The genre-defying British writer Geoff Dyer on how watching Tarkovsky’s Stalker on repeat turned into his most successful book.
Photograph courtesy of Matt Stuart
Geoff Dyer has always been rather keen on America. Aspects of it, anyway, like the Burning Man festival in Black Rock, Nevada; or the life-stories of her musicians and photographers; or the impeccable politeness of her citizenry. And these days, it seems, America is pretty keen on Geoff Dyer. He has a column in the New York Times, has for years now given gleefully-received talks and readings along the East coast, and now, thanks to this growing reputation, even some of his earlier works are being published in the U.S. for the first time.
It seems fitting, then, that [here in the UK] I had never heard of Geoff Dyer until I read about him in The New Yorker, in a review by James Wood, in April, 2009.
Though his own PR describes him as the “author of four novels… two collections of essays… and five genre-defying titles,” it is—pace Dyer’s own views on the matter—easy enough to say what these books are “about.” The Ongoing Moment is a book about photography; The Missing of the Somme is about the First World War; But Beautiful is actually subtitled “A Book about Jazz”; and Out of Sheer Rage: Wrestling with D. H. Lawrence—Dyer’s most feted book among postmodern literary types, not least for its five-page opening howl of frustration—is a book about his inability to write a book about D.H. Lawrence.
There are, of course, other definitions of about-ness. As Wood writes in the same New Yorker piece, regardless of their stated topic, Dyer’s books are also “interesting books about boredom, successful books about failure, complete books about incompleteness.” (It is relevant to note that Dyer’s unassailable literary and, perhaps, political father figure is John Berger, another Englishman who made his name from looking at things differently—and who now provides a disproportionate number of Dyer’s epigraphs.) And Dyer pulls this off, first and foremost, because he can’t think of anything worse—for himself, or for his readers—than banging away at his computer, wasting good living time, writing tomes that are at once magisterial and dull.
What Dyer fans tend to love in common is the tangential and perambulatory way that he goes at his topics. What you get is not an exhaustive treatise on a subject, but a kind of memoir of his own (admittedly profound and thorough) interactions with it. Often, indeed, he spends a great deal of time discussing the labor of the process itself (not to be confused with talking, schoolboy-style, about what you’re planning to say: witness a recent scathing New York Times column on this very issue). Yoga for People Who Can’t Be Bothered to Do It, a collection of vaguely-narrativized alternative travel essays—which had started life as a book about ancient ruins—is almost entirely about zoning out, either chemically, emotionally or through distance and time. The Ongoing Moment (or, “the photography book,” as Dyer would call it) is organized under thematic headings, like “Hats.” But Beautiful, almost entirely fictional in the strict sense of the word, is hung from the hooks of recorded bar fights and drinking problems. The Lawrence book, for the most part, is about the search for good pastries.
And so what Dyer is really known for is a rare kind of semi-fiction, strolling—sometimes jauntily, sometimes shoulders down—along the line that would divide the nonfiction novel from… whatever its opposite would be. This as-yet-unnamed flipside was most recently embodied by Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi, an amoral-mystical double novella, in which an art journalist called Jeff Atman drinks and snorts and ruts his way through the bacchanalia of the Venice Biennale; and another aging journalist travels to Varanasi to write a travel piece, and finds himself (so to speak) sucked into the mother of all Oms, shaving his head, washing in the filthy river, and walking around the city clad in little more than his underpants. This other journalist is left unnamed—leaving us free to assume that it’s Dyer (writing up another chapter of non-Yoga?). On the front cover we’re told that this is “A Novel.” On the back flap, we get the author’s biography: plenty of time spent in Varanasi, and a good handful of trips to Venice.
These are blatant conceits, of course, and there are plenty more; but this is essentially the territory his writing has occupied for the last fifteen years or so. Until Zona, anyway. Dyer’s latest project consisted of sitting in his London flat, endlessly re-watching Andrei Tarkovsky’s 1979 film Stalker, and then writing about it. Scene by scene.
Geoff Dyer spoke to me at his home in West London.
—ASH Smyth for Guernica
ASH Smyth: So, a whole book about a single Russian movie. How did that happen? You make it sound like you were sitting watching Stalker one afternoon, for the twenty-fifth time or whatever, and then just found yourself in the middle of a paragraph of notes and realized that this was what you were writing, right now.
Geoff Dyer: Um, well, the exact story, which you might decide is too boring to tell, is that I went to hear this [Werner] Herzog talk at the BFI, and then picked up the program and saw they were showing Stalker, with a debate about Stalker, and then I was immediately thinking “Shit, I’d like to be on that panel!” And then I started thinking of ways in which I could surreptitiously get myself invited on, and then I thought “Oh, I’ll write something for the Guardian,” and arranged to do that. And no sooner had I done that—the guy said “800 words?” and I thought I’d just do that quickly—than I kept ringing him back asking for more and more words, but of course he can’t just say “Yeah, we’ll devote the whole of this issue to you!” and so it very quickly became a source of frustration. By then, I was really up and running. So I went with it, though I wasn’t thinking, at this early stage, that there’d be a whole book’s worth. I really didn’t know how much there would be to say. All I was aware of was that the saying was enjoyable.
ASH Smyth: So how did it happen, literally? Did you sit through it another n-million times? You say that you’d wanted to write it in 142 chapters, one for each take…
Geoff Dyer: Yeah, that was a little thing that sort of blossomed and then faded. I was working through it pretty much in order, but then there came a point when I did have the film going on a computer, just to make sure it was a reasonably accurate record of things. I felt it was important that I didn’t have things in there that were wildly wrong. Though I could see the attraction of that, given that part of the nature of the Zone is that you’re not sure what’s there. “Did that bird really disappear?!” I allowed myself a certain amount of leeway, but it’s pretty reliable.
ASH Smyth: You’ve acknowledged the conceit at work in Out of Sheer Rage, and your epigraph for But Beautiful [his novelistic jazz biography] is that elements of the book are “Not as they are, but how I found them to be.” So’s we’re clear, here, in Zona, everything is… as is?
Geoff Dyer: Initially, it was much more my impressions and misrememberings of the film, and then actually I realized that I had to be a bit tighter about things. So there’s only a little bit of “slippage,” because otherwise it would have been unfair really. The book is not a deposition—but it’s pretty accurate.
ASH Smyth: For all that you’re spelling out the action, scene by scene, you acknowledge that Stalker actually has remarkably little plot. This seemed to me like the negative of Sheer Rage, a sort of reverse-sequel: you’ve done the great non-criticism book on literature and now you’re doing the great non-criticism book on film.
Geoff Dyer: Oh yeah, I squeezed all the life out of that sponge!
ASH Smyth: Except that you are writing about the film, in great detail. So when you sat down did you think, “Right, this isn’t like the Lawrence book”?
Geoff Dyer: Well, my masturbatory urge is not so developed that everything I’m doing is in reference to something I’ve done before. It was more that this was just something which interested me. I mean, I was conscious that I hadn’t written a lot about film before, even though film had played a big part in my life. It was kind of strange really, how little I’d written about films. But that was great really, it meant everything I said about film was new: I didn’t have to cut and paste from some review I’d done. It made me reflect on a lot of the cinema-going that I’ve done in a rather passive way. I’d seen that film The Return by…whatever the guy’s name is, but I hadn’t really thought about it much. It was a nice chance to go over that stuff. But there was no agenda going on. I arrived at a way of writing about this film which seemed appropriate to it, and also—and this is something that does go on in all the books—through that optic or prism or whatever I was able to address a load of other stuff as well.
ASH Smyth: You say you found a way to write about this film, or about “film” more broadly… You’ve written, now, about art, about sculpture, about music, about writing, about photos: is there a specific “way to write about film”?
Like most writers I spend a lot of my time sort of thinking, “It’s such agony, I can’t do it.” But this was a cake-walk, it really was.
Geoff Dyer: Well, there are many different ways, just as there are many different films. The nice thing about Stalker is that it lends itself to this kind of thing, in that the journey they go on is both very, very literal and at the same time has all sorts of metaphysical qualities as well. And the film seems to be about “film” as well. To quote the book: “The journey into the zone is also a journey into the wonder of cinema”—or the wonder of cinematic time and space, anyway. And goodness knows, not all films are that.
ASH Smyth: Do you make any distinction between “film” and “movies” and “cinema”?
Geoff Dyer: I’m not conscious of a difference. The only distinction I’d make is between film and telly, I guess. “Film,” “movies,” and “cinema” are all synonyms as far as I’m concerned; but telly is different. One of the great problems of British cinema is that all that’s happened is that the book has been turned into a script—which is a job of transcription—and in turn the script has been transcribed onto celluloid, and it’s never attained this separate thing whereby (the Tarkovsky phrase) it has “dissolved” into this new thing. It’s just a plodding we’ve-done-this-scene, we’ve-done-that-scene and it never becomes this new other thing.
Whatever people may say about my books—and it always amazes me when people don’t like them, but sometimes they don’t—the epigraphs have always been top-drawer.
ASH Smyth: With the structure of the film set out for you, was this book easier to write than previous projects? Or was that a hindrance?
Geoff Dyer: Oh, you’re one of these clever interviewers: the question contains the answer! No, you’re absolutely right. It was one of the easiest books I’ve ever written, one of the funnest. The two things that do my head in are the intellectual difficulties of structuring a book—which in this case was almost non-existent, it was just a case of following the path that the film took, whereas with something like the photography book, I mean that was just unbelievable trouble, really just a load of effort—and getting the tone right at the beginning. Like most writers I spend a lot of my time sort of thinking, “It’s such agony, I can’t do it.” But this was a cake-walk, it really was.
ASH Smyth: Is there a perspiration-inspiration formula to getting the tone right at the outset? Have you found yourself fifty pages into other projects and then decided it was wrong?
Geoff Dyer: I’m so conscious of this at the moment, because I’m writing a little book [about two weeks spent on the USS George Bush] for which I can’t get the tone. That, I feel, is not so much a perspiration thing, it’s more a luck thing, really, and you kind of arrive at it by trial and error: this works, that doesn’t work. I mean, the book I’m writing now, the most rudimentary thing—which is suggestive that I’m about that far away [does international pincer-gesture denoting small things] from having a stroke—I can’t even decide whether it should be in the present or past tense. Because that’s not just a question of hitting Edit and changing “is” to “was”—everything changes with that. But, yeah, the tone thing is all-important. Especially for a book like Zona.
ASH Smyth: Your epigraph quotes Camus on the importance of discussing the things you love lightly. But your subject here isn’t particularly light. Does that make your own instinctive levity doubly important?
One of the reasons so many nonfiction books are so boring is because what they’ve done, very diligently, is fulfill the terms of their proposal.
Geoff Dyer: Mm! Exactly. Whatever people may say about my books—and it always amazes me when people don’t like them, but sometimes they don’t—the epigraphs have always been top-drawer. I think having that at the outset protects me from a lot of potential problems; but also I think it’s true, especially since Tarkovsky invited this kind of “reverence,” which I comment on at one point in the book. It’s funny, actually. Reverence, as well as being something that I don’t have a great disposition towards, [is] not very conducive to insight: you can’t see too well when you’re on your knees! I guess the interesting thing about Zona is how Tarkovsky would respond to it, were he alive. Would he take offense at the tone? That, of course, we don’t know.
ASH Smyth: From your reading into Tarkovsky and his film-making, does he come across as the sort of guy who’d have a sense of humour about himself?
Geoff Dyer: It’s difficult to say. There are these humorous bits in the films—there’s this crucial thing, again, that I talk about: his capacity for doubt—but there’s a priggish side to him, all these pronouncements. This sort of happened to him, as it can to a lot of Soviet exiles, where you get this rather messianic attitude, always denouncing the lack of seriousness and vulgarity of the West (while reaping the benefits of it!). And then all these incredible pronouncements about women—it just seems sort of daft, really.
ASH Smyth: And Tarkovsky was Orthodox…
Geoff Dyer: Oh yeah. Straight down the line. I mean, that great anecdote that Tom Luddy told me, where they go to Monument Valley and Tarkovsky says, “You should only make films about God here!”
But it was nice to write the Stalker book easily, as a way of countering my general belief which is that writing gets more and more difficult as you get older. I know people say you’ve gotta apply yourself to it; but it’s gotta be fun for you as well—so if you’re sitting there chuckling away then that seems sort of appropriate. I almost feel that you should be able to put a blurb on your own book saying: “I had fun writing this!”
ASH Smyth: You were supposed to be writing a book about tennis, weren’t you? Even after ten or so books, of increasing commercial success, how easy is it to tell your publisher you’ve shelved the tennis book so you can write about a Russian movie? I’m trying to picture that meeting. Or a twenty-five-year-old pitching Zona as his debut.
Geoff Dyer: Oh, well this is an interesting general point. I’m most interested in the book which is completely un-sellable on the basis of a proposal or contract. One of the reasons so many nonfiction books are so boring is because what they’ve done, very diligently, is fulfill the terms of their proposals—they’ve written up their proposal, long-form, and often what this does is then set up a sort of serial deal, where the whole book can essentially be reduced back to the size of the original proposal! What I really like about this book is that the proposal would be turned down instantly: there’s nothing to propose. Nicholson Baker talks about the way in which the most successful nonfiction books are those that can be boiled down into an argument so that everybody can wade in with an opinion without having to undergo the inconvenience of having to read the book itself. The more you can condense it, the better. Malcolm Gladwell is the supreme exponent of this: Blink—oh yeah, I get it! “Blink.” That’s all you need to know.
ASH Smyth: Was there a point in your career, or was it something you set out to achieve, where you discovered you could put a seven-page footnote about choc-ices into a book about a Russian film?
Geoff Dyer: No, that was a completely incidental thing. And, much as I love exaggeration as a mode, you’re exaggerating wildly. There is a seven-page footnote; but not on the choc-ice [true: the one on the choc-ice is only a page and half]. The footnote stuff, though, was the only real structural problem with the book. There’s this stuff that I’m saying which is really quite a close description of what is happening on the screen, and then there’s other stuff as well. So: how to get those two things together?
Now, with a movie you’ve got this nice option of the split screen: so you could have, over here, the stuff about Stalker and then over there you could have the other stuff. But of course you can’t read like that. The nearest equivalent to that would be a parallel text, like those old texts of The Prelude we would read, with the 1805 version and the 1850 version. The problem with that, and I asked the publisher about this, is that it’s very expensive to do; and the problem for me is that so often there would have been a huge number of blank pages on the left (and sometimes on the right)! So this was the least awkward way of doing it. I can see it’s got its own irritations, that after four pages of a footnote you’ve then got to go back to pick it up from where you left off [actually, they’re well coordinated: most of the time this isn’t an issue]. But what it all comes down to is the way that books are all about the successive, page 1-2-3-4-5, and it’s how to reconcile that with the simultaneous, and in some way you want those to be going on at once. In a film, for example, you could have a shot of somebody’s head and meanwhile on the voice-over they could be telling you about something that happened a while back. So footnotes were just a way of solving that very basic structural problem.
But I did really like what someone said in one of the pre-publication reviews: he said the footnotes have ended up growing over the book like ivy over the walls. I thought there was something nicely Zone-like about that! And then, of course, what happens as well is the distinction between footnote stuff and summary stuff starts to dissolve, in the same way that the literal journey in the film gives way to a much more speculative or metaphysical one.
ASH Smyth: An awful lot of people haven’t seen this film—and we’re not just talking about the Top Gear crowd. Did this have implications when you sat down to write the book?
Geoff Dyer: No, it’s absolutely not an issue. There’s a huge tradition of people doing these things, some kind of homage which takes on a life of its own but your enjoyment of it isn’t dependent on your having seen the thing to which you are paying homage—though, goodness knows, it is certainly enhanced if you have. My last book, the Jeff in Venice book, there’s obviously the whole Thomas Mann thing going on there; but you don’t have to have read Death in Venice to get that.
I mean, right from the start I was aware I was engaged in something so ludicrous that it was not feasible, in a way. So when I dropped this bombshell on my publisher—that it wasn’t the tennis book but this—I did at least have enough gumption to say, “But the key thing is, you don’t need to have seen the film to enjoy the book.” Jamie [Byng], the Canongate head honcho, hadn’t seen the film. Still hasn’t, actually. And in fact now some people are saying that they feel they’ll never see the film, out of some weird loyalty to Zona. There was a review in the Scotsman where the guy said he found himself simultaneously watching two versions of the film, mine and his; and someone sent me a clever e-mail saying they were very much looking to watching Tarkovsky’s version of my book!
ASH Smyth: Nice! That’s very good.
Geoff Dyer: So I like the whole tail-wagging-the-dog thing. But here’s the more serious point (and this is something I got from John Berger): typically with books they’re written in a certain way, the writer talking to fellow experts, so they have a very limited readership, or you get the kind of “This is a book for the common reader” or “the general reader”, with that enormous sort of condescension, the idea being that we won’t bother you with all the subtleties of things. Then Berger comes along with his book on Picasso, a book which is so great you can enjoy it even if you’ve never even seen a Picasso, and if you’re a Picasso scholar there’s stuff in it so original that, my God, this wouldn’t have occurred to you. So that thing of the general reader or the peer readership, that’s a complete red herring.
But again, you see, I had this fortunate thing: because for so long I didn’t have any kind of readership at all—I’d get published, but not read—the idea of writing for an audience is so anathema to me, it’s never bothered me. But I did say to my agent, sort of jokingly, “This book is my greatest achievement, in terms of what the market—or the publisher—might reasonably expect.” I kind of like the outrageousness of it.
Of course—and this isn’t me being megalomaniacal—this book will now institute a mini spike in Tarkovsky rentals. It’s not going to do him any harm at all! I suppose there’s another point to be made here. There’s always this thing of collapsing the gap between what you’re writing about and the way you’re writing about it: this whole idea, not of the art over here and the commentary over there, but some sort of meeting and merging together. And in a way what happens is that the merging here has taken place, that the film has sort of dissolved into the book.
ASH Smyth: If there’s one word that crops up on the backs of all of your books—and inside some of them, too—it’s “unclassifiable.” Stalker, from your writing, seems to be exactly that, in film. You talk about it being sort of sci-fi, but with the sci-fi bits getting cut out, and there being two and a half versions of the film which somehow end up being the one movie.
Geoff Dyer: Yeah. I guess when it came out it was perceived as, if not marketed as, a sort of sci-fi film; but it’s one of these things, it’s rather disappointing as sci-fi. And one of the reasons it’s frustrating for people, I think, is that it’s not doing some of the things that sci-fi should do. I really like the George Clooney of Solaris [also filmed by Tarkovsky, before Soderbergh]: that’s very obviously sci-fi, and it seems to me a great film. But whatever pigeon-hole you put Stalker into you would both be increasing the risk of disappointing people and diminishing the film.
ASH Smyth: You say somewhere that Stalker lends itself to a whole lot of allegorical interpretations. Do you have one—yours, or someone else’s—that you think the film is “about”?
Geoff Dyer: No. Definitely not. That would be an advantage of this way of describing it, that I’ve managed to avoid that problem. Or I could opt for the T.S. Eliot response and say “Yeah” …and then pass you the book to read!
ASH Smyth: Touché. I asked about the idea of getting the choc-ice footnote into a book about a Russian film; but it occurs to me that perhaps you don’t view Zona as a book “about a Russian film.”
Geoff Dyer: Oh, you feel it’s a book about the choc-ice!
ASH Smyth: [Laughs] No. But in many of your books you’ve put serious time and energy into not getting to grips with the putative subject. And then there’s your subtitle—A Book About a Film About a Journey to a Room—which rather suggests that the reader needs to be careful what expectations he brings to the business.
Geoff Dyer: Gotcha. No, you’re right. Several things here. Initially they wanted a subtitle, so I came up with this subtitle and went along with it. And then I realized I really don’t like the idea of subtitles: I don’t like my books being defined by their “about”-ness. So now the subtitle has just become a kind of strap-line on the cover, so the book’s official title is just Zona—i.e. it’s not “about” anything [it is on Amazon, ahem].
And this raises a more general point, I think, about the distinction between fiction and nonfiction. Fiction is not really about anything: it is what it is. But nonfiction—and you see this particularly with something like the BBC Samuel Johnson Prize for Non-Fiction—nonfiction we define in relation to what it’s about. So, Stalingrad by Antony Beevor. It’s “about” Stalingrad. Or, here’s a book by Claire Tomalin: it’s “about” Charles Dickens. And what I’m really interested in, as a reader and as a writer, is this idea of the nonfiction book that is not defined by its content, by its “about”-ness. Where you read it irrespective of whether you’re interested in the subject.
I thought it was really telling that my friend Will Fiennes, whose great book The Music Room, OK, you can say it’s about growing up in this stately home, it’s about a brother with epilepsy, but the thing is it’s really just this thing of writing, and although it was outrageous that it wasn’t long-listed for the Samuel Johnson prize—because it was such an incredible book—it was not at all surprising that it wasn’t, because it was so weak in its “about”-ness. So I suppose we can go back to that question that you asked, and the Nicholson Baker thing, y’know: I like these nonfiction books where everything that is interesting about them is lost in that catch-all description of their “about”-ness.
ASH Smyth: You mean not covered by it…
Geoff Dyer: Yep. So with Will Fiennes’s book you summarize it down and then everything’s gone. Because it’s all about the writing and the magical way in which he invokes this house. So yeah, trying to emphasize this idea of the nonfiction work of art, whose merits require a whole different mechanism of assessment, but you’re also learning a lot of stuff—about, in this case, Tarkovsky and Stalker.
ASH Smyth: And did you ever get to speak on that Tarkovsky panel?
Geoff Dyer: Do you know, I didn’t. Because in the end the initial urge to have my say was satisfied by doing it in the paper. But he would have been eighty in April, so I’m sure there’ll be plenty of stuff. Box sets and things. Though now, of course, I’ve had my say on Tarkovsky: I’ve got nothing to add!