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The term nonfiction doesn't stick to writer and novelist Geoff Dyer; when engaging his subjects in essay form, this Brit combines a rigorous scholarship and criticism with whimsical digressions, both fictional and autobiographical, to create the light but heady concoction that's become his signature. He's had several successes in the U.S. lately: an essay collection, Otherwise Known as the Human Condition; a meditation on WWI just published in the States, The Missing of the Somme; and his latest, Zona, a pointillistic examination of Andrei Tarkovsky's much celebrated (and snoozed-through) 1979 film, Stalker. We spoke with him before he hopped the pond for a weekend of events in the city.
I read Zona and then watched Stalker, so in a sense, I felt I was seeing the movie through your eyes. Many of your essays have that potential for a reader; one may not have seen the original artwork you're discussing, but may connect to it through you. Was there something in your youth or education that served this purpose for you and made you think, I'd like to do that?
Well, the first part of my answer would be something I distinctly remember while studying English literature at Oxford. After reading Julius Caesar and then all the academic criticism about it, I came across this poem by Roy Fuller called "The Ides of March." It was a dramatic monologue written through the voice of Brutus, and it seemed to me a fantastically economic piece of literary criticism. It dealt with some of the main issues of the play, was great fun to read—whereas so much criticism was so boring—and crucially, it was a work of art in its own right. The second part of my answer would be my long apprenticeship to John Berger. It seemed to me what Berger did was make boring, old oil paintings look interesting. And his books about them also became works of art in their own right. You could derive great value from The Success and Failure of Picasso whether you were a Picasso scholar or you knew nothing about him.
At one point, you write, "Do you think I would spend my time summarizing the action of this film if I was capable of writing anything else?" Which is interesting, because given your multifarious body of work, you seem capable of dipping into anything that strikes your fancy. How do you reconcile that?
I remember asking John Berger in public, onstage, "You've written all these books. How come?" A very stupid question, but he said, "It's because every book I believe will be my last." And that holds true for me as well. I've been worried throughout my career that I was not going to be capable of it for much longer. But what's kept me going is that I've kept coming across things I'm interested in and become preoccupied by. With this particular book, I was aware that although cinema had been a big part of my life, I'd weirdly not written much about it. And there's this kind of wager there, that by addressing a particular thing very, very precisely, you may be able to articulate some universal truth.
You mention both The Wizard of Oz and Przewalski's horse at different times and let the reader know you don't plan on learning about them. When you hit something that you may be ignorant about, at what point do you dig for information and at one point are you satisfied not to know something?
Well, nowadays it's so easy to dig for information; the answer to anything is only a few searches away. Now, with this book, it depends really. I've already come to regret those rather pointless lines about never having seen The Wizard of Oz and saying I won't [see it]. Other things about not knowing are quite important. It's always stuck in my mind, that line of Pynchon's in that introduction to his book of early stories Slow Learner: "Ignorance is not just a blank space on a person's mental map, it has its own contours and coherence." It can be epistemological but it can be some kind of shaping force. So, for instance, with the jazz book [But Beautiful], it's absolutely eminent to that book's conception that I didn't know anything about the technical side of music. Because the book arrives at the form and style that it does as a compensation for my not having recourse to G major and D minor. So, sometimes, it can be an active, shaping force and other times, as in the case of The Wizard of Oz, it's just gratuitous and stupid and I wish I hadn't done it.
In your work, the gradations of what one might consider lowbrow or highbrow are blurred. One of the details I'm thinking of is the impression that comic books have had on the way you view the world and, at the end of your essay about it, the painting on the chapel ceiling. What, in your mind, is the landscape of high versus low culture?
We all have our personal pantheons of things, so I think that anything that is really important to me, irrespective of where it stands in the traditional league table of high and low, must have some special value. So, for example, I'm a great admirer of the John Jeremiah Sullivan book Pulphead. But in that book he's writing about Guns N' Roses; it's a great essay, but that is just garbage to me. I have a snobbish view of all sorts of things, even though somebody could look at the stuff I like and have a completely similar reaction. Back in the years when I was a Burning Man evangelist, I would always say, "There's great art at Burning Man!" and all my friends who were in the straight art world would have a much more canonical view. I've always had some kind of belief that the battle for culture has to be the battle for the high ground, and it's a question of what you're claiming merits the high ground.
Yes, though I think the casual Geoff Dyer consumer might encounter the titillating stuff first: "Oh, he wrote about Doughnut Plant doughnuts and sex in hotels!"
[Laughs] Yes, that's right, I wrote about a doughnut, but I wasn't just writing about any old doughnut, I was writing about what I considered the greatest doughnut ever produced! [Laughs] I wrote about the human condition as seen via the doughnut!
Geoff Dyer appears at 192 Books Fri 9 (R.S.V.P. required), the New School Sat 10, the Museum of the Moving Image Sun 11 and School of Visual Arts Mon 12.