Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Summer Reading - Geoff Dyer’s Human Condition

At the age of twenty, Geoff Dyer conceived the ambition of emulating William Hazlitt, a man who had loitered his life away doing things that he enjoyed and then writing essays about them. To judge from the contents of this new collection of essays and reviews, during the last quarter-century Dyer has succeeded pretty well in doing just that. The editor of an earlier, slimmer collection had urged him to organize his scattered pieces into some sort of theme, but Dyer, on the contrary, was keen to emphasize how diverse and unrelated they were.

“If there was one thing I was proud of in my literary non-career it was the way that I had written so many different kinds of books: to assemble a collection of articles would be further proof of just how wayward my interests were.”

I think it’s fair to say, on the basis of this stout collection, that Dyer’s position as a "late-twentieth-century-early-twenty-first-century man of letters” is secure. Among the subjects under review are D. H. Lawrence; photographer Joel Sternfeld; Rebecca West’s rambling travelogue about Yugoslavia, Black Lamb, Gray Falcon; Rilke and Rodin; jazz pianist Keith Jarrett’s career; Albert Camus’s Algeria; the Polish journalist-raconteur Rysard Kapuscinski; the literature produced about the invasion of Iraq; and an assortment of personal pieces about comic books, book-collecting, being an only child, and other such effluvia. In one penetrating piece, Dyer examines the widely-reviewed book by W. S. Sebald, On the Natural History of Destruction, in light of Austrian heavyweight Thomas Bernhard’s personal memoir of the period, showing that many of the things Sebald claims Germans never talked about after the war, Bernhard actually did talk and write about.

For the most part, however, Dyer approaches his subjects in an engaged yet light-hearted, almost conversational way. His own restless personality can be felt throughout, though he usually steers clear of the flippant asides that make his shorter travel pieces (not included in this volume) so funny.

Is Otherwise Known as the Human Condition destined to become a classic of world literature? Perhaps not. Then again, how many essayists and reviewers have been granted ingress into that pantheon since Montaigne invented the genre? How many of us read Hazlitt nowadays?

I just now lifted my Centenary edition of Hazlitt’s Collected Essays from the shelf (Nonesuch Press, 1930) and immediately notice that whereas Hazlitt’s subjects are of a general nature—“Why Distant Objects Please,” “On Hot and Cold”—Dyer’s are almost invariably about particular writers or works of art. For now I’ll take Dyer’s collection. And I’ve found it far more mature and engaging than Martin Amis’s The War Against Cliché (2001), for example. Dyer can’t quite match the vast erudition to be found in Anthony Burgess’s 600-page collection, But Do Blonds Prefer Gentlemen? (1986) Then again, who could? As Dyer remarks in another of his books: “That’s one of the things about traveling, one of the things you learn: many people in the world, even educated ones, don’t know much, and it doesn’t actually matter at all.”

Yet essayists need to know things. And Dyer knows his chosen subjects well—or well enough. When he doesn’t know something that seems important, he might simply say, “I forget.” Or “I should know that, but I don’t.” The approach is personal and candid, devoid of attempts to make definitive statements. Quite the contrary. In a recent interview he remarked, “I've always just been temperamentally disinclined from having this separation between ‘stuff you live with in your actual life’ and ‘stuff you study.’ ”

No doubt we’d learn more about European history and culture by reading Charles Rosen’s recently-published anthology, Freedom and the Arts: Essays on Music and Literature, which has the same page-count as Dyer’s collection. But I suspect it wouldn’t be nearly as much fun.

This juxtaposition of “old” culture and “lived” culture leads me on to a second comparison. In a small way, Dyer’s occasional writings might well be compared to Stendhal’s diaries. Like Stendhal, Dyer is a great enthusiast who enjoys a good party though he’s also prone to boredom, introspection, and love-affairs that sometimes take place largely inside his head. The observations are penetrating while the style occasionally teeters on the edge of “flighty.” A buoyant clarity keeps everything moving ahead. Perhaps some Charles Rosen of the future might write an essay about him?

In any case, Human Condition would be a perfect choice to take to the cabin or the beach. If you grow tired of reading about the Indian vocalist Ramamani, flip a few pages and we’re at a fashion show on the outskirts of Paris. What next?

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