Some kind of Brideshead thing
Geoff Dyer is often described as an “uncategorizable” writer (I am among the offenders) because of his hostility to a well-policed border between fiction and nonfiction. His travel essays have the feel of short stories, and his “proper” novels feature extended riffs that are criticism in disguise. (As he put it in the introduction to Yoga for People Who Can’t Be Bothered to Do It, “Everything in this book really happened, but some of the things that happened only happened in my head.”)
I first met Dyer in 1996, after I acquired his book about jazz, But Beautiful, for Farrar, Straus and Giroux, where I was a young editor. The first few times we saw each other, I think we mostly argued about movies. He had atrocious taste. “Strange Days is a masterpiece.” Or “Gummo is the best American film of the past twenty years.” But part of the fun of knowing—or reading—him is sparring with a voracious consumer of culture. He has written passionately—and always wittily—about books, photography, music of all kinds. In his latest book, Zona: A Book About a Film About a Journey to a Room (just published by Pantheon), Dyer dons a metaphorical head-lamp to mine the ore of Andrei Tarkovsky’s Stalker.
This interview was assembled from two conversations we recorded while Dyer was in San Francisco to promote Otherwise Known as the Human Condition, which I had edited for Graywolf Press, as well as a number of follow-up emails.
THE BELIEVER: Should we start at the beginning—or at least our beginning—with the American publication of But Beautiful?
GEOFF DYER: We need to go further back, to when dinosaurs roamed the earth and I published my first book, the study of John Berger [Ways of Telling], in 1986. I was commissioned to write this book and got a fat advance of one thousand pounds. I wrote it while living on the dole, because of course it took a year to write, and there’s no way that I could live on that. But this was really a prophetic book as well—prophetic, not pathetic—in that a week before I was due to get finished copies, the publisher, Pluto Press, went bankrupt. That was a devastating blow for me, because although I’ve now published a lot of books, that was the first book, the thing that changes you from being a would-be writer to having a book out with your name on it.
I don’t want this interview to be a tale of woe, but we can move on from that to my first novel, The Colour of Memory. I was living in Brixton at the time. Brixton was at the forefront of many of the issues that were being played out in society at large. So I said to Frances Coady, then an editor at Jonathan Cape, that I’d like to write a book called something like The Brixton Diaries, based very roughly around the life that my friends and I were leading. But I found that inevitably, as I was telling these stories and arranging and improving certain episodes, it took on more and more of the quality of fiction. And gradually it became a novel, albeit in a pattern that will be repeated, not a very story-driven novel.
And then the publisher had this great idea: “Let’s do a big campaign, and we’ll publish four authors at the same time.” That seemed wonderful, but it didn’t work out as intended. Instead of the attention for each of the four books getting quadrupled, the attention on each book was quartered, and that was yet another disaster. We became a laughingstock. So, having survived the bankruptcy of my publisher for the first book, this was another flop.
BLVR: But The Colour of Memory actually had some good notices—reviewers recognized it as a generational touchstone, as the “Brixton novel.” Did that recognition come later?
GD: It did get quite a lot of good reviews, but any individual merits it had tended to be sort of lost or subsumed into the general avalanche of hostility toward this gang-of-four publishing project. After that, I said to Frances, in 1989, that I’d like to write a book about jazz, because I was mad about jazz at that time. She gave me a sum of money so I could go to New York and write this book about jazz. I didn’t prepare a synopsis or anything. I just said, “I promise this will be a really good book.” It was a very nice, flexible arrangement. So I went to New York, duly wrote this book—and wrote it quite easily, as it happened.
When I came back, Frances had left Cape, and by the time I handed in the manuscript, this person that I only ever refer to as T. C. Godwin—he’s more widely known as David Godwin, but he’s known to me solely as T. C. Godwin—had taken over. When the manuscript was handed in, T. C.’s reaction was “Well, who are these people?” “These people” being Thelonious Monk, Charles Mingus, Bud Powell. For that reason alone he deserves to get tossed into a deep fryer. And the book was sort-of published, in the sense that it was printed, but, needless to say, it was done with zero enthusiasm on the part of T. C. But then it got really quite nice reviews, and won the Somerset Maugham Award, and gradually it came to the notice of a number of musicians. But still—and after this I promise we’ll move beyond the realm of grievance—Cape had world rights to the book, and they made no effort to sell it anywhere. I think there followed four years of incredible seething at the injustice of this, especially of it not being published in America. At my advanced age that doesn’t sound too long a wait, but of course back then…
BLVR: It hadn’t been published in the States, and yet it was kind of your love letter to America.
GD: Precisely. I’d loved being in America, I’d loved American writers—but I couldn’t get published in America. Then we move forward to 1996, when FSG published it. I was really ecstatic when that happened; that was one of the really transforming moments of my life.
BLVR: And happily the risk FSG took was validated, because the reviews were amazing and American critics didn’t take you to task for (a) not being a jazz critic, and (b) being a non-American writing about jazz. I received a call out of the blue from [the jazz critic] Nat Hentoff, who was flummoxed when I told him that you’d never actually met Bud Powell. As I recall, you didn’t know any of these musicians you wrote about, and you hadn’t seen many of them play. A lot of the power of that book came from watching Charlotte Zwerin’s Straight, No Chaser, for instance, and paying really close attention.
GD: Sure, all that home-movie footage of Monk in Straight, No Chaser is amazing. And it came out in 1988, exactly when I was writing the book—it was incredibly helpful. But I was also going to jazz gigs four or five times a week. I’d go to the Village Vanguard a lot, where all these iconic records have been made. I remember seeing Kirk Lightsey play somewhere, and due to a fluke of the lighting, with his bald head he looked rather vulture-like—his own shadow had this rather spectral quality. So in the book, I’m basically describing what I’d seen happen to Kirk Lightsey, but projecting it back to Bud Powell. There was a real sense of the jazz tradition being an unbroken line from the people I wrote about, who I never saw play, to the people I was seeing play all time. This was also the era of the Walkman, so I’d walk around New York listening to the music of the people I was writing about, and—this is something we take for granted now—get this incredible synesthesia because I’ve got that music right in the middle of my head. It was very easy to walk around and imagine what the city was like as seen through the eyes of Mingus and all these other people.
BLVR: One of the running themes in your work, starting with But Beautiful, is a concern with both improvisation and tradition—the basic jazz dialectic. I noticed it especially in The Ongoing Moment, which is a critical book about photography but seems to me to be a kind of stealth manifesto about your own writing.
GD: It was at that time [of writing But Beautiful] that I came across George Steiner’s Real Presences. The first essay in that book is one of the most influential things I’ve ever read. You know, when he says, “Let’s imagine a republic in which there is no criticism at all,” and he talks about the way that the syllabus—the tradition of any art form—is a syllabus of enacted criticism, that James’s Portrait of a Lady is actually in some ways an essay on George Eliot’s Middlemarch.
BLVR: That’s so much more interesting than The Anxiety of Influence!
GD: It really is, isn’t it? So I’d read that essay, and it seemed to be so nakedly displayed in the jazz tradition. Fast-forward twenty years, and then you see the same thing happening—or I see a similar thing happening—in photography, which is the trajectory that I try to describe in The Ongoing Moment.
BLVR: There was a funny review in the Nation of Otherwise Known as the Human Condition. The author loved But Beautiful so much, and being a really diligent and responsible critic, he went through and read every word you’d ever written, looking under every stone for another jazz book by you, and then he’s crushed when he can’t find one. He seemed rather disappointed by the rest of your output. And I was like, “Oh god, you’re misreading, they’re all jazz books.”
GD: The crucial thing with But Beautiful was to borrow the freedoms appropriate to the particular music I was writing about. The jazz book was improvisatory; the photography book tries formally and stylistically to have some kinship to the way that photography works. I’ve written a lot of books on a lot of subjects, but that wouldn’t count for shit if I just applied a uniform template to those subjects. The idea is that each book arrives at a form and a style that is appropriate to the subject.
BLVR: I think of The Ongoing Moment, But Beautiful, and Zona as translation projects. All are intimate, literary meditations or riffs on nonverbal art. It seems to me that all three books are about what each medium can do and what it can’t do, and what writing can and can’t do. Is there anything conscious about that—about trying to figure out what it means to make a film dramatic on the page, or a piece of music dramatic on the page?
GD: Hmm. The two easiest books I’ve written are But Beautiful and Zona, maybe because in both cases the material was already there, so both were, in effect, forms of transcription. And neither book posed great structural problems. Relative to the structural head-fuck of the photography book, Zona was straightforward—just a question of brokering a treaty between the narrative and the more discursive stuff.
BLVR: I was flipping back through your earlier books yesterday, and it amazes me how much your prose voice has changed. There’s always been a certain epigrammatic quality to your writing, and the way you employ sudden reversals has always conveyed a deep interest in paradox. But there’s a lushness to your prose in many of them that I don’t really see anymore. I actually love those books, and on the one hand I want to say that you had a more romantic stance then, but on the flip side one might say they are slightly overwritten.
BLVR: But your essays and fiction really do look different now!
GD: Yes, you’re absolutely right. Let’s try to put a positive spin on this. There’s lyricism in The Colour of Memory and in the jazz book. There are still a few lyrical moments in a recent book, Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi, but that kind of thing is always going to be more pronounced when you are young. The downside is that there is quite a bit of stuff in the early books that I now feel is a bit over the top, bits I would edit out now. The question is whether one can do that without diminishing the romantic quality of the books.
BLVR: Perhaps the romantic quality that abides is more thematic, Fitzgeraldian. Fitzgerald is all over the place in there. You’ve always seemed to be interested in the melancholic bomb that’s planted in happiness.
GD: [Laughs] That’s the underside of romanticism, isn’t it? That thing of youthful promise turning to ashes. But you’re absolutely right. I think it’s quite interesting, the presence of Fitzgerald in British writing. I don’t know if a study has been made of the influence of Fitzgerald, that most American of writers, on British writers. In a way, it seems to me that what I was trying to re-create in The Colour of Memory was some kind of Brideshead thing, the romance of the leisure class in the council blocks in Brixton, but with a similar kind of idyllic/elegiac quality, too. And that’s what you get in Fitzgerald, isn’t it? The tainted idyll—the idyll that is blighted by its very idyllic-ness. The structure of The Colour of Memory emphasizes this in that the chapters go in reverse order, starting at zero-six-zero and then going down to triple-zero, so there’s the sense of the sands of time running out and a countdown to something.
BLVR: Which you did to substitute for the narrative tension that fails to interest you!
GD: [Laughs] Yes. And sure enough, time for that way of living was running out. Now it’s very difficult for people in their twenties to live that kind of life. The other thing going on at the time was that AIDS was really making itself felt in the heterosexual consciousness in a way that’s quite difficult to recall. It was very, very, very present in the mid-’80s. Hollinghurst kind of nailed that in the Swimming-Pool Library, but all of this contributed to a sense of finitude.
BLVR: You’ve usually bopped around from subject to subject, depending on what you happen to be interested in, but with But Beautiful and Paris Trance, you took trips explicitly to write these books.
GD: I went to Paris in 1991 with the explicit, undisguised intention of writing my version of Tender Is the Night. Surprise, surprise—I failed to write the novel! I see now that I hadn’t had enough experience to write it. But while I was there, on a whim, I went to visit the First World War cemeteries on the Somme. I ended up abandoning my Fitzgerald novel and instead wrote this book about the First World War, The Missing of the Somme, a very short book—or a long essay—about the way the war is remembered. And that was quite an important book for me, really—a book without chapters, a kind of free-flowing, associative thing with its own kind of peculiar rhythm and stuff: rhythm in the sense of the structure rather than the sentences.
BLVR: It’s a key work: the one that established that strong, critical voice that runs through your stuff that is so lively and witty. Its analytical or scholarly arguments are kind of embedded in an entertaining first-person narrative.
GD: Exactly. Combining a bit of everything, really—stuff about statues, travel stuff, literary criticism—I was pleased to discover how you could hold that variety of material together in this way and find this voice which was really flexible and congruent with the structure.
BLVR: Out of Sheer Rage basically grows out from it soon after, and I wonder, were there things that you had read that suddenly opened you up, that served as a model, or was this approach something you stumbled your way into?
GD: I guess I’d read a lot of Kundera at that point, had absorbed that idea of the novelistic essay. It’s worth saying that Somme came out before any of Sebald’s books, just in case people have the idea that I got the notion of sticking in the photographs from Sebald! There was also a lot of Roland Barthes in my head, and a lot of Brodsky, though I’m having trouble now recalling what else I might have been reading. What I do remember is I wrote some of it back in England, because it was a book which ended up being quite literary-critical, so I needed access to all these books, some of which I could only get in libraries in England.
BLVR: Just to remind people that you are a scholar, not just a—
GD: [Laughs] Yes, not just some slacker. And, crucially, that was a book which, just like a novel, I didn’t get a contract to write. I just wrote it and then hoped to sell it.
BLVR: In the past ten years you’ve published a lot more “straight” criticism than you did early in your career. You’ve obviously gained greater authority—the voice seems more assured, or your analytical ability is sharper, or maybe you just know better what you’re talking about [laughs]—but one of your beefs has been that a lot of reviewers go on about the sort of slacker-druggy aspect of your work, which, it should be pointed out, is all your fault.
GD: [Laughs] Yes—as somebody said, I’ve made a rod for my own back.
BLVR: Back then, though, no one knew quite what to make of what was becoming a varied output. As a result, as you’ll of course recall, I was not initially allowed to acquire the manuscript of Out of Sheer Rage at FSG. But Beautiful had been a small sleeper hit, and when your agent, Alexandra Pringle, sent me the Lawrence manuscript, I immediately loved it. It was just fantastic, and I thought—even though I loved But Beautiful—that it was so much more exciting, because it felt generationally relevant to me. The voice felt contemporary and new, and the listlessness, the restlessness, the malaise all spoke to me. But I was still a very junior editor, and I knew it was going to be tricky to sell. It was this obsessive, cranky book about not writing a book about D. H. Lawrence, and I tried to frame it in a memo for Jonathan Galassi because I feared he might not like it. And, well, he didn’t really like the book that much, or he just thought it was indulgent, which of course it is. [Laughs] I didn’t know what to say about that, and I was like, “That’s sort of the point.” I whined a bunch and then he told me to show it to Roger Straus for a second opinion, because he could tell that I was heartbroken. And then I knew that I was really doomed, because I was like, “If Jonathan doesn’t get it, then Roger is definitely not going to get it.” And indeed a few days later I get this pawed-over manuscript back from Roger—pages sticking out everywhere—with a single word scrawled on my memo in red pen that read, “Awful.” I was just completely crushed. And so I had to reject it.
GD: Yes, it was incredibly dispiriting. I got this rejection letter saying something like “We hope when you’ve got all this neurotic nonsense out of your system, maybe you’ll write another book.” That was disappointing, but bear in mind, up to this point my main experience of publication had been disappointment, so although it was hard to swallow, my earlier experience of swallowing the unswallowable stood me in good stead!
BLVR: [Laughs] As I recall, I think I then suggested that you write a photography book, which would be incredibly prescient, so I hope it’s right. [Ed. note: it is!] You were just starting to write about photography for DoubleTake, I think, and I really loved the way you made stories out of the photographs. But at that time I hadn’t read much about photography aside from Sontag’s On Photography, and you rightly pointed out that there had been all these masterpieces—not just that, but Camera Lucida, what have you. Anyway, then Out of Sheer Rage got published in England some many months later, and I asked Alexandra to just start faxing me the reviews. I would just sort of dump one review after another into Jonathan’s box. I think I even cornered him in the bathroom once and said, “Did you read that James Wood review?” or whatever. I was driving him crazy. When finally I ended up getting promoted to being a full editor, Roger told me that the idea was that we allow you to totally fall on your own face—so here’s $7,500 to buy that book you won’t shut up about.
GD: I was so pleased because part of the FSG ethos is that they buy writers, not books—but in my case that seemed to hold good for only one book!
BLVR: At what point in the writing of the book did you discover the Bernhardian voice? Was that something you started with, or were you getting nowhere with it until you discovered that voice?
GD: When I began the book I was completely, overwhelmingly under the spell of Thomas Bernhard. I think I was even writing journalism at that point in a sub-Bernhardian vein. But actually that sort of tone made the persona more bad-tempered, perhaps, than I actually was.
BLVR: I was getting to know you a bit then, but not all that well, and I remember telling people, “Oh god, no, that incredibly whiny, complaining voice in the book is really a persona; Geoff’s actually pretty easygoing.” But as the years have gone by, I think that that voice might have been your truest one!
GD: [Laughs] It’s certainly something that comes easily to me. ’Cause I am English, I think. Whining doesn’t come as readily to an American. Maybe the Bernhard thing is what stopped the whining being provincial.
BLVR: I guess the American complaint is more tinged with anger and frustration. You think of Henry Miller’s The Air-Conditioned Nightmare or something, which is a really brutal takedown of America, but it’s not as funny—
GD: Actually, that was the really important thing for me, that book, where I really did find this way of writing where I could go from the analytic to the almost-slapstick with hardly any change of gear, just turning on a sixpence—in fact, not turning at all, just sort of running on the spot. I was really nervous before it was published, and then I was pleased when people responded to it as warmly as they did in Britain. And then, as we were saying, that led to your publishing it, and I was up and running—on the spot—in America again.
BLVR: After that came Paris Trance. It starts containing a lot of criticism disguised as fiction—Paris Trance is, in a lot of ways, a novel about cinephilia. And I remember you told me years ago, “Oh yeah, I wanted to bury an essay about submarine movies in the dialogue.” Can you describe what you were trying to do there?
GD: I got that from DeLillo. I loved the little essays in dialogue that you get in all the DeLillo books, but particularly in The Names, which has the film director Volterra, or whatever his name is. But the main thing was that this was the book I’d gone to Paris for and had failed to write—the Tender Is the Night book. Then, years later, I actually wrote it fairly easily after I’d finished the Lawrence book. So it was one of those things where it was obviously right to abandon it the first time round. The book was the fulfillment of all the dreams that I had of what my Paris life might have been. This was the Paris life I kept seeing other people leading, which I didn’t manage to. So I sort of exported friends from London and turned a very brief visit from my on/off Serbian girlfriend into a whole year! I look back and it’s so clear to me now that that period in your twenties and maybe into your thirties—that’s the great time of friendships. And then by the time you get to my age, in a way you don’t have these great friendships, you just have dinners. Do you remember, by the way, I wanted a Polaroid of my Serbian girlfriend on the cover, but you vetoed that. What a killjoy!
BLVR: What I do remember is that it was the book where you started writing dirty, so maybe it was too vérité! [Laughs]
GD: Not, I hasten to add, that it was that kind of Polaroid: it was just a nice portrait! I’d read the dirty gay books by Hollinghurst, and I was very interested to see if you could do a heterosexual equivalent of that.
BLVR: Didn’t Alexandra tell you to take all the sexy bits out?
GD: She thought there were some passages we could have done without. But, well, it’s difficult. You can do that thing in the style of old black and white films where there’s a kiss and the screen goes a bit blurry, but if your writing style is one where it’s all quite explicit—in my books you can see people quite clearly picking up an apple, their teeth biting into it and so on—then it’s a bit odd if we go into this completely misty, impressionistic blur when they get into the bedroom. So it seems to me that once you follow them into the bedroom, you’re entitled, even if only in the interest of narrative consistency, to a pretty good view of what’s happening there.
BLVR: But while you famously refuse to distinguish between your fiction and your nonfiction, you don’t really write dirty in your “essays.”
GD: Actually, it cropped up in a review in the Nation of The Ongoing Moment. I was writing about those Stieglitz pictures of O’Keefe, the dirty ones. It’s a real problem, because they’re very explicit pictures—you know, there’s O’Keefe with her legs open—how do you refer to that which is the central focus of our interest and Stieglitz’s?
BLVR: Ah, where you refer, in your academic voice, to “Georgia O’Keeffe’s pussy.”
GD: It’s so obvious that the only way to refer to it is “Georgia O’Keefe’s pussy.” Because that’s what Stieglitz was seeing—that’s why he was photographing it. And that review in the Nation said, “This is so vulgar and coarse” or something, but I felt that actually was the most appropriate word to describe what Stieglitz was up to.
BLVR: At what point do you know you are starting on a novel rather than a work of nonfiction? I know you don’t make a firm distinction, because you imagine stories and make things up in your essays. But in your “nonfiction” you always start with something very concrete—a subject, or a place you travel to—while the novels maybe start with a situation.
GD: Well, some of those pieces in Yoga for People Who Can’t Be Bothered to Do It, they’re effectively short stories.
BLVR: And yet several of them were reported pieces commissioned for the late, great Feed magazine.
GD: Typically the pieces for Feed were very different from how they ended up when recycled in the book. Take the Detroit one, for example. The piece I did for him was much more reportorial, though admittedly in a very personalized voice, whereas in the book it becomes much more about the narrator’s state of mind. I think the issue is this: the initial distinction between fiction and nonfiction—did it happen or didn’t it happen—doesn’t get you very far at all. So where do you go from there if you want to make the distinction? I think it’s got to be one of form, as opposed to just appealing to some independently testable reality. So what are the characteristics of that form? How do we recognize them? That leads to a further and crucial question about the expectations that readers bring to particular forms: how they expect a book to behave. And then people get very confused if they’re reading something that they’re expecting to be one thing and it starts behaving in a way they expect from or associate with something else—even if it is aesthetically fine on its own terms. All sorts of signals start going off [makes alarm noise] because the book is not behaving in accordance with an assumed generic template. One of the reasons people enjoy reading Ian McEwan, who is a terrific writer, is because they know how to read him.
BLVR: He produces a machine in which you have the fiction experience.
GD: People are very adept at reading that kind of book. It seems to me that with someone like Sebald you really don’t know where you are, what those books of his are doing. And I like to think that something like that goes on with my books as well, and with Jeff in Venice. I mean, on every level it is posing the question of whether it’s really a novel.
BLVR: This makes me think of John Barth’s “The Literature of Exhaustion,” which argued that the novel of psychological realism had basically become a genre whose conventions had gone stale. But similarly, so many mediocre, supposedly experimental writers today are indebted to Barthelme and Pynchon and Borges and Calvino and Beckett and Kafka—and that kind of stuff has started to feel a little exhausted, too, in Barth’s sense. Any sophisticated reader who’s read these books sort of knows how they work—a story about the artifice of the story, or is this real or not, or is the narrator narrating or is he being narrated—I mean, all of these questions seem equally tired to me.
GD: And given the choice of that old-fashioned psychological realist novel or John Barth, I think we’d all go for the former.
BLVR: But it does seem that there are alternatives to either that I like to think that you’re exploring.
GD: Sure, I think I am, too. But not in that kind of “experimental” way.
BLVR: You can blow up the house only so many times. But Jeff in Venice still managed to surprise me with its original structure.
GD: Quite a number of people have said, “Oh it’s not really a novel—it’s just two half novels stitched together.” This is where our editing relationship really came into its own, because you’re entirely responsible, albeit negatively, for the form that that book takes. I sent it to you even though you weren’t my official editor anymore, and I think what you said is that we needed to have more of an Aschenbachian moment in part one to prepare us for the—
BLVR: For the disillusionment.
GD: Yes, something to bind the two parts together more thoroughly. And I could see that that was a good point. So I started to try to do it, but I couldn’t—just couldn’t. It was an uphill struggle, and then I had this lovely thing, entirely in response to your suggestion, where I realized, Wow, I’m not going to solve the problem. I’m going to exacerbate it. So instead of roping the two bits more closely together with a nice, sturdy bit of narrative rope, I just did away with it completely, so it was no longer going to be obvious that the narrator in part two was the protagonist of part one. And instead of that narrative connection, we just had these fifty or a hundred tiny little repetitions in echoes of insignificant phrases and details, which even if people don’t pick up on them would sort of resonate in some way. The two parts don’t have to be tied together, but they are absolutely dependent on each other.
BLVR: I’m so glad I could help by misreading so perfectly. But you probably got more interested in it as you went along.
GD: Sure did. And you know, actually, these echoes—there’d been a few there beforehand, and then I added more, and it was really, really enjoyable doing that. This was another way the structure of the book compensated for my lacking the storytelling gene.
BLVR: You’ve often said that you’ve never had an ability to think up your own stories or plots. And now with Zona you just go ahead and adopt a movie’s plot for your plot, albeit a plotless movie’s plot.
GD: The film’s actually got a very strong, albeit simple, plot, unlike Tarkovsky’s earlier Mirror: three men on a journey or a mission into the Zone. The very simplicity and linear nature of the plot combined with the big issues it addresses mean that it lends itself to the kind of narrative metaphysics—the digressions that are part of a journey—that I enjoy.
BLVR: You’ve described the book as a “summary of Stalker,” which is overly modest. I mean, summaries are inherently undramatic, yet this book seems to ride along pretty swiftly. Where would you say the tension comes from? Or, to put it another way, what is it that keeps a reader turning the pages of a purported summary of a film that many will in fact never have seen?
GD: First I think it’s a question of tone. Then it’s a matter of tone. Oh, and tone is important, too! Plus, there’s no explanation at the beginning of what’s going to happen, what kind of book it’s going to be (that’s part of the Roberto Calasso influence and inspiration); so, just as the film follows these three blokes on their journey into this unknown place, the Zone, trying to make sense of it as they go along, so the reader is along for the ride, too, trying to make sense of what’s happening—what kind of book it is—as it unfolds. And, as with the Zone, the book is subtly changing all the time. I’ve always been hostile to the distinction writers sometimes make as to whether a book is for the general reader or for fellow experts, and this book takes that aversion to an extreme in that you can read it and enjoy it whether you’re a Tarkovsky nut or you’ve never even seen the film.
BLVR: You first saw Andrei Tarkovsky’s Stalker almost thirty years ago. Had you tried writing about it before? What finally made it possible?
GD: No, I’d not even thought about writing about the film before, although I did mention it in “The Zone,” a story about Burning Man that appeared as the last chapter of Yoga for People Who Can’t Be Bothered to Do It. More specifically, what made it possible was the impossibility of writing the book I was meant to be writing—about tennis. The immediate spur was a screening and panel discussion of Stalker at the British Film Institute in London. With that peg I arranged to write a little thing about the film for the Guardian, in the course of which I realized I had a lot more to say and a potentially fun way of saying it—and something to distract me from the frustrations of the tennis nonbook.
BLVR: Are there authors whose writing about film in particular has been meaningful to you? Whose books might have served as useful models for this one?
GD: A few years ago Sight & Sound magazine asked a bunch of people for their top five film books, and I chose the five editions of David Thomson’s Biographical Dictionary of Film. For me he is so far ahead of everyone else in terms of books on film.
BLVR: It always seemed to me that the differences between each successive edition probably somehow add up to Thomson’s covert autobiography…
GD: Exactly. I actually assigned it for that reason as part of a course I taught once on autobiography. In that light, the entry on Kieran Hickey has to be seen as the figure at the center of the carpet. I think it’s one of the great moments in literature—and the Dictionary, let’s not forget, is also a supreme literary achievement. Fortunately he barely even mentions Stalker in it—phew!—though he’s very witty about it in Have You Seen…?, his personal pantheon of a thousand films. Obviously there are other good books about film, and some great essays by Robert Warshow, Sontag, and odd things by others—J. M. Coetzee wrote an amazing essay on The Misfits—but I’m not conscious of anyone with Thomson’s sustained strength of authorial identity and invention. I used to see Gilbert Adair around my neighborhood from time to time, after his stroke and shortly before he died, last December. I liked the things he wrote about cinema, but none of these people were influences. Fiona Banner’s paintings of films and her mad art-book The Nam—a 280,000-word description of six Vietnam films—might have been, in a distant and different sort of way! The single biggest literary influence on the book—though this might be apparent only to me, and I probably shouldn’t even mention his name and mine in the same breath—was Roberto Calasso.
BLVR: Do you feel differently about Stalker now than you did before you started writing the book?
GD: No, writing the book has confirmed my sense of its profundity, greatness, and grace—and its mystery. It really is inexhaustible. A long time after I’d finished writing the book, when I was trudging through the proofs for the fourth time, I thought I should check something in the film and, as I did so, I noticed something else, something so important that I had to add an entirely new bit of writing. I won’t say what that something was, as it’s quite near the end of the film and would be a spoiler. Actually, that reminds me of another spur for the book: the bit in Diary of a Bad Year when Coetzee says there are passages in Dostoyevsky that he’s read loads of times before, but their power remains absolutely undiminished, that he still can’t read them without tears coming to his eyes. That’s the kind of power Stalker has for me.
BLVR: You concede that Stalker is often—how to put it—deliberately paced. What is the role of boredom in art?
GD: Boredom is often a side effect of something else. The apparent boredom inflicted by Stalker is actually the friction between the pace of the film and one’s expectations of how a film should proceed, so you just need to give yourself over to it. But then I think some so-called art films are irredeemably and inherently boring. As soon as I say that, though, I realize that the most boring films are the big, moronic action-blockbusters. They really bore the crap out of me. There’s an essential relationship between boring art films and moronic blockbusters because, as Ernst Fischer pointed out, any art form that glories in being understood only by a few—that worships at the altar of its own tedium, as it were—opens the floodgates for trash for the masses. At a certain point, as filmmakers got serious, they willingly took on a slowness that could easily become boring. But there was a long period before that when boredom was just inconceivable, not part of the equation. Take The Maltese Falcon—there’s no engagement at all with the undesirability of entertainment and consequently the valorization of boredom: it’s just wonderful and remains wonderful however many times you see it.
BLVR: Zona has lots of footnotes on the page, sort of a running, often memoiristic commentary on the commentary about Stalker. Recently you confessed in an article that you have an “allergy” to David Foster Wallace, and I wonder whether your presentation is a bit of a response to him, your way of saying, “Not like that, like this?”
GD: Not a bit. The footnotes, to go back to your previous question, were the only way, structurally, of sticking very close to the film in the main body of the text and expanding on it simultaneously. I thought of having the summary on the verso page and the other stuff on the recto—parallel texts—but like that there would have been too many big gaps on either side. With footnotes, the advantage is that as the distinction between discursive and narrative collapses in the course of the book, footnote-type material can creep into the main body of the text without a problem. Again, this is consistent with the film in that a literal journey gradually acquires more metaphysical-religious connotations. So this was a structural solution, not a stylistic device—though it now occurs to me that Wallace might have made the same claim.
BLVR: Let’s say we are at last approaching the Room, where Tarkovsky’s pilgrims can get anything they dream of. Do you go in? What do you seek?
GD: [Laughs] Superb last question! That is exactly what all my books are about.
Illustration by Tony Millionaire
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