These kind words were scrawled on the proofs of my new novel. Nothing wrong with that, of course, but this less-than-generous verdict on the author was from his wife (to whom the book is dedicated) and it occurred shockingly early on: on the title page, in fact. She was referring to the subtitle: “a diptych”.
It is no longer there in the published version of the book, partly because it would have invited more incisive critical derision—dipstick!—but mainly because the book is so clearly a diptych that there is no need to advertise it as “a picture or other work of art consisting of two parts facing one another like the pages of a book and usually hinged together” (The Concise Oxford Dictionary Of Art And Artists).
Appropriating an art term like this was not entirely pretentious—or was at least justifiably so—because the first part of the book takes place during the vernissage of the Venice Biennale. I went there in 2003 with my wife, who worked for an art magazine. We had a fantastic time and after two or three days I had the idea of doing a version of Thomas Mann’s Death In Venice, set during these first, frantic, party-intensive days of the biennale. Whereas Aschenbach’s obsession with Tadzio is never explicitly or simply sexual—is the boy an incarnation of the ideal beauty the composer strives to attain in his art?—in my version the “romance” would be heterosexual and unambiguously carnal.
Worlds apart? Dyer found visual similarities between Varanasi (above) and Venice; the London-based author in Venice. Photographs by AFP and Rebecca Wilson
The weather played a part in this: The freakish heat wave of the 2003 biennale created an intensification of the fever or mania that Venice, according to Gabriele D’Annunzio, has a unique capacity to excite (I included this quote as an epigraph but, like the subtitle, it was deleted from the final version).
In The Uncommon Reader, George Steiner writes that “latent in every act of complete reading is the compulsion to write a book in reply”. My previous novel, Paris Trance, had been a version of—or reply to—Tender is the Night, one of my favourite books of all time. In this instance, Mann’s novella didn’t mean a great deal to me. Nor did Visconti’s overrated film. David Thomson is right: It is somehow assumed that the swelling Mahler music “in which the film is washed must have been written by Visconti himself, inspired by his own footage”. An even larger transfer of creative ownership has occurred with Mann’s text: It has gone from being a book by an author to a mythic template, familiar to everyone, irrespective of whether they have actually read it.
Before I could act on my idea for a new book I had to finish another one I was writing, on photography. And before I could do that, my wife and I went to Varanasi. Almost as soon as we got there, within minutes of standing on the ghats and looking out across the Ganga, I knew that the Venice narrative would be joined by another, set in Varanasi. From that point on, before I had written any of the Venice part, Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi was conceived as a book—to borrow the football cliché—of two halves: a diptych. According to Mann, the cholera that kills Aschenbach in Venice “originates in the sultry morasses of the Ganges delta” but my book would originate in Venice and end on the banks of the Ganga.
Although part I was written in the third person and part II in the first, the protagonist/narrator was explicitly the same person, Jeff Atman. Initially, the Varanasi part followed chronologically from the Venice part. After reading the manuscript, a couple of people felt that the causal connections between the two parts needed to be stronger, that what happened in Varanasi needed to be more explicitly determined by what had gone before, in Venice. Fair point. I put in a lot of effort, trying to cement over the crack, as it were. But as the links were made stronger I became more dissatisfied. It seemed that I was losing more than I was gaining, that, in a weird way, by trying to solve the problem, I exacerbated it.
The breakthrough came when I saw that instead of trying to solve the problem, I could do away with it. Instead of trying to join the two halves more effectively, I would make the break complete so that part II was a fresh start. In this version of part II there are no references to Laura—the woman who steals Jeff’s heart in Venice—and the narrator is not even named. Maybe he’s the same person as in part I, maybe not. Maybe part II comes chronologically after part I, maybe not. Instead of there being a narrative connection, the two parts would be bound together only by the various incidental chimes and echoes of detail and observation. Once I’d gotten rid of the causal connection, these little details had to take on some of the load-bearing work often done by the story. So there had to be more of them— and they had to work harder and more powerfully.
That way, instead of there being the sense of an attempt being made to normalize or novelize the reader’s experience, we get a different, less conventional, more unsettling and complex—but still unified—experience.
In any book, the author leaves clues that are undetected until the book is complete—often until it is read by critics. In this case, re-reading the new version of the book, I saw that in addition to the many deliberate chimes—the fact that a boat the narrator takes in Varanasi turns out to be strikingly similar to one exhibited by a Finnish artist at the biennale; that the blue and orange glass Laura buys for him in Venice is very similar to the blue and orange Hanuman shrine in Varanasi; that part of a sentence from part I is repeated, word for word, in part II—there were more accidental echoes than I had realized (i.e., they really were accidental!).
I also discovered that in a couple of places, I had even provided an unintended commentary on what was going on. There’s the bit where the narrator of part II confesses to being baffled by Hindu myths: “However hard I tried I could not keep track of who was who and what was what. It was impossible to tell if the person in one part of a story was the same one in another part, a few pages later. Everyone was an avatar of everyone else. No one was just themselves. Shiva, Vishnu, Krishna—they were all each other.” And there’s the section when he visits an exhibition of photographs by Dayanita Singh: “A given picture had no explicit or narrative connection with the one next to it, but their adjacency implied an order that enhanced the effect of both.”
With no causal or chronological connection between the two halves, the book acquires a new kind of unity, one that is unique to itself (literally novel). There may be none of the “What happens next?” kind of suspense we expect from thrillers but something like the opposite feeling hopefully kicks in quite early on in part II: “Hey, doesn’t that remind me of something that happened before?”
I’m guessing that a few people will claim the book is not really a novel. They may be right. If they are, then so much the worse for the novel. Because it is a novel: a novel in the form of a diptych!
Geoff Dyer is a London-based author of three novels and five non-fiction books, including the best-selling Yoga For People Who Can’t Be Bothered To Do It and But Beautiful. Jeff In Venice, Death In Varanasi, his new novel, has just been launched in India.
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