Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi is a novel in two novellas. This structural feature, in which the whole is its parts and each part is the whole, will resonate throughout the book. JIV,DIV (from here on) is about how a thing is no different from its opposite, how love is how we love and where we love as much as the object of that love itself, and how to “Let be be the finale of seem”. Such enfolded language populates JIV,DIV in abundance. It’s one of the book’s many charms.
The first novella, told in third person, recounts the four-day visit of Jeff Atman, a London free-lance writer for Kulchur magazine specializing in the visual arts, to the Venice Biennale art exhibition.
Atman (the Hindu term for “soul” or one’s “true self”) is in his mid-40s, graying, handsome, and unhappy in his work. Unlike the famous writer von Aschenbach in Thomas Mann’s Death in Venice (with which this novella shares little beyond the location and the fact that the main character attempts to make himself look younger, in the present case by getting an expensive dye-job), Atman is a relative nobody, a small cog in the London art scene, who not only doesn’t venerate the written word, but actually dislikes the act of writing. His job, and this particular assignment, is attractive only in providing opportunities to visit beautiful cities, to party non-stop, and, with a little luck, to bed a beautiful woman.
On the first night of post-gallery-hopping celebration, Jeff meets Laura, a lovely, free-spirited Californian. On the second night they party and sleep together, and on the third they add cocaine to the mix. The entire narrative conveys virtually no tension or drama as it describes one gallery exhibit and party after another. Vivid sex, which the reader expects to lead to some kind of bond or betrayal between the two lovers, is followed by even more vivid sex – but no bond or betrayal.
There is a dreamlike quality about Jeff in Venice, partly the kind of dream in which nothing goes wrong—we wait in line, but it’s short and quick, we get in another line and that one’s short and quick too—but also the kind of dream in which there is no consequence to anything. For the lovers, there is no conflict nor commitment, no denouement. The beginning and middle and ending are without significance, without meaning.
This is by design, as the second novella will, in contrast, make clear.
Told now in the first person, with the narrator never naming himself, but with enough personal details offered to assure us that he is the same Jeff Atman,
takes place not too long after the first novella. The narrator is still in his mid-40s, now on assignment for a week to visit and write 1,200 words about Varanasi, the holy city on the Ganges.
Lodged initially in a hotel on the outskirts of town, the narrator endures thrilling, terrifying rides through clotted and overwhelmingly noisy streets to reach the “ghats”—stairways built along the banks to provide access down to the water of the Ganges—which are the main tourist attraction of the city.
Each ghat has a different purpose. There are ghats for bathing and washing clothes, and most significantly, the Manikarnika ghat, where at every hour of the day and night bodies are being ceremonially cremated, their ashes raked into the river.
The narrator’s fascination with the ghats, the city, its people, and the river cannot be satisfied in a single week, so he transfers to the expensive Ganges View Hotel near the river for an extended stay.
As he is gradually assimilated into the life of the city, he sheds the physical and psychological trappings of his London existence. He makes a few friends, but casually; he admires women, but does nothing to make himself attractive enough to bring about an affair. He experiences the local drug of choice, but only once, and somewhat regretfully. He loses his passport and stops reading books.
He begins to lose his natural vigor, as well. An encounter with a manure-covered cow leaves him with, literally, shit in his mouth, and a protracted case of diarrhea and vomiting. He loses weight and begins to lose a sense of time and self. He even shaves his head and, like Ghandi, takes to wearing a dhoti, the traditional men’s garment in India.
The narrator’s voice, though continuing to paint vivid pictures of the city and its inhabitants, begins to turn inward and eastward. At one point, he says, “I sat on the bed and did not know what to do, and then I decided that not knowing what to do was a form of knowing what to do, which was to do nothing, so that is what I did.”
For readers of eastern religious texts, this kind of construction is familiar. It is the language of enlightenment, and the conclusion of this novella describes the narrator’s attainment of his own personal form of enlightenment. Depending on your point of view this language is either a strength of the book, or a fatal weakness. JIV,DIV, in this way, is not without pretension.
What could have been another example of an exhausted writer polishing his vacation notes – the dreadful “tour guide novel”—is nowhere to be seen in JIVDIV. Yes, we get a lot of description, of landmarks and character, local color and scenic beauties, but it’s all with a purpose – to show how “place” is both essential and inconsequential to “being”. The novel could only have taken place in Venice and Varanasi.
Side by side, the two novellas in JIVDIV achieve a resonance, and resolution. Neither stands entirely on its own, the first lacking drama, the second almost too fraught with incident and spiritual significance – a man carrying his huge, diseased testicles in a cart, a dead body left for days to be devoured by dogs. But together, they’re like a railroad track, its two rails stretching off, never touching, but each entirely dependent on the other.
Both novellas are about seeking: in the first novella, the seeking of pleasure, in the second, of being and nothing. The first is about desire, the second is about the obliteration of desire. (Venice, depicted in the midst of a terrible heat wave, is hell to the holy Varanasi’s heaven.) Being more of a seeker than a believer myself, I found Geoff Dyer’s novellas, his novel, a pair of lovely books, with the nothing that is everything in between.