Tag Archives: Geoff Dyer

End of year lists

The Emerging Artist and I are in Victoria for the New Year, but we’re squeezing in (or should that be squeezing out?) our end-of-year lists.

Best Movies:

We allowed ourselves to pick five each. The Emerging Artist went first, and then I chose five that weren’t on her list. The last one I picked was Juliet, Naked – and it got in on the grounds that there was no comedy on the combined list. There probably should have been more.

Theatre:

It’s hard to single out best theatre for this year. Belvoir Street had a good year, beginning with My Name is Jimi and ending with The Dance of Death, with treasures in between. And we spent six weeks in London, where we managed to go to some excellent theatre. We get to name one each from London and Sydney for the year. We both chose Matthew Lopez’ The Inheritance Part 2 at the Old Vic in London (we were exhausted on the evening we’d booked for Part 1, but Part 2 was stunning as a stand-alone event). It’s about Gay men in the age of AIDS. We booked because Vanessa Redgrave was in it, but though she was terrific she was by no means the main attraction.

Back home, the EA chose debbie tucker green’s one-hander, random, directed by Leticia Cáceres, with a bravura performance by Zahra Newman. I chose Calamity Jane, directed by Richard Carroll, which was great fun – Virginia Gay’s raucous, swaggering gaucheness made Doris Day’s Jane look like a maiden aunt.

Books:

Rather than a list of our Best Books, I’ve decided to follow a meme that originated at the vlog memento mori and came to me by way of Lisa at ANZ LitLovers LitBlog.

1) What’s the longest book I read this year and the book that took me the longest to finish?

Emerging Artist: Victoria: The Queen by Julia Baird (Random House 2016) was both. It was a Christmas present, whose size meant it was awkward to read in bed, so I was reluctant to take it on, and then the detail, though fascinating, needed breaks to digest. It turned out to be an excellent complement to the British TV series, which we watched soon after I finished reading the book, and a welcome gift after all.

Me: The longest book was probably Gerald Murnane’s Collected Short Fiction (Giramondo 2018).

The one that took longest was either Jennifer Maiden’s Selected Poems 1967–2018 (Quemar Press 2018) or Judith Beveridge’s Sun Music: New and Selected Poems (Giramondo 2018): they both include decades of work by fine poets, and I enjoyed them both immensely.

2) What book did I read in 2018 that was outside of my comfort zone?

EA: Deep Time Dreaming by Billy Griffiths (Black Inc 2018) is a fascinating book about palaeontology and archaeology in Australia in relation to actual Aboriginal people, but there’s a lot of technical scientific writing that is not my favourite recreational fare.

Me: Gerald Murnane’s Collected Short Fiction again. I had gleaned something of his characteristic style some time ago and completely failed to grasp how wonderful it is. I wouldn’t have opened the book if it hadn’t been picked for the Book Group. Reading it was a joy-filled revelation.

3) How many books did I re-read in 2018?

EA: None.

Me: Just one, Jane Austen’s Emma. I loved it all over again.

5) What book did I read for the first time in 2018 that I look forward to re-reading in the future?

EA: Change the question to, ‘What writer did I read in 2018 that I look forward to re-reading?’ My answer is Geoff Dyer. I first read him years ago, and rediscovered him this year when I found The Colour of Memory on our bookshelves. I’ve just bought Out of Sheer Rage, his book about himself and D H Lawrence.

Me: There are so many, but I’ll pick David Malouf’s An Open Book (UQP 2018). I will dip into so many of the books of poetry I read this year, but I think this is the one I’m most likely to reread in its entirety. That and Jennifer Maiden’s Appalachian Fall (Quemar 2017) 

6) What’s my favourite short story or novella that I read in 2018?

EA avoids short stories and didn’t read any novellas.

Me: Given that Gerald Murnane is in a class of his own, I’ll name Suneeta Peres da Costa, Saudade (Giramondo 2018), which is a coming of age story set in the context of the Angolan war of liberation. (I was astonished to hear Ms Peres da Costa say at a reading that she has never been to Angola, as the place comes alive in this short book.)

7) Mass appeal: which book would I recommend to a wide variety of readers?

EA: Free Food for Millionaires (Head of Zeus 2018) by Min Jin Lee, author of Pachinko: it’s hard to think who wouldn’t love it.

Me: I know many people these days think of poetry as an esoteric art to be avoided by everyone except poets and cryptographers. All the same, I recommend Eileen Chong’s Rainforest (Pitt Street Poetry 2018) to anyone interested in being alive and human.

8) Specialised appeal: which book did I like but would be hesitant to recommend to just anyone?

EA: I loved Elisabeth Åsbrink, 1947: When Now Begins, translated into English by Fiona Graham (2016, translation 2017). If you are interested in history, then the way this interweaves so many themes as they manifested in 1947 will fascinate you and illuminate our times.

Me: I’m rarely confident that books I’ve enjoyed will appeal to ‘just anyone’, so I’ve got lots to choose from, but bypassing all the titles I’ve mentioned so far, I nominate China Miéville, The Scar (Del Rey Books 2002), which, to quote my blog post about it, ‘includes, not necessarily in order of importance, vampir (sic) bureaucrats, cactus people, probability mining (I won’t try to explain), fabulously bloody sea battles, a sweetly tragic love story (not of the romantic variety), a vast crack in the universe, and a charming account of the process of learning to read.’

And that’s it for 2018. Have a great New Year, reader!

Geoff Dyer’s Ongoing Moment

Geoff Dyer, The Ongoing Moment: A Book about Photographs (©2005, Canongate 2012)

0857864017This was a gift from a photographer friend who says she rarely reads a book all the way through. She dips here and there until she has had enough. The Ongoing Moment could have been written with her in mind. When I wrote the top line of this blog post, I first wrote the book’s subtitle as ‘A Book About Photography’. That may not be a completely inaccurate description of the book, but its actual subtitle comes closer to the mark. There are 105 photographs reproduced in its pages, most of them muddy and far too small in the edition I read. Dyer’s discussion of them – and of perhaps as many again –  is organised around themes that he says emerged as he immersed himself in what appears to have been a sea of photographs.

He writes about photographs of blind people, of men in overcoats and men in hats, of hands, backs, steps, doors, roads, service stations, barber shops and, perhaps most movingly, park benches. These subjects allow him to explore the distinctive styles of different photographers – and those wonderful moments when a work by one photographer looks exactly like something by another. He finds or invents narratives that link images created decades apart, and at times I don’t think he knows which he’s doing. He has a considerable gift for describing an image in an illuminating way.

He discusses works by more than 40 photographers – most of them of the United States, though he says in his introduction that he didn’t set out with that intention. One of the key questions about a photograph, he says, is whether it is of something or by someone.

There are delightful skerricks of gossip, wonderfully apposite quotation from Whitman, Wordsworth and other poets, a constant, confident play of mind. There’s a moment of snark in the acknowledgements that should win some kind of award.

I’m not well versed in photography. In the first days of my relationship with the Art Student, we bonded over a Diane Arbus exhibition (neither of us had previously heard of her, and we both realised at about the same moment that she wasn’t mocking her subjects). We recently visited a huge Paul Strand exhibition in Los Angeles. I’ve peered over her shoulder as she did assignments on Dorothea Lange and Walker Evans. This much knowledge, plus my passing familiarity with some Australian greats (who of course are beyond Dyer’s southern horizon), enriched my experience of reading the book. I expect it could be enjoyed by people who know an awful lot about photography, who would find it an interesting personal take on aspects of this huge field. Equally, for people who know next to nothing, it serves as an unsystematic introduction to 20th century US photography – or not so much un- as eccentrically systematic. It’s like spending a couple of hours with a well informed and witty friend who chats enthusiastically as he shares his shoebox full of photographs.

Geoff Dyer’s Tarkovsky’s Zona

Geoff Dyer, Zona: A book about a film about a journey to a room (Canongate, Text 2012)

1zThis book about Andrei Tarkovsky’s Stalker came with plausible recommendation from the Book Club. Ignoring the back cover’s reassuring assertion that the book ‘fascinates from start to finish – even if you haven’t seen the film’, I decided to fill a yawning gap in my cinema-literacy and watch the movie before reading it. And I was underwhelmed, not to say bored. It may be one of the greatest films ever made, but for this viewer it’s mostly laboured, inconsistent, portentous and yet inconsequential, and dreary. ‘I do know,’ Dyer writes on page 10, ‘that if I had not seen Stalker in my early twenties my responsiveness to the world would have been radically diminished.’ So I guess it’s too late for me in my mid 60s. Admittedly I watched it on a small screen, but I suspect that if I’d gone to see it in the cinema when it was first released I would have quickly and irreversibly nodded off, and only partly because in 1979 I was a sleep deprived parent of a one-year-old.

Still, I’m always fascinated when someone I respect differs wildly from me about a book or movie, so I settled down to read, expecting to have fun. (I’d heard Geoff Dyer read hilariously from his Geoff in Venice, Death in Varanesi at the 2012 Sydney Writers’ Festival – at a time, it seems, when he was going on the Stalker marathon that led to this book.)

Zona isn’t a learned dissertation. It’s pretty much a blow by blow account of the movie, interspersed with making-of anecdotes, snippets of autobiography, descriptions of how other films have been influenced by Stalker or referred to it, comparison to other films (Dyer found Antonioni’s L’avventura intolerably boring, and perhaps this kind of book about that film just wouldn’t work at all), and reflections both serious and self-mocking on his own lifework as a writer. He probes at the reason the film has fascinated him so much: hallucinogenic substances may have something to do with it, though not, in his opinion, because they impair one’s judgement. In true essayist style, he chases off on detours, airs his snobbery (noting that Stalker has been compared to The Wizard of Oz, he tells us he hasn’t seen the latter film and ‘obviously’ has no intention of seeing it now), throws harsh adjectives at films he doesn’t like (Godard’s Breathless is unwatchable, Jim Jarmusch’s The Limits of Control is vacuous, Lars Von Trier’s Antichrist is absolutely repellent and silly), and quotes more or less casually from a vast range of cultural touchstones: Kundera and Wordsworth, Rilke and Billy Collins, Coetzee and Nadezhda Mandelstam, Cate Blanchett and Igmar Bergman, Bob Dylan and Bjork, Christian Marclay’s The Clock and James Turrell’s light sculptures. There’s a very funny account of his idiosyncratic response to Steven Soderbergh’s 2002 remake of Solaris, and an amusing account of some missed sexual opportunities.

I can’t say the book ameliorated my indifference to Tarkovsky in general or Stalker in particular. I don’t know that I’d enjoy going to the movies with Geoff Dyer, and even less watching television with him. But I have enjoyed spending a little more than 200 pages in his company as he engages with a movie that he has watched many times and been fascinated by for more than 30 years.

SWF 2012: Poetry, prose, performance

Here it is, Sunday already and this is my blog on Friday at the Writers’ Festival. Sorry! All this talking to people takes up good blogging time.

After a morning spent catching up on email and keeping the neglected dog company, I bussed back to the Wharf for what Kate Lilley called the Mum Show: Dorothy Hewett Remembered.

It’s ten years since Dorothy died and this Monday would have been her 89th birthday. The room was full of fans, friends, fellow poets and family, including my former employer Katharine Brisbane, founder of Currency Press. The elderly woman sitting beside me told me that when she was a Communist in Melbourne in the 1950s, someone from the Party had said to her, ‘There’s a young woman Party Member who’s just come over from Perth. She doesn’t know anyone yet and has a very sick baby. Would you go and visit her?’ The young woman was Dorothy and her friendship with my new acquaintance endured.

I expect that half the people in the room could have shared Dorothy Hewett / Merv Lilley stories (Merv, as larger-than-life as Dorothy, is her widower, whose health is too fragile to allow him to attend). On this occasion, fittingly, Dorothy was celebrated almost entirely through her own words: ‘I used to ride with Clancy’, ‘On Moncur Street’, ‘The Dark Fires Burn in Many Rooms’, other poems, excerpts from memoir and a conference paper.

Kate Lilley was joined by her sister Rozanna Lilley and their brother Joe Flood, as well as Fiona Morrison (editor), Gig Ryan (poet), Rosie Scott (novelist). As a finale we were invited to sing along with Dorothy’s song ‘Weevils in the Flour’, which Joe described as ‘synonymous with the Depression in Australia’:

Dole bread is bitter bread
Bitter bread and sour
There’s grief in the taste of it
And weevils in the flour.

I had a ticket for my next session, so no need to queue, and could spend some time catching up with old friends, one of whom I didn’t recognise until we were introduced – embarrassingly, we had chatted as strangers the day before.

Then I crossed the road to the Sydney Theatre for some prose in The Big Reading. This is as much a tradition as Thursday’s pitching session, but this one has been on my must-see list for years. I love being read to, and I’ve been introduced to some fabulous writers. I also tend to nod off – though not deliberately: my sleep mechanism has a mind of its own and is unyielding in its judgement. This year’s sleep-inducers will not be identified.

As always, the writers were wonderfully diverse in age, gender, nationality, and reading style.

Emily Perkins, from New Zealand, played a straight bat with an excerpt from her most recent novel Forest. Geoff Dyer’s comic tale of cultural difference and queue jumping from Geoff in Venice, Death in Varanasi struck a chord – pertinent for me as I’d just seen a man who could have been from Varanasi blithely bypass the previous session’s sluggishly moving queue.

Riikka Pulkkinen read her quiet, introspective piece in Finnish first ‘so you get the idea’, a great way of educating us in how to listen to someone whose English is a little unsteady. Jesmyn Ward’s Katrina piece would have been the highlight of the evening if she hadn’t been followed by Sebastian Barry, who began and ended in resonant song and filled the space with the music of his narrative, from The Other Side of Canaan.

Then we hopped in the car, stopped off at home to feed the aforementioned dog, picked up some friends and drove to Bankstown for the not-to-be-missed BYDS and Westside Publications event, this year entitled Moving People.

With Ivor Indyk as tutelary deity and Michael Mohammed Ahmad as inspired energiser, these events are always strikingly staged. This year there was a microphone and a lectern on a bare stage, backed by a screen. Each of the fourteen participating writers in turn strode out from the wings and read to us without introduction, explanation or by your leave. This created a tremendous sense of connection between each reader and the audience – there was nowhere to hide. Unlike at the rest of the Festival, there was no veil of celebrity, no established persona to speak through. The exceptions test but don’t demolish the rule: Luke Carman has appeared in the pages of Heat and in This Is the Penguin Plays Rough Book of Short Stories, about which I’ll blog when I’ve finished reading it; Fiona Wright, also with Heat connections, published Knuckle, her first book of poetry, last year; Michael Mohammed Ahmad himself appeared recently in Roslyn Oades’s brilliant I’m Your Man Downstairs at Belvoir Street. Their pieces – respectively an oddly dissociative tale of male, twenty-something aspiring inner-city writers, a memoir of a stint as a young female journalist in Sri Lanka, and a riproaring cautionary tale about young Lebanese men, cars and drugs – were given no special treatment, simply taking their places as part of the evening’s tapestry. Benny Ngo did some spectacular break dancing while his recorded words played. Nitin Vengurlekar had a nice turn reading absurd short poems from crumpled pages found in his jacket pockets. A smooth essay on getting the dress codes wrong in Indonesia, a dramatic monologue from a supermarket security guard, traveller’s tales, the chronicle of a shared house experience, a young Muslim woman’s story of getting a tattoo and her family’s unexpected response (this one sounded like autobiography, but the writer’s family were in the row in front of us and their attitude was not at all that of the story’s family): it occurred to me that part of the reason that I was less enthusiastic than many people about Christos Tsiolkas’ The Slap may be partly that his treatment of multicultural suburbia doesn’t seem so very groundbreaking if you’ve been following the creations of this group.

And they gave us pizza!

[Added on Wednesday: Kevin Jackson, theatre blogger, was at Moving People too. You can read his excellent account of it here. And the Australian Bookshelf blogged it here.]

I’ll write about the weekend tomorrow.