four-stars
Bookmarks Issue: 
41-July-Aug-2009
By: 
Geoff Dyer
user_rating: 
0

A-Jeff in VeniceGeoff Dyer, the British author of three previous novels and five nonfiction books, is best known for But Beautiful, about music and jazz, and Out of Sheer Rage, a literary biography of D. H. Lawrence.

The Story: In two novellas, two men—Jeff Atman, a 40-something London journalist, and an unnamed man that might be Jeff—experience journeys of extremes. Jeff first visits Venice, where he is sent to cover the international art world’s biannual party in all its debauchery. He has a fiery love affair with a beautiful American, but remains morally bankrupt. In the second novella, the narrator, another London journalist, is on assignment to uncover the secrets of Varanasi, India’s holiest Hindu city. Once he arrives on the banks of the Ganges, what starts out as a short visit turns into an extended stay as he starts to examine his self, renounce carnal pleasures, and seek enlightenment.
Pantheon. 296 pages. $24. ISBN: 0307377377

NY Times Book Review 4.5 of 5 Stars
"Dyer at his very best. … Until Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi—or Burning Man on the Ganges, as it could also have been called—I never dreamed that a kind of Dantean comedy could be made out of fights in A.T.M. lines and monkeys filching sunglasses. But it can." Pico Iyer

Guardian (UK) 4 of 5 Stars
"This dazzling and peculiar novel might well be subtitled, in the author’s own sort of vernacular, Happiness in Times of Nightmare. … Atman and Dyer have between them given us a wonderfully entertaining book, but it is fundamentally sad." Jan Morris

New Yorker 4 of 5 Stars
"These stories have certain fictive connections, and the protagonist of each … is not identical to Geoff Dyer. Geoff is not Jeff. Still, the stories seem to flit in and out of fictionality, in a way that seems intended; they are a Dyer-like combination of essay, travelogue, and invention, and the veronica of the author’s soul can be glimpsed behind the two texts." James Wood

Oregonian 4 of 5 Stars
"Most astonishing is how cleverly Dyer pulls off this audacious philosophical meditation as he recounts an often funny, deceptively straightforward tale of Jeff, a neurotic British writer on assignment in Venice, then in Varanasi. Dyer is known as a writer of passion, sudden insights and finely tuned powers of observation, able to write wonderfully about anything, or nothing at all." Penny Allen

Philadelphia Inquirer 4 of 5 Stars
"Geoff Dyer’s Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi makes pun of Thomas Mann and outdoes the German novelist’s Death in Venice by offering a two-for-the-price-of-one deal on exotic locales where hallowed waters reflect the decaying palaces lining their shores. … [I]t eventually becomes clear that this novel novel’s two halves are obverse images of one another." Dan DeLuca

San Francisco Chronicle 3.5 of 5 Stars
"So here’s the final question: As absurd as this may sound, could the two stories be mere variations of each other with a scrambling of key details? … Indeed, in Dyer’s enigmatic novel, every reader will have to discover his or her own answers." Terry Hong

Critical Summary

A play on Thomas Mann’s novella Death in Venice (1912), about a middle-aged male writer who seeks spiritual enlightenment in Venice but instead finds carnal doom in a young boy, Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi is many things at once: a detailed, entertaining, travelogue; a philosophical treatise on mortality, materialism, and spirituality; and an inquiry into the nature of self. Dyer’s "deceptively straightforward tale" (Oregonian)—influenced by Nietzsche, Roland Barthes, John Berger, and others—can be read on all three levels, depending on the reader’s level of engagement. While critics commented that the plot lines don’t exactly converge, they nonetheless praised Dyer’s reflections on two very different journeys. In the end, Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi is a compelling and original—if somewhat inscrutable—novel.