I’m reading Geoff Dyer’s book Out of Sheer Rage and am liking it at least as much as his later book Yoga for People Who Can’t Be Bothered to Do It. (Interestingly the cover of my edition is similar to the one pictured here, except that Dyer has no beard and his head is shaven. I have an ARC, which would explain things; I guess he grew some hair out before the hard cover edition.) It’s a book about not writing a book about D.H. Lawrence. It’s a little about his obsession with Lawrence (and here it occasionally reminds me of one of my favorite books ever, Nicholson Baker’s U and I), but mostly it’s about his attempts to write and his failure, and all the things he does to work around this problem. He’s got a very dry sense of humor, which I find immensely appealing and which makes me laugh, when I hardly ever laugh at books. He’s also got a contrarian view of the world, which I also find appealing and funny.
I thought I’d give you a few excerpts today. There’s really so much to enjoy in this book, it’s one I could write multiple blog posts about, although I’m reading it too fast to make that work. Here’s a passage where he talks about his writing process:
From the start I’d known that I had to write my book as I went along. There are people who like to complete all the reading, all the research and then, when they read everything that there is to read, when they have attained complete mastery of the material, then and only then do they sit down and write it up. Not me. Once I know enough about a subject to begin writing about it I lose interest in it immediately. In the case of Lawrence I knew I’d have to make sure that I finished writing my book at exactly the moment that I had satisfied my curiosity, and to do this the writing had to lag fractionally behind the reading.
The book he’d originally intended to write about Lawrence will never get written, although this one got written in its place, but there are times I wish the original idea had worked out, although exactly what the original idea was I’m not entirely sure. But here’s one vision of what the original idea might have been; this passage comes after a discussion of Dyer’s collection of photos of Lawrence:
What I might do, it occurred to me in Rome, was prepare an album of these pictures, arrange them in a fashion that pleased me — interspersing them, when appropriate, with pictures of my family and myself — provide captions (lengthy ones, quite often) and then, late in the day, remove the pictures so that only the captions and the ghosts of photos remained. And not to stop there: to rearrange these captions so that they referred only occasionally to the photographs for which they had been intended, so that they existed, instead, in relation to each other, — that, I thought to myself, might not only enable me to get started on my study but even prevent my falling into idleness and depression for a while.
In a way he has done this, as much of the book discusses photos of Lawrence. He also has interesting passages on language and emotion — how language doesn’t really capture what we feel — or don’t feel:
The sea: you watch it for a while, lose interest, and then, because there is nothing else to look at, go back to watching it. It fills you with great thoughts which, leading nowhere and having nothing to focus on except the unfocused mass of the sea, dissolve into a vacancy which in turn, for want of any other defining characteristic, you feel content to term ‘awe.’
And then there’s this:
We drank our beer on the balcony of the deserted cafe, looking across the deserted road at the deserted station, engulfed, periodically, by the thunder of hooves and the whine of ricochets from the television. For the third or fourth time that day a strange floaty indifference to everything came over me. Since this sensation was utterly unfamiliar and not at all unpleasant I decided that, if experienced again, I would refer to it as contentment.
Dyer’s persona is often like this: detached, melancholic if not depressed, analytical, isolated, and often surprising. As he’s obsessed with getting and not getting writing done (mostly not), he returns often to the figure of the writer and the space within which a writer works:
… did it matter so much where you lived? The important thing, surely, was to find some little niche where you could work; to settle into a groove and get your work done. Logically, yes, but once, in north London, I had found myself walking along the road where Julian Barnes lived. I didn’t see him but I knew that in one of these large, comfortable houses Julian Barnes was sitting at his desk, working, as he did every day. It seemed an intolerable waste of a life, of a writer’s life especially, to sit at a desk in this nice, dull street in north London. It seemed, curiously, a betrayal of the idea of the writer. It made me think of a picture of Lawrence, sitting by a tree in the blazing afternoon, surrounded by the sizzle of cicadas, notebook on his knees, writing: an image of the ideal condition of the writer.
Or so it had appeared in memory. When I actually dug it out it turned out that there was no notebook on his knees. Lawrence is not writing, he is just sitting there: which is why, presumably, it is such an idyllic image of the writer.
This, I suppose, accounts for some of Dyer’s “failure” as a writer (although obviously he’s not, really): his image of the writer doesn’t actually involve the writer doing any writing. This book is about wanting to be a writer, but not wanting to do the work. Which would be highly annoying, if Dyer weren’t, in reality, such a good writer …