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Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi by Geoff…
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Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi (2009)

by Geoff Dyer

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5742117,265 (3.56)21
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    Holy Cow: An Indian Adventure by Sarah Macdonald (alalba)
    alalba: Readers who have enjoyed 'Death in Varanasi' might also like Holy Cow
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A hip English freelance magazine writer travels to Venice to report on an obscure art figure in conjunction with the Biennale Art Fair. There he meets an evocative beauty, a younger art gallerist form Los Angeles. They spend a few days on a wild chase and catch sexual affair fulfilling beyond imagination. Yet after a few days amidst the superficial parties they part ways probably forever.

The 2nd part of this book follows an English writer (is it the same person?) to Varanasi India, the holy spiritual center of the Hindu religion. There along the banks of the Ganges River he loses his way, denounces desire and his sense of self amidst the timelessness of this bizarre cacophonous city of deaths, festivals, wild monkeys, filth, poverty, disease and nothingness. A spiritual journey to who knows where.

This is an intriguing, playful book that questions the meaning of life and success. ( )
  berthirsch | Oct 3, 2016 |
A breezy, superficial book, a combination of the English mortification and fretting in "Bridget Jones's Diary" and ordinary travel journalism.

What is the value, for fiction, of detailed, immediate, lightly fictionalized, fairly accurate reporting of unusual places? This book is divided in two: I have never been to Varanasi, so that half struck me as having been transferred as quickly as possible from experience to fiction, as if the details of the place would go stale if they spent too long in the author's head. The result is a kind of raw, sparkling immediacy, but the price is high: the scenes don't seen thought about, mulled over, transformed into imagination and back into prose. They seem jotted down and typed.

The first part of the book, about the Venice biennale, is very familiar to me (I am an art historian). As a result I can understand all the references, and I can judge Dyer's level of engagement with, and understanding of, the art world, and I'm not interested -- and the result of that is I can read only for the idea of realistic detail; I can't be persuaded by Dyer's attempts to conjure the place or the people. As a result all the carefully gathered scenes, artworks, and characters seem to be revealed as gestures at realism, as the author's hopes of creating something that will be entrancing or persuasive. It's like looking behind the scenes at the opera, or like Barthes's "S/Z."

What's left is the author's manipulation of his model reader's sense of anticipation, of drama, love and sex, society and career, aging and vanity... because nothing in the setting was of interest, I lost confidence in whatever interest I might have in the author's other concerns; and because I saw how he assembled elements of the biennale to make his mis-en-scene, I lost the ability to suspend disbelief in anything else in the narrative.

A moral might be: if, as a novelist, you depend on veracity in travel-style writing, you need to also depend on readers' lack of knowledge of those settings. Or, to put it in a positive way, it is probably best to let the details of life sit in mind for some time, changing slowly into something that can only exist in fiction.

This is another book I read for the 2016 AWP meeting. ( )
  JimElkins | Mar 4, 2016 |
A sexy, funny, moving trip to Italy and India. When Dyer is funny, he is hysterically funny, and the rest of the time he’s insightful. The book is of one extremes – with the wanton splendor of Venice contrasting with the completely destitute in Varanasi. As a spectator, the reader has the opportunity to gain from both. It is interesting too that the trip to Venice is fraught with bitter-sweet poignancy while the trip to Varanasi writhes with a knee-slapping dark humor. ( )
  dbsovereign | Jan 26, 2016 |
Straight out of the masters degree in creative writing course. Write about what you know. Mr Dyer writes up his family holidays and merges them with his masturbation fantasies. He does it well but it's still just stories from his holidays. A novel? No. ( )
  Steve38 | May 3, 2015 |
Fantastic book, high energy from the beginning (when Geoff gets his hair dyed to remove the grey before he goes to parties at the Venice Biennale) to the end (where the first person narrator, presumably also Geoff, gets the hair on his head shaved in Hindu mourning fashion in Varanasi).

Really two linked novellas. The first takes Geoff, a clever, self-aware, hackish journalist, on a junket to cover the Venice Biennale. He leaves more focused on the parties and drinks than the art and ends up absorbing both -- along with an almost dreamlike fantasy of a romance.

The second novella is written in the first person with a journalist who seems an awful lot like Geoff taking what is originally a four-day assignment to Varanasi but ends up staying much longer, moving closer to the center of the city, and once again while being wholly ironic and self aware slipping increasingly into the culture. In this case, at the opposite ascetic end of the spectrum from the Venice portion of the story.

Either half of the book would have been good on it's own. And together -- labeled with the not entirely superfluous subtitle "A Novel" -- they are outstanding. ( )
  nosajeel | Jun 21, 2014 |
Showing 1-5 of 21 (next | show all)
The moral emptiness of “Jeff in Venice” seems all the more devastating when put into relief by its companion, “Death in Varanasi.” The first story is a flowing tide of sex and carnality; the second is dominated by a holy river of life and death, the Ganges. The first gluts itself on fleshly pleasures; the second empties itself of those temptations (there is no sex, and little drinking, though there is a bit of drug-taking). The tale is narrated by a nameless middle-aged journalist, who may or may not be Jeff Atman (or Geoff Dyer, for that matter), and who has come to Varanasi, one of the holiest sites of Hindu pilgrimage, to write a piece for a London newspaper. There are links with the book’s Venice story, and with Thomas Mann’s Venice story.
added by Kbsmom | editThe New Yorker, James Wood (Apr 20, 2009)
 
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Amazon.com Amazon.com Review (ISBN 0307377377, Hardcover)

Book Description
A wildly original novel (what else would we expect from this fearless and funny writer?) that explores the underbelly of erotic fulfillment and spiritual yearning.

Every two years the international art world descends on Venice for the opening of the Biennale. Among them is Jeff Atman—a jaded, dissolutely resolute journalist—whose dedication to the cause of Bellini-fuelled party-going is only intermittently disturbed by the obligation to file a story. When he meets Laura, he is rejuvenated, ecstatic. Their romance blossoms quickly but is it destined to disappear just as rapidly?

Every day thousands of pilgrims head to the banks of the Ganges at Varanasi, the holiest Hindu city in India. Among their number is a narrator who may or may not be the Atman previously seen in Venice. Intending to visit only for a few days he ends up staying for months, and finds—or should that be loses?—a hitherto unexamined idea of himself, the self. In a romance he can only observe, he sees a reflection of the kind of pleasures that, willingly or not, he has renounced. In the process, two ancient and watery cities become versions of each other. Could two stories, in two different cities, actually be one and the same story?

Nothing Geoff Dyer has written before is as wonderfully unbridled, as dead-on in evocation of place, longing, and the possibility of neurotic enlightenment, as irrepressibly entertaining as Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi.
About the Author
Geoff Dyer is the author of three previous novels and five nonfiction books, including But Beautiful, which was awarded the Somerset Maugham Prize, and Out of Sheer Rage, which was a National Book Critics Circle Award finalist. The winner of a Lannan Literary Award, the International Center of Photography's 2006 Infinity Award for writing on photography (for The Ongoing Moment), and the American Academy of Arts and Letters' E. M. Forster Award, Dyer lives in London.

Questions for Geoff Dyer

Q: What is this book about?

Geoff DyerA: At the risk of being cowardly, I'll take refuge behind a line from one of Kerouac’s letters: "It's my contention that a man who can sweat fantastically for the flesh is also capable of sweating fantastically for the spirit." (See also answer to question 4.)

Q: Is it a modern twist on Death in Venice? If not, what's up with the title?

A: Yes, the first part is a version of the Mann novella--the opening sentence is ripped straight out of the opening line of the original--but mine operates at a far lower cultural level. His protagonist is a world-famous composer, mine is a hack journalist. And whereas in the Mann, Aschenbach's obsession with the young boy, Tadzio, is tied up with some quest for ideal beauty, in my book the romance with Laura is very carnal and hedonistic--though that could itself be said to represent some kind of ideal.

Q: Why Venice and Varanasi?

A: They're actually very similar: both are water-based, old, with crumbling palaces facing onto either the Grand Canal or the Ganges with alleys and narrow streets leading off into darkness and sudden oases of brilliant light. And both, in their ways, are pilgrimage sites. I'm not the first person to be struck by the similarities. There are quite a few occasions in his Indian Journals when Ginsberg is so stoned walking by the Ganges that he thinks he's in Venice, strolling along the Grand Canal!

Q: Are the two parts of the book, two stories in two different cities, or are they the same story? How are they linked? One early reviewer claimed that the protagonist in each story wasn't the same person, but two people--is it the same person or not?

A: Well, these are huge questions and this, in fact, is what the book is about. By asking questions like these the reader is hopefully confronted by several more, about what kind of unity the book has, about the ways in which a novel might be capable of generating an aesthetic unity of experience that is not narrative-driven. Regarding the person in each part, I'll opt for what governments call the N.C.N.D. response, neither confirming nor denying. It is never made clear whether the un-named narrator in Varanasi is the same as the protagonist in Venice. And although sequentially it comes afterwards, there is nothing in the book to suggest that part 2 comes chronologically after part 1. I actually wanted to subtitle the book "A Diptych" but was dissuaded by my handlers. I didn't mind: it so obviously is a diptych there's no need to call it one!

Q: You've clearly spent a lot of time in Venice and Varanasi. Have any of Jeff's adventures happened to you?

A: Yes, I've been to three biennales and spent a big chunk of time in Varanasi. As I've said elsewhere, I like writing stuff that's only an inch from life but all the art--and, for me, all the fun--is in that inch.

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:15:58 -0400)

(see all 2 descriptions)

Jeff Atman is a British journalist on assignment in Venice who feels disillusioned with his hedonistic way of living, while a narrator in the Indian holy city of Varanasi practices detachment and meditates on art and spiritual matters.

» see all 3 descriptions

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Canongate Books

2 editions of this book were published by Canongate Books.

Editions: 1847672701, 184767271X

Penguin Australia

2 editions of this book were published by Penguin Australia.

Editions: 1921520302, 1921656891

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