Meeting writers in the flesh is a risky business. The author that you had admired for years for his crystal prose and searing insights can turn out to be a mumbling bore on stage. Another, whose sensitive soul you have long-cherished in the pages of her book comes across as a supercilious prig. They seem smaller in real life, the apotheosis being the towering literary giant, Vikram Seth, who in person could fit in your pocket.
On the other hand, there are those moments when a writer who you assumed you would not like, or never read, inadvertently charms the socks off you and sends you scurrying barefoot to the nearest bookstore to buy up his or her entire back catalogue and retreat to the nearest corner with a box of chocolates and your phone switched off. Which is more or less what happened to me at this year’s Jaipur Literature Festival when I happened to catch Geoff Dyer on stage in the illustrious company of Antony Beevor, Reza Aslan and William Dalrymple, ostensibly discussing the knotty issue of writing non-fiction.
Despite the enthusiastic accolades from readers I generally trust, I had avoided reading Dyer for years. I had always been put off by the in-jokeyness of the title of the book he’s best-known for (in this part of the world at least), Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi. He wasn’t even supposed to be on this panel, but Rana Dasgupta and Katherine Boo had dropped out, and I guess he was a last-minute replacement.
While Beevor, Dalrymple and Aslan wrestled manfully with the big intellectual questions of the day – the ethical stance of a biography writer towards his subject, how much ‘story’ there is in ‘history’ and so on – Dyer sat loosely folded into his chair with the air of a bloke who’s accidentally wandered into a philosophical debating club mistaking it for a tea shop, and is looking around genially for a spare waitress.
At one point, he launched in to a rambling story of how, having been commissioned by his publisher to write a book about tennis, he ended up delivering instead a book about Andre Tarkovski’s cult classic film Stalker, a book that he cheerfully admitted no one would buy on a film that no one had seen. I felt for his poor publisher.
But Dyer has more or less made a career out of defying convention and ignoring such piffling categories as ‘genre’. Yes, some of his books sit on the ‘fiction’ shelf, and yes, others are classified as ‘non-fiction’ but most muddle around in the grey area in between, falling between stools – and sometimes off them altogether.
As the session ended, a member of the audience stood up to ask a question about the difference between writing fiction and non-fiction, what proportion of fact and fiction the writer felt went into each.
“Geoff, perhaps you’d like to answer that,” prompted Dalrymple.
“Er… no, not really,” Dyer replied, truthfully.
Like a polite houseguest attempting to escape the attentions of his host’s enthusiastic Labrador, Dyer’s attempts to wriggle out of the question served only to make Dalrymple the more eager.
“But you’ve worked in both genres,” he insisted, “you’d be the best person to answer.”
Finally, with a shrug of his narrow shoulders so expressive that it bordered on the existential, Dyer gave in. “Well, ah, the proportion of documentary stuff to made-up stuff in my fiction and my non-fiction is…about the same. Yes, about the same. I think.”
At the festival bookstore I picked up Dyer’s 2003 book, Yoga for People Who Can’t Be Bothered To Do It. If I worked in a bookstore, I would have to shelve this book in the self-help, motivational literature section, and yet, as I soon discovered on reading it, it belongs to a different genre entirely. It is a self-hinder book, a piece of demotivational literature, that celebrates (though that’s too up-beat a word for it) failure, pointlessness and being stoned. “This book is a ripped, by no means reliable map of some of the landscapes that make up a particular phase of my life,” he explains in the introduction, “It’s about places where things happened or didn’t happen… places I’d wanted to see or places I passed through or just ended up… Everything in his book really happened, but some of the things that happened only happened in my head; by the same token, all the things that didn’t happen didn’t happen there too.”
It’s not what he intended, I’m sure, at the end of the day, I found it, there’s really no other word for it: inspirational. Perhaps it should be in that section of the bookstore after all. Put that in your pipe, Geoff, and smoke it.
Hindu Business Line March 2014