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Geoff Dyer: “There should be an annual festival devoted to me”

Geoff Dyer likes to take down “dim-witted academics”. So what happened when he turned up at a conference on . . . Geoff Dyer?

In Geoff Dyer’s sixth book, Out of Sheer Rage, the narrator – who may be a representative of the author, a fictional persona, or a mixture of the two – is preparing to speak at an academic conference in Denmark. More exactly, he is failing to prepare. He has come down with what he calls “a virulent strain of the flu”. When he eventually arrives at the podium, clutching no more than a few scribbled notes, he begins to improvise, deconstructing the subject of his scholarly paper: “D H Lawrence and Englishness”.

“Let’s think about the two parts of this, uh, statement,” he says, alarmed to realise that people have started to take notes. “Do we mean he was a writer who was English? Or that he was an Englishman who wrote? Or both? And even when we concentrate on just one of these two terms we discover that that too is made up of two parts: English and man.” He continues to parse his thesis – that Lawrence is a problematic figure about whom it is difficult to say very much – for another 40 minutes or so, during which time his nose starts bleeding. Eventually he sits down, humiliated, coughing up blood in an attempt to provoke sympathy from a group of people he has spent a great deal of energy deriding and despising – those murderers of literature, academics.

And so I couldn’t help but smile on a recent, drizzly afternoon when an earnest, hyper-intelligent historian from Queen Mary, University of London, concluded a lecture entitled “What Colour Was the 1990s?” – an echo of Dyer’s debut novel, The Colour of Memory (1989) – by putting his head in his hands and confessing: “I suppose I don’t know what I mean by the 1990s. I don’t know what I mean by colour.”

It was a brave and welcome admission. I had no idea what he meant either. The lecture was the eighth in a day-long series of talks being given at the first international conference dedicated to the work of the English writer Geoff Dyer, held on 11 July at Birkbeck, University of London. It was a happy occasion, only complicated slightly by the fact that Dyer himself was seated in the back row throughout the day, taking notes with a yellow pencil on a floppy white pad. The main problem was one of etiquette. “When speaking about the work, use Dyer,” urged Dr Bianca Leggett, the convenor of the conference, in her opening remarks. “When speaking about the man in the room, use Geoff.”

For the next eight hours a series of professors and researchers took their turn in front of the audience to systematically abuse this rule. One speaker, whose paper focused on a great but unfinished opera by the name of Roggerio, felt no need to mention him at all. All the while Geoff sat silently, taking notes. “It’s the only time I’ve ever been in any kind of seminar where I have been unquestionably the leading authority on the subject,” he said later. “I’ve got so much to say, I can hardly wait.”

I first met the man in the room ten days earlier at an art fair in Chelsea, where he was chairing a discussion with the Hackney-based photographer Tom Hunter. There was champagne before the event, which I sipped while reading about Thomas Piketty in a complimentary issue of Vanity Fair. I was glad to see Dyer, who is 56, looking well, after hearing about his ischaemic stroke earlier in the year, which had temporarily impaired his vision. “I’m absolutely fine,” he told me, thanks to statins and “cutting down on pastries”. I asked him how he was feeling about the upcoming conference, especially given his protest in Out of Sheer Rage (1997) that the hallmark of academic criticism is that: “It kills everything it touches.”

“You have to bear in mind that book came out a long time ago,” he said, heading for the exit to make it home in time to watch the World Cup. “They are not ex cathedra truths, they are circumstantial.”

As one of a handful of non-academics attending the conference, I rolled my eyes when, after turning down a name-tag, an academic told me he respected my Dyer-esque refusal to be labelled. “Is it going to be like this all day?” I asked. I rolled them again every time a word like “polymorphous”, “interstitial” or “syllogistic” was deployed in attempt to pin down the genre-smashing nature of the Dyer canon – a total of 14 books made up of memoir, fiction, essays, criticism and travel writing, often within the same volume.

“One of the great privileges of my life was growing up in a house without books,” Dyer told me, three days before the conference in the study of his book-filled flat in Lad­broke Grove, west London (“We’re a no-shoe household, so wear your favourite socks,” he warned me in advance). “When I finally discovered them it was so totally transformative. This is my life’s work here, all these,” he said, pointing to the shelves.

Geoff’s mother, Phyllis “Mary” Dyer, was a school dinner lady; his father, Arthur “John” Dyer, a sheet-metal worker. (Both of them died in 2011.) As a student he progressed without great difficulty through Cheltenham Grammar School to Corpus Christi College, Oxford, where his disillusionment with academia took root. “Contrary to popular belief Oxford has the highest concentration of dull-witted, stupid, narrow-minded people anywhere in the British Isles,” he wrote in Out of Sheer Rage, complaining of the “dimwit academics shovelling away at their research, digging the graves of literature”.

While this Bernhardian rant may have been trotted out for comic value, Dyer’s distaste is genuine. “There’s something awful about Oxford, I think. It’s such a little ghetto. My own trajectory has been so opposed to the standard path of education in this country, which is always moving towards finer and finer specialism. The paradox is that the ability came from that Oxford way of being taught – ie, not being taught but finding out everything for yourself.”

If the ability came from Oxford, the confidence to use it came from John Berger, the painter-turned-polymath – and art critic at the New Statesman in the 1950s – who became a kind of mentor to Dyer and the subject of his first book, Ways of Telling (1987). This combination of the autodidact’s mania for learning coupled with Berger’s insistent refusal to delineate fact from fiction produced books including But Beautiful (1991), a retelling or improvisation upon the lives of jazz legends, and The Missing of the Somme (1994), an extended essay, with all the deviation readers have come to expect from Dyer’s work, on the cultural memory of the First World War.

These examples typify his approach to non-fiction: gorging on a specific subject for a year or two then moving on. “The person doing the learning is the person writing the book as much as the person reading it,” he wrote in his 2005 book about photography, The Ongoing Moment.

That these early books did not sell particularly well may not come as a surprise. “This is exactly how you do not go about establishing a successful literary career, or a brand,” Dyer said in the Q&A that concluded the conference. It did, however, remove any pressure to please an existing audience – “Because there was none!” – allowing him to follow the digressive course of his curiosity and build a reputation over time. “Lawrence said that one sheds one’s sickness in books,” he writes in the final pages of Out of Sheer Rage. “I would say one sheds one’s interest.” The same holds true for his most recently published book, a record of two weeks spent as writer in residence on board a US navy aircraft carrier: the USS George H W Bush.

Another Great Day at Sea (2014) immerses the reader in a disciplined, martial, rubber-and-steel universe where deviation from the chain of command is unthinkable and “lessons are written in blood”. “It’s not necessarily a dangerous business,” explains one pilot (nicknamed “Disney”), “just terribly unforgiving of mistakes.” It is arguably the occupation most opposed to Dyer’s: physical, regimented, with terrible food.

“I was definitely conscious of that when I signed up,” he told me. “You join up to the military and that’s the last free decision you ever have to make, whereas in the writing life all you’re doing is making decisions, about one word or another. As I wrote in the book, ‘It’s a self-discipline which is almost indistinguishable from self-indulgence.’ Those two ways of living mirrored each other quite nicely, I think.”

It’s also the place where his admiration for all things American shows most clearly. The writer in his “cranial” helmet and “float coat” appears every bit as doltish, charming and naive as Louis Theroux in his early documentaries, only without the whiff of contempt. Dyer really does admire Americans – their dependable manners, commitment to liberty and overwhelmingly can-do attitude. If anything highlights the gap that has opened up between Dyer and Berger since they first met for a Marxism Today interview in 1984, it is Dyer’s refusal to argue with anyone on the ship. “I am not a confident debater,” he says in his defence.

Another thing he claims not to be is a reporter. He describes himself as a tourist: “a marine anthropologist whose data was so thoroughly and distortingly mixed up with the means of obtaining it that it probably had no value as data”. He avoids winding up on a British ship, fearing “the accents, the audible symptoms of the top-to-bottom, toff-to-prole hierarchy that is so clearly manifest in the British military”. His love of America, where he and his wife, the Saatchi Art curator Rebecca Wilson, now spend most of their time, away from the toxicity of class and British negativity, is not new.

“A key part of my formation as a writer is that I didn’t read people like Evelyn Waugh until later on,” he said. “I decided as a protest I would never read Kingsley Amis, because he was always saying he was never going to read people like Saul Bellow and Joseph Heller, who I read instead.” Amis is a surprising omission given that his debut novel Lucky Jim (1954) contains, in Jim Dixon’s “Merrie England” speech, the best-known conference parody in literature.

Which brings us to the question that most intrigued delegates at the inaugural Geoff Dyer conference, that of “Geoff Dyer and Englishness”. One participant argued his work was un-English; another, the University of East Anglia’s Jonathan Gibbs, praised him for “putting on page the shivering rage that never comes out at the world”, a symptom of “weapons-grade Englishness”, while a French audience member stated that though she loved his books, her English friend couldn’t stand them. The English friend happened to be sitting next to her and began shaking his head in Dyer’s direction, eyes wide in alarm. They all agreed that the essence, whatever it was, lay in his “vinegary” sense of humour.

Dyer answered with a quote from Lawrence’s letters: “English in the teeth of all the world, even in the teeth of England,” suggesting that hating England was perhaps every bit as English as identifying with it. Maybe more so.

At the end of the day Dyer conceded that he might have misconstrued the masochistic impulses of academia, happily proposing the inauguration of “an annual, weekly, not conference but festival devoted to me”. Afterwards we all disappeared to the pub, which everybody knows is the real purpose of these intellectual get-togethers: to share a room with people who harbour the same obsessions you do, then drink them under the table. So what next for Geoff? Ironically, teaching. In the past few years he has taught non-fiction workshops and reading courses (“This isn’t a course, it’s just a book group,” one student objected) at Iowa and Columbia universities and will move on to Austin, Texas, next year.

“Teaching is great: I enjoy the sort of parasitic, vampiric relationship I have with the students. One problem, though, is they all want to write memoirs,” he says. His own reading these days is mostly “straight-down-the-line history books”, thousand-page tomes by Pulitzer-winners such as Taylor Branch and Richard Rhodes.

“I’m one of the people who seem to have licensed the ‘I’m meant to write about this book but I’m just going to write how I got stoned instead’ essay – but it only works for certain subjects. It has to lead you into a deeper appreciation of the subject than could have been attained in a more direct way. It’s like those legal highs,” he said. “Some of them can get you pretty messed up. Really they ought to be proscribed.”

Geoff Dyer is a judge for the 2014 Goldsmiths Prize for Fiction, in association with the New Statesman

Portrait by Eva Vermandel for New Statesman

Philip Maughan is a freelance writer in Berlin and a former Assistant Editor at the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 23 July 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Summer Double 2014

Claire Denis. Credit: SARAH LEE/GUARDIAN NEWS & MEDIA LTD
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“He keeps asking me, is it sad to be an old woman?”: sparring with the French director Claire Denis

The provocative auteur talks to Ryan Gilbey about sex at 71, her obsession with Juliette Binoche and why his questions are “maybe a little bit pretentious.”

The 71-year-old French director Claire Denis is pocket-sized, but then so is a grenade. Welcoming me into her London hotel room, where a single lamp provides the only resistance against the fading light, she gets straight down to business. First there is the English-language title of her latest film, Let the Sunshine In. “I’m very unhappy with it.” She wanted A Bright Sun In. There is scarcely time to point out to her that this brisk, playful movie, about a middle-aged Parisian artist (Juliette Binoche) searching for love, is undamaged by the mistranslation. Denis has moved on, and is pondering the post-screening Q&A session she’ll take part in later. “I hate Q&As! You see a film, you don’t want to ask questions. All those stupid explanations.” She touches her throat, still tender from an operation three weeks ago. “The doctor removed a virus.” Really? You mean a cyst, or a tumour? “No!” she says crossly. “A virus.” Then she softens: “It was like coral from the ocean.” There is an odd glint in her eye, fearful but unmistakably titillated.

That look is there in her work, too. No other living director, not even Pedro Almodóvar or Catherine Breillat, has quite her knack for untangling the mysteries of sexual desire, or the role played in it by gender, race and class. It is the warmth, inquisitiveness and mischief in her films that make them so seductive. She is not above being shocking, as she was in the revenge thriller Bastards, set in a world of sexual exploitation where unspeakable acts are committed with a corncob, or Trouble Every Day, in which horny vampires nip out for a bite after sex. She is at her best, though, in a gentler or more thoughtful register.

Two fine films at either end of her career have dissected the tensions between white colonialists and black Africans. Her 1988 debut, Chocolat, set in colonial Cameroon, drew on her own childhood as the daughter of a civil servant; the family moved around French West Africa before Denis returned in her teens to Paris, her birthplace, to finish her education. She revisited the subject in her 2010 drama White Material, starring Isabelle Huppert as the owner of a coffee plantation in an unnamed turbulent African country. Unable to see that she is part of the problem, she continues making coffee while the nation burns.

Denis’s favourite among her films might be 35 Shots of Rum, an elliptical study of people of African descent living in a Parisian suburb. She retracts the remark. “I don’t have a favourite. Which is yours? Tell me.” That’s easy. Beau Travail (1999) which transposes Billy Budd (both the Melville novel and the Benjamin Britten opera) to a Foreign Legion post in Djibouti. Like much of her work, it has little dialogue. Why give an actor a monologue when character can be more elegantly expressed in shots of him fastidiously ironing his uniform or hurling his body around an empty dancefloor to “The Rhythm of the Night” by Corona?

Denis swoons. “Ah, Beau Travail. We had Benjamin Britten playing on these tiny loudspeakers. I was sleeping two hours a night. We were on the edge! It was great. I loved my 15 guys. And the real Foreign Legion wanted to stop us.” She mimes someone peering through binoculars. “They thought we were shooting a gay porno movie.”

You can understand the error. Much of the fascination of Beau Travail stems from its unusual gender dynamic: it’s an intensely homoerotic reverie in which many of the core personnel (not just Denis but her cinematographer and editor) happen to be female. As far back as the 1996 Nénette et Boni, about a young pizza-seller smitten with a female baker, Denis was complicating the audience’s point-of-view. We hear the oversexed fellow recounting his breathless fantasies, most of which revolve around the things he wants to do to the buxom baker with his “big French stick”. What we see, however, is an extended shot of his bare torso, the camera admiring the magnificent slopes of his shoulders and the play of light on his mahogany skin. The desirer has become the desired.

As her latest film demonstrates, Denis is an equal opportunities sensualist. Let the Sunshine In, wordier than we have come to expect from her, is an unabashed celebration of Binoche. “What brings everything together is Juliette’s frankness and strength. We were having lunch one day and I caught a glimpse of her cleavage. I said, ‘Juliette, I want to show what a sexy woman you are. Every shot in the film I am going to show your cleavage. Your legs, your feet, your hands, a short skirt, high heels, leather jacket.’ She is sexier than any young girl on the red carpet.”

Denis, too, is wearing a leather jacket. Her vanilla hair is full of kinks, her tiny buttonhole eyes darting and alert. She sniffs the air. “Am I dreaming or can I smell a joint?” She squints at the window, which looks out onto a dingy Soho back-street, and inhales deeply. “Such a nice smell…”

I steer her back to Binoche. The pair went straight from finishing Let the Sunshine In to their next collaboration, the intimate intergalactic story High Life, which is exactly the way Denis likes it. She can’t bear letting go of her actors. “In life I am maybe not possessive enough. But in film – so much.” Directing Huppert in White Material, she was forever touching the actor’s hair, petting her almost, telling her: “I want to take you home with me.” She hates it when someone she has worked with appears in another director’s movie. “I get jealous. You spend two months looking so closely at them that you can tell if a single eyelash is out of place. Then they are gone.”

 Sensual: Denis with leading lady Juliette Binoche. Credit: Francois G. Durand/Getty

High Life, Denis’s first movie in English as well as her first with special effects, throws her together with another cinematic phenomenon – the actor Robert Pattinson, currently doing a bang-up job of distancing himself from the Twilight series that made his name. Pattinson, a long-time Denis fan, has called High Life her “craziest” film and described the director as a “punk”. She looks aghast. “My craziest? No. His, maybe. Well, there is some craziness in it but I won’t tell you where. Yes, Robert said many times he was afraid because I was like a punk. I am a simple person. I just try to communicate simply.” High Life also brought her into the orbit of Zadie Smith and her husband Nick Laird. “They didn’t write anything,” she explains. “I met with them because I wanted more than just a translation of the French script. But they felt there was no space for their own vision.” (At the time of writing, Smith and Laird are still listed as its co-writers on IMDb and Wikipedia.) The movie will feature music by the British band Tindersticks, whose frontman, Stuart Staples, has been working with Denis on and off for years. My suggestion that their gorgeous scores are the glue between her movies prompts her angriest objection yet.

“Glue? No, it is not glue! Glue holds things together. Music is there to be like the soul.”

I say that I meant it in the same way that Nino Rota’s music connects Fellini’s films.

She sits back in her chair, eyeing me suspiciously. “Hmm. I will ask Stuart. But it is maybe a little bit pretentious.”

What we can agree on is that Let the Sunshine In explores a subject overlooked by most cinema: the role of love and sex in the lives of older women. While Denis was shooting the film, her mother died at the age of 94. “She was very clear-minded, still interested in sex and attraction.” One night, she fell out of bed and Denis had to enlist a strapping young Italian from a nearby pizza joint – it could be a scene from one of her films – to come to the rescue. He scooped the old woman up in his arms and slipped her back into bed as though sliding a pizza into the oven. “Once he was gone, my mother looked up and said, ‘He was so good-looking!’”

Is it harder for women to express their sexuality as they get older? Denis thinks not. “It is worse sometimes for men. They are so afraid to not get a hard-on.” We can always use Viagra, I suggest. She scoffs. “That’s no fun. Better that I use a piece of wood or buy a sex toy. I think it’s humiliating for a man to take Viagra. It’s so good to be together as a couple and both of you can feel the hard-on going and coming back and going again. The smell of sex coming in, coming out.”

She has been married once and is now divorced. The ring she wears was given to her by “the man I live with. The man I love.” They have no children. “I decided at 39 I didn’t want to be a mother. No regrets, no crying. Maybe because my own mother was not so happy to be one. She told me, ‘You don’t need to be a mother!’ She was so free.”

Only when she sees a photograph of herself does Denis realise she is ageing. “Inside, not at all.” I ask if she notices that she is treated any differently now she is 71. “Sometimes when I’m walking or riding my bicycle, I’ll hear a guy whistle and then he passes me and sees my face and says, ‘Oh, sorry!’” She laughs. “Maybe from the back I’m better.” And is she happy? “With getting older? It’s a disaster. It’s a wreck. To be able to stay up for three nights without sleep, to get so drunk you are in a coma – these things I miss the most. On the other hand, my body is able to move, I still have feelings and I’m making films.”

She has to prepare for the dreaded Q&A now. The PR assistant hovers nearby. “I overheard something about joints and Viagra,” he says. “Claire, were you incriminating yourself?”

She jabs a finger in my direction like a scolded child trying to shift the blame. “He kept asking me, ‘Is it sad to be an old woman?’”

I protest that this wasn’t quite how I phrased it. “You raised the question many times,” she says, sniggering naughtily.

“Well, you’re not so young either. And you will suffer, too.” She takes my hand in hers, which is warm and firm, and musters her sweetest smile. “So fuck you,” she says. 

Let The Sunshine In is released on 20 April

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards and is Film Critic in Residence at Falmouth University.

This article first appeared in the 18 April 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Enoch Powell’s revenge