Sunday Times, 22 January 2012
In his occasional column in The New York Times, Geoff Dyer trashed Julian Barnes’s Man Booker-winning novel The Sense of an Ending. Having annihilated all the book’s claims on our attention, he concluded: “It isn’t terrible, it is just so… average. It is averagely compelling (I finished it), involves an average amount of concentration and, if such a thing makes sense, is averagely well written: excellent in its averageness!”
Calling the work of one of our grandees of letters “average” is, of course, much more likely to get under the skin than calling him, for example, “crap”; it suggests the trashing is considered, rather than intemperate. And Dyer does seem to have thought about Barnes before. “It is not,” he admits, “the first time I have dissed him.”
Perhaps detecting a real spat, the judges of the new Hatchet Job of the Year award have shortlisted Dyer for the prize. So how does he feel about it now? He first emits a soft “Hmmmm…”. (He does that a lot.) “Well, since that thing came out, I’ve had so many emails from people saying, ‘God, I felt exactly the same.’ But I suspect Barnes is getting emails from people saying, ‘What an ignorant tosser that Dyer is.’”
Ignorant? No. Tosser? No. One of our most unusual and gifted writers? Yes. Dyer cannot be categorised, but here he is, sitting across from me in his immaculate flat off Ladbroke Grove, in west London, so I must try. Let’s start with that word “immaculate”.
“Nice socks,” he says to me as I enter his kitchen. They are nice — Richard James, last Christmas but one — but they are not often remarked on, because I am usually wearing shoes. Shoes are banned in the Dyer flat, which is, as a result, immaculate: flawless wooden floors, the right modern furniture, a book-lined study with just enough mess to suggest hard work. The only real mess is just by the front door, where there is a pile of shoes.
Dyer does seem to have thought about Barnes before. “It is not,” he admits, “the first time I have dissed him.”
Then there is the man himself, a walking rebuke to every man over 50. He is 53, tall, lean, fit and, as the writer Will Self has remarked, “elegant”. He could be cast in a television ad for Polo Ralph Lauren. The voice is warm and actorish, so the ad could also be on radio, and he even gives me camomile tea, as if I look in need of a detox, which, next to him, I do. That he is one of our finest essayists and funniest novelists is just the last straw.
Anyway, he plays tennis — wouldn’t you know it? — and started having a few games with Jamie Byng, the long-haired, excitable boss of his new publisher, Canongate. Dyer said he would like to write a book on tennis, and Byng became excited. “He said, ‘Oh, great, publisher’s dream, Andy Murray’s going to win Wimbledon’, and so on. Then I realised I didn’t want to do it. It was just awful, terrible.” Instead, unknown to the publisher, he wrote a book on the 1979 Russian film Stalker. “I happened to see Stalker again, and I wrote a tiny thing about it for The Guardian — and, frustratingly, realised I had a lot more to say. I started bunking off from the tennis book to summarise the film. Then I found a tone I really liked. It’s all about tone for me — having a tone, finding a tone. No tone, misery. After I get the tone, fun.”
At some point, he had to break this huge change of direction to Canongate. “They kept calling me to ask how it was going, and I kept saying it was going well. Then came the moment I had to say it was on Stalker, and they said, ‘Didn’t we say tennis? Well, we weren’t aware that our winter 2012 list was crying out for a book on this film that nobody will have seen, but now it seems there is a little space for it.’ ”
Stalker is by Andrei Tarkovsky, who died in 1986 — the Shakespeare of cinema, maker of three of the greatest films ever created, Andrei Rublev, The Mirror and Stalker. To describe these films as influential would be a wild understatement. Directors as different as Lars von Trier and Terrence Malick are soaked in Tarkovsky, and, since Malick’s most Tarkovskian film, The Tree of Life, more or less determined the style of a current television ad, you could say that Tarkovsky influenced Thomson Holidays. He invented a new way of seeing things — as a psychologically and spiritually intense meditation on time, every shot demanding the closest possible attention. Attending closely to the movie is exactly what Dyer does in Zona: A Book About a Film About a Journey to a Room.
Stalker is a religious film — Tarkovsky was a full-on Russian Orthodox believer — based on a sci-fi story about an enchanted zone where aliens may once have landed. But the movie strips out the sci-fi trappings to leave a tense, agonised and doubt-laden voyage through a wrecked industrial landscape to the Zone, a place of possible salvation, though it may only be the seeing eye of the camera that is saved. The Zone is in colour; the rest of the film is in black-and-white. But this is not ordinary monochrome. Tarkovsky shot the film in colour, then processed the film as black-and-white, giving it a hard, contrasty, dramatic look.
Dyer does not share the movie’s religiosity, but, as he says, “even Richard Dawkins” would be moved by the sensational and explicitly religious conclusion. His book is simply a record of watching the film; almost every shot is covered. It is not a critique or analysis so much as a reaction.
“I’d seen it so many times, and its power never seemed to diminish, so there is obviously something major going on in there. And it lent itself so well to summary, really, partly because I liked the absurdity of summarising a film you could summarise so simply. But also, the literal journey lends itself to these semimetaphysical digressions that I have a fondness for. I’m weak at plots — I can’t think of plots at all as a novelist. That’s always hampered me. I’ve always felt quite happy doing the little essayist things, and with this film, I could do both simultaneously because I had the plot.”
Dyer does not share the movie’s religiosity, but, as he says, “even Richard Dawkins” would be moved by the sensational and explicitly religious conclusion.
The book is also startlingly autobiographical. The Room in the movie is supposedly where you attain your deepest desire, which is, Dyer says, sort of the same as one’s greatest regret. “If so,” he writes, “then my greatest regret is, without doubt, one I share with the vast majority of middle-aged heterosexual men: that I’ve never had a three-way, never had sex with two women at once.”One of my great desires has been not to have children. There’s just no aspect of the package that appeals to me
If this seems an almost blasphemous reaction to one of the great works of art of our time, then that is the point. It is Dyer’s honest reaction, and that, in a way, becomes Everyman’s reaction. “Paradoxically, the contingencies of my experience and the vagaries of my own nature give that book a universal quality.”
He doesn’t treat Tarkovsky as a kind of “Tolstoyevskian” god, as many did, but he does regard the book as a fan letter: one, he admits, that the great man may not have liked.
This may sound odd, but then everything Dyer writes is a bit odd. He is a genre-jumper, primarily because he doesn’t believe in genres. He says, for example, that his ostensibly nonfiction book on photography, The Ongoing Moment (superb), “was much more of a novel than many of the books eligible for tthe Booker prize that year”. And he dislikes the typical nonfiction book that publishers love.
“The most successful nonfiction books tend to be those that can be reduced to a review-style summary or, ideally, just to the title — Blink or The Tipping Point. I like nonfiction books that are non-reducible to an argument, that can be experienced as some kind of work of art.”
This maverick was the only child of a sheet-metal worker and a dinner lady in Cheltenham. He acquired the knack of passing exams and won a scholarship to Oxford to read English. After that, his big ambition was to go on the dole. This was the late 1970s, a time when the dole financed bohemia.
“I knew exactly what I wanted to do when I left university — I wanted to sign on the dole. The dole supported a generation of writers, artists, dancers, whatever. If you had some sort of vague desire to be a writer, it wasn’t like now — now, if you want to be an artist, then it’s Tracey Emin, I want the money now and I’ve got my hustle. Then, if you had any artistic ambition, it tended to overlap with the idea of dropping out.”
His influences at the time were very much those of the dropout, rather than the bestseller. He mentions Raymond Williams, a rather fusty old leftie, and the French philosopher Michel Foucault, both men who, for me, had a talent for being wrong about everything — but then, Dyer had a Marxist phase, and I didn’t. More promisingly, his real hero, his true mentor, was the art critic and thinker John Berger: “What a great man! Easily the greatest person I have ever met.” The old theorists have dropped away, but Berger has stayed with him. Zona is, in fact, a Bergeresque exercise in the close study of a work of art.
Apart from the dole, Dyer has only ever made a living out of writing — fiction and nonfiction, as well as a steady stream of essays. He wins prizes, he is fêted — although not as much as he deserves — and he has left bohemia for this immaculate flat. He is married to Rebecca Wilson, director of the Saatchi Gallery. They have no children. Dyer is very much against the idea, but he can’t fully explain why. He emits one of his “hmmm”s.
“One of my great desires has been not to have children. There’s just no aspect of the package that appeals to me — perhaps it’s because I was an only child, but I don’t know exactly why. It’s as if you asked me why I have never had sex with a man. Well, I’ve never wanted to.”
Now he’s writing a short book about the two weeks he spent on an American aircraft carrier, but he is eager to get onto the next thing, a project he won’t reveal. Personally, I hope it’s a book on Where Eagles Dare, the daft second world war shoot-’em-up starring Richard Burton, and, weirdly, the only film Dyer says he would do in the way he did Stalker, again bringing the contingencies of his experience and the vagaries of his nature to bear on the world. But it’s time to go. My feet are freezing — he should provide slippers if he’s making people take off their shoes.