Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi

To be perfectly honest, I'm still not sure what to make of Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi, but I know that I liked it. It seems to be a novel that illuminates how opposites not only are able to coexist but absolutely must exist to define the other. This book feels like a journey, for more reasons than the exotic locations, and what's more, it's a journey where it's perfectly fine to lose one's way a bit, to not always completely follow where it goes, or to suddenly be perfectly in tune with the narrator's thoughts.

I've been on the lookout for Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi even before its release in hardcover, but I couldn't tell you why. Perhaps it wasn't anything more than the allure of Venice (which is really all it takes for me to be interested), but I was delighted when I found a copy at a stoop sale, thus saving me the hardcover price and the paperback wait time. I cannot quite remember what I expected, but it wasn't this... and yet that's not at all a bad thing. Dyer's book continually surprised me with its insight and descriptive detail that vividly inserts the reader into the scene, whether that's the Biennale or the ghats along the Ganges. After reading up on Geoff Dyer, one can tell that the fellow writes books that defy genres and this book is no different. It might be presented as a novel, but really it feels more like two novellas or stories, the first taking place in Venice and the second in Varanasi. It could just as easily be described as a travel book, for each story is as interested in the city as the narrator (indeed, the narrator's interest in the city often deflects us from discovering more about the narrator).

The first part, "Jeff in Venice" features our narrator, Jeff Atman, a C-level freelance journalist attending the Biennale in Venice with the additional objective of interviewing a woman whose fame exists by association -- she was once the lover of an artist, had his child, and raised the girl, who is now rising to her own stardom as a singer. Atman is to interview her, obtain the rights to a never-before-seen sketch from the famous artist who was her lover, and also photograph the woman as she is now. Of course, Atman is also just happy to be at the Biennale, which apparently causes a segment of the London population to be transported to Venice for a few days: "You came to Venice, you saw a ton of art, you went to parties, you drank up a storm, you talked bollocks for hours on end and went back to London with a cumulative hangover, liver damage, a notebook almost devoid of notes and the first tingle of a cold sore." The stated objective might be to see a large amount of art, but clearly everyone seems bent on consuming as many bellinis and as much free risotto as they possibly can. (There's a fantastic examination of human nature in a particular scene that involves the promise of free risotto and the anger when it does not manifest.) Jeff is a pretty impressive cynic when it comes to this scene, but then, he's also incredibly funny as a guide that's tired of it all and yet cannot bear the idea of being left out. It's this humor that makes everything even more delightful than it already would be as simply an examination of a yearly Venetian event. Early on, Jeff meets Laura, a beautiful woman with whom Jeff has instant chemistry (unsurprisingly, Laura is an American with a dolphin tattoo though surprisingly only seems to have a tame supply of white cotton panties). Dyer paints some wonderfully erotic scenes and as their whirlwind romance begins, the reader (along with Jeff) is left to wonder where it all might lead in the twisting canals of such an eternal city.

Of course, from the very title of the book, one has to think of Thomas Mann's Death in Venice and will notice multiple nods along the way. Is Jeff is Aschenbach and is Laura Tadzio? Well, if only by virtue of the rampant sex and the age of consent for both parties, no... but in Varanasi, we have another beautiful woman that Jeff looks at with a more diluted sense of attraction and this relationship will never come to fruition. The real thing to notice here is that Jeff is always longing for something. Just because one desire is fulfilled, it doesn't mean another does not take its place. When we head off to Varanasi, we find the other half of Mann's title, though perhaps not the same Aschenbach fate. (Side note: there's no assurance that the narrator of the second half of the novel is the same Jeff Atman, as there are no specific ties. Yes, the narrator is a journalist from London who is now traveling in Varanasi, a location which had come up in discussions between Laura and Jeff during their time in Venice, but there's no absolute affirmation. Of course, the reader inevitably assumes they must be the same man and, indeed, assumes that his experience in Varanasi takes place after that of the one in Venice.)

There is a palpable difference between the stories; gone are the swarms of art world bellini-swillers. Instead, in the "Death in Varanasi" section, we have a man traveling alone and veering off on a very different kind of bender; this one is full of the concept of emptying one's self and focusing on the present, one's surroundings, and the life that occurs in Varanasi. Of course, where we had sex in Venice, there's death aplenty in Varanasi. It all seems to originate from the funerals and burning pyres on the ghats of the Ganges... and then it simply spirals out to touch everything with the knowledge that life is very fragile indeed. From terrifying taxi rides to horrifying squalor to quite disgusting illnesses... well, we're a long way from the Biennale. Atman has companions from time to time, other travelers who drift in and out, but Atman himself rather loses his desire to travel away from Varanasi and so stays in his hotel and simply exists. It's not really as though he's waiting for something, but rather, he's slowly exploring the location, taking his time and doing whatever he pleases. There's a distinct sense of melancholy, but then, this could also be interpreted as a kind of solitary peace that simply feels sadder in comparison with the parties in Venice. Jeff still seems to be seeking something, if not "enlightenment" exactly, then some kind of understanding... yet this quieter and more personal longing is starkly different from the erotic and professional longing experienced in Venice. That might be called more frivolous, but then, it could also be simply one side of a coin that represents the longing for life.

Both of these cities seem to rise up from the water, but they do very different things to the pilgrims who travel to them... or do they? Once thinks of Venice as being about life and love (even if it's swirling out of control with drugs and alcohol), whereas the holy city of Varanasi at first sight appears to be more about death and sickness (though this, in turn, makes the city a city of life, too). Venice personifies consuming passions whereas Varanasi is emptying one's self of everything (be this in a spiritual sense or a physical sense that involves copious amounts of vomiting and such). It's not that Varanasi is a bad place, necessarily, but for the casual tourist, it will seem rather dirty and squalid. As a holy city, the tourist attraction oddly lies with the ghats on the Ganges and several times, the narrator watches bodies being burned. A great deal of time is spent musing on this sacred river that seems so polluted and yet is such a source of life, but the whole time in Varanasi is not spent musing on death by any means. Jeff is, essentially, mesmerized by the life in Varanasi, from the dancing that occurs beside burning funeral pyres to the complexities of the Indian music as spontaneous jam sessions develop on the terrace of his hotel. Some very humorous scenes arise, often involving monkeys -- it almost seems like cheating in travelogues to visit a place with monkeys, as they provide reliable humor. It's as though the only way the narrator really comes to appreciate and enjoy life in Varanasi is by staying to see beyond the constant requests for money (for boat rides, for tours, for temples, for beggars) and the filthy conditions. Many fascinating experiences arise from this time in Varanasi, but when one compares the two sections, one has to wonder if a certain amount of the spiritual discussion in Varanasi is not so different from all the bollocks one talked in Venice. In Varanasi, Jeff watches two of his friends embark upon a romance and he remains the one outside. There are echoes of each story in the other, though each left me with very different emotions.

Naturally, the reader will have to notice the comparison between Geoff the author and Jeff the narrator. Even if they're not the same person, there is great significance in a character that shares the author's name and several descriptive traits. The New York Times review described it as such: "Jeff, in other words, feels a lot like Geoff: an all-purpose writer for the high-end British papers and a determined idler whose love of freeloading can never quite conceal his hunger for something deeper and more transcendent." It's easy to think of Jeff as an alternate version of Geoff... indeed, Atman is apparently Hindu for the true and universal self. Read into that what you will, but I count it as another one of Dyer's playful touches. Above all, the thing I enjoyed was Atman's tone, which was incredibly intelligent and self-aware, unafraid to be honest and yet still allowing for the chance that things could be just what they seemed and yet still be more (at one point Atman says "it’s possible to be a hundred percent sincere and a hundred percent ironic at the same time").

So ultimately, I quite enjoyed the novel and really, if I haven't processed all of it, I'm not too concerned. It's a novel that stays with you and to which your thoughts will occasionally drift back. I'll certainly be seeking out more of Geoff Dyer's work, though I shall take great pleasure in adding this book to my list of authors who have fallen in love with Venice and on whom I can rely when I need to dip into their adventures and remember the taste of that great city.

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