Thoughts on Geoff Dyer, Part 1
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The French use the word flaneur to describe a certain kind of strolling writerly consciousness. A flaneur is an ambler and an idler — an observant loafer. “A Columbus of those near-at-hand,” is how Saul Bellow’s Augie March portrays himself, and this phrase perhaps explains the paradoxical focus of the typical flaneur project. Take Xavier de Maistre’s book -length essay Voyage Around My Room, which is just what sounds like: a sedentary stroll, a series of imaginative reflections inspired by the objects in his room (Two centuries later, Nicholson Baker would repeat de Maistre’s voyage on a microscopic level). Making the familiar strange, conjecture, free association, “this reminds me of the time when …,” and what Harold Rosenberg called “loitering in the neighborhood of a problem”– these are the techniques of the flaneur.
Baudelaire was perhaps the original flaneur, trolling 19th century Paris, hungry for up-to-date metaphors. Walter Benjamin, who loved not just to roam the city but also to get lost in it, was a Teutonic version of the flaneur, one whose offhand insights do battle with his need for impenetrable theorizing. Barthes as well: as much as he loved to play at system-building, Barthes was perhaps too in love with the spontaneous passing observation to be a full-time theorist. Edmund White’s impressionistic Flaneur: a Stroll through the Paradoxes of Paris, models itself after the works of all these writers, and merges the literary with the historical, the philosophical and the autobiographical.
A flaneur is not just an ambulatory writer but an unattached one: and not just an unmarried and childless writer with loads of down time, but a writer unaffiliated with an institution or religion and without obligation to his national identity. This freedom, rare outside the aristocracy before the nineteenth century, is both the precondition for the flaneur’s freewheeling apercus and also his curse: because unlimited freedom often brings with it anxiety and the supercharged, soul-corroding boredom the French call ennui. As Baudelaire put it, in Robert Lowell’s very loose and modernized translation:
It’s BOREDOM. Tears have glued its eyes together.
You know it well, my Reader. This obscene
beast chain-smokes yawning for the guillotine —
The British writer Geoff Dyer has written about an impressive range of subjects: WWI, jazz, model airplanes, boxing, academic criticism, Def Leppard, contemporary art and photography; but underlying his varied preoccupations is the common theme of the joys as well as the oppressiveness of freedom. In Out of Sheer Rage: Wrestling with D.H.Lawrence, he recounts, over two hundred-plus pages, his inability to complete — or even begin–an academic study of Lawrence. He spends months looking for the perfect locale to write about Lawrence. He goes to the places Lawrence visited but is too oppressed by the ghost of his presence. Some spots are too picturesque; others too dreary. Distractions abound: not just the usual ones, magazines, porno, sports, drugs and alcohol, women, but also the now-inviting prospect of beginning other, non-Lawrence related work.
In his novel Paris Trance (1994), Dyer describes two young couples, expatriates in present-day Paris, who live an indolent life full of partying, going to movies, travel, sexual experimentation, etc. The novel is modeled on the fiction of Hemingway and Fitzgerald that dealt with the same subject; Dyer even quotes directly from the two writers and provides a page of acknowledgments in the back that lists his borrowings. He invites you, if you wish, to put the whole novel in quotation marks. Tender is the Night is one of the models for the novel, and Dyer has reverently described it as Fitzgerald’s masterpiece. But Dyer is able to do what Fitzgerald failed to do in that novel, which is to create a modern-day tragedy, in this case the story of a man destroyed by the pursuit of pleasure.
If the flaneur has an equivalent in music, it’s probably the jazz musician; citified, hyper-stimulated, usually a bit of a dandy, he shares the flaneur’s freedom as well as his wry, contrary take on things. Dyer calls his masterpiece, But Beautiful (1996), ‘imaginative criticism,’ but it is actually a series of sharp fictional portraits of jazz greats followed by a long contemplative essay on the future of jazz. Rather than making the mistake of trying to recreate the music “poetically” (one of the aesthetic strategies which account for the epic prolixity of Stanley Crouch’s jazz novel, Don’t the Moon Look Lonesome), he describes, in short, dramatic sketches, incidents in the lives of a handful of jazz greats (Ellington, Lester Young, Bird, Mingus, Art Pepper) and makes us see how their personalities gave rise to their music.
Here is Duke Ellington, the magisterially self -confident bandleader who introduced classics of locomotion like ‘Caravan’ and ‘Take the ‘A Train’:
The dry toasty warmth you got in a car with the windows shut tight, that was his favorite kind of heat in the world. Duke had said many times that the road was his home and if that was true this car was his hearth. Sitting up front with the heater and the cold landscape slipping by….that was like sitting in armchairs in an old cottage and reading books around an open fire, snow falling outside.
Here is Lester Young, the dreamy, effeminate, drug-addicted saxophonist, confronting army life:
Jazz was about making your own sound, finding a way to different from everybody else, never playing the same thing two nights running. The army wanted everyone to be the same, identical, indistinguishable…Everything had to form right angles and sharp edges…He hated everything hard, even shoes with leather soles. He had eyes for pretty things, flowers and the smell they left in a room, soft cotton and silk next to his skin, shoes that hugged his feet…If he’d been born thirty years later he’d have been camp, thirty years earlier he’d have been an aesthete.
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— John Broening is a chef and writer based in Denver, Colorado. His work has appeared in the Baltimore Sun, the Baltimore City Paper, Gastronomica, Edible Front Range, and the Denver Post, for whom he writes a weekly column about food.
Photo: Geoff Dyer’s study, from http://www.guardian.co.uk/