing. It’s the range that’s important, for me anyway.
In what way is range important to you? And did you know this to be true early in your career, as you were setting out?
Again, it was a reaction against the ever-increasing specialization one encounters at university. I became interested in a lot of things after I’d left university and, crucially, encountered the work of John Berger, who offered a way of proceeding that was almost completely contrary to the academic way of going about things. And I would slightly reverse your terms: it’s not that I realized this early on in my career; my realizing this — I mean my awareness of how many things I was interested in — led me to have the career I did, which I still think of as a form of career-avoidance.
I am curious, have you ever tried your hand at writing poems?
Never — or, at least, not as an adult. I’d put not writing poems up there alongside not playing chess as a component of happiness.
Has the pandemic changed your life in drastic ways? I have talked to writers who say their life was already sheltered in place. True for you?
Hard to say, because I’ve already got used to the wretched new life! But, yes, it’s altered it entirely. I used to love going out to parties, nightclubs, gigs, dinners, gatherings … In terms of literature, I was never happier than when I was at some literary festival somewhere with the other “thinkers and drinkers” in Martin Amis’s phrase — actually maybe he has it the other way round. I loved it, especially at festivals where there were big parties every night. In normal life, being very social still left plenty of time for staying in writing and reading, partly because I almost never met up with anyone for lunch — maybe once or twice a year.
What have you been reading these days? Certain books you’ve been loving on?
2020 was defined by rereading Middlemarch, The Portrait of a Lady, and Anna Karenina. Oh, and by reading Lonesome Dove for the first time. I’m going backward! My hold on the contemporary has slackened further. I tend to read straightforward history books about subjects that I’m interested in: military history, books about flying, or, recently, the American West. If I were told that, from now on I was only allowed to read books about the Second World War, that would be fine by me.
You’ve talked about being interested in the American West. Does that mean your latest book is going to be about — or include aspects of — the American West?
It doesn’t. It’s a book about last things, careers of various kinds coming to an end. I’ve just about finished it now, I think. There are parts of the US — and, in the other direction, Russia — that I’m very keen to go to after reading Lonesome Dove and S. C. Gwynne’s Empire of the Summer Moon.
Sebastian Matthews is the author of a memoir, In My Father’s Footsteps, and two books of poetry, We Generous and Miracle Day. His hybrid collection of poetry and prose, Beginner’s Guide to a Head-on Collision, won the Independent Publishers Book Award’s silver medal. Matthews is also the author of the memoir-in-essays Beyond Repair: Living in a Fractured State. His collage novel, The Life & Times of American Crow, is due out from Red Hen Press in spring 2022.
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