Geoff Dyer: “… on whom nothing is lost.”

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geoffdGeoff Dyer would tell you he found his way into writing as a way of not having a career. With ever-ready tennis raquet in his book bag, he seems pretty much the man we all want to be when we grow up. He’s a pissed-off Englishman but light-hearted about it. He’s learned, he’s liberated. He’s prolific, he’s celebrated. And he’s very, very funny, in person as on the page. We’re making conversation here at the Key West Literary Seminar this winter.

Geoff Dyer hooked me 15 years ago with But Beautiful, an inspired set of improvisations on the sacrificial lives of jazz geniuses (Lester Young, Thelonious Monk, Chet Baker, Bud Powell) whom Dyer (astonishingly to me) had never seen or heard in life. He is famous since then for Out of Sheer Rage about his constitutional inability to write a scholar’s account D. H. Lawrence. He has served a long apprenticeship with the hero he speaks about here: the anti-critic and anti-theorist John Berger. Meantime when Dyer writes from the road about importunate Cambodian kids trying to sell him a Coke — he lifts the travel essay toward a very personal moral majesty.

What’s so individual about Geoff Dyer is the mix of amateur and expert voices — of the angry working-stiff with an Oxford degree who’s judgmental but always original on photography and poetry, history, fiction and that “foreign music” known as jazz, just for starters.  He’s in the great line of stylish pubic thinkers from Hazlitt to George Scialabba, writing ever “outside his field,” because in truth he has no field. He invites and challenges all of us to pay attention to everything, to look at what we’re seeing, to get us into the act, to be touched by it.


  • Larry Love

    I have a standing at the Village Vanguard urinal story. In the mid-90s I went to see Bill Frisell’s Trio at the Vanguard, and after we went and got our table I went to the bathroom. As I was standing at the urinal, Bill Frisell took the one next to me. He is much taller than I am, but gathering courage I looked up and said,”Any chance we can hear some Monk tonight?” He kind of smiled and said, “We’ll see.” I went back to the table kicking myself and thinking, “the best you could come up with was a request?” The set started, and after they had played five minutes of gorgeous, other worldly, free form music they sauntered into “Blue Monk”. I couldn’t stop smiling.

  • chris

    That’s rich, Larry Love. Reminds me of my best friend at Yale, the remarkable Bill Reel, telling a story about seeing Gerry Mulligan in a bar in Times Square, between afternoon sets at the Metropole. Bill sidled up and opened: “Say, Mull, what are you fellows doing for ideas since Charlie Parker died?” The great Mulligan turned away.

  • nother

    I like the reference to “Open Letter to Duke,” it’s a nice soundtrack to your Key West conversation!
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=l2611wR6VLg

  • Potter

    Key West sounds like the place to be at this time of year.
    It’s wonderful to hear praises for D H Lawrence’s poems; to be reminded of them. There are so many, maybe too many. They are very accessible, but a few at a time are enough. “Fidelity” “Transformations” have stuck with me for years. If I am not mistaken these are from a collection called “Pansies”.

    John Berger is more recent for me. Focusing on Guernica in the last episode (here), I found myself curious about what he has to say about Picasso.

    So Dyer is talking about people who inspire him the most. I love the way he, admiringly, tells how Berger refuses to be elevated to the god Dyer thinks he is

    On the other hand and for instance about Naipaul’s personal flaws (once displayed prominently on ROS), I agree that they too have to transfer to his work. The same then must be true of Picasso who also was such an incredible genius that we overlook his flaws; small in comparison.

    Though I love England and the English, I am not sure about the Scotch egg either.

    Thank you!