Geoff Dyer’s novel Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi is simultaneously more complicated and more playful that it first seems. The first half of the novel narrates in the third person a story about an Englishman named Jeff Atman. Like the author (whose name, Geoff, is a homophone for that of his protagonist), Jeff Atman is a freelance journalist and critic for prestigious British magazines. Jeff is hired to attend the famous Biennale art festival in Venice and conduct an interview with the former love of a famous artist. The second half of the novel is narrated in the first person. The unnamed narrator is presumably still Jeff Atman (there are many similarities and indicators that the two are the same character, but the fact is never entirely confirmed). He has now been sent to Varanasi, a city on the Ganges River in India where Hindus bathe in the river in part to cleanse their body of karmic debt and in some cases to escape further reincarnations.
The complexities and playfulness of the novel are in many ways prefigured by Dyer’s earlier work. For example, his But Beautiful (1991) tells the purportedly nonfictional life stories of several jazz greats, but the narrative style and approach seem fictive in quality. Dyer’s Out of Sheer Rage (1997) is both a book about British novelist D. H. Lawrence and a memoir about Dyer’s failure to write a book about Lawrence. Yoga for People Who Can’t Be Bothered to Do It (2003), a collection of travel essays, partly chronicles small voyages of self-discovery similar to the one made by the narrator of the second half of the novel.
The title of Jeff in Venice, the first half of the composite novel, is a pun referring to Thomas Mann’s famous novella Der Tod in Venedig (1912; Death in Venice, 1925); the narrative is related to Mann’s novella in a number of other ways as well. Death in Venice tells the story of the aging Gustav von Aschenbach, who has traveled to Venice from Austria in part out of denial of his impinging mortality. While at the seaside, he becomes obsessed with an adolescent boy named Tadzio, the son of a vacationing aristocratic family. The novella is famous for many things; as Aschenbach’s obsession moves from fascination with Tadzio’s beauty to a pedophilic sexual longing, Mann seems to be commenting in part on the modernist dichotomy that exists between the Dionysian, or carnal, self and the Apollonian, or platonic and spiritual, side of humans. At the same time, Aschenbach is at least partly infatuated by Tadzio’s youth, which in its glory stands in stark contrast to the writer’s fading eminence. The novella ends with Aschenbach’s death at the very moment he believes that Tadzio may consent to some contact with him.
Just as Aschenbach dyes his hair before descending upon Venice, so does Jeff Atman. Jeff, who in his mid-forties is a decade younger than Aschenbach, is striving also to fight back the forces of ennui and mortality. His life is largely without purpose and has achieved almost a kind of meaningless vagueness: “He had a vague idea of things, a vague sense of what was happening in the world, a vague sense of having met someone before. It was like being vaguely drunk all the time.”
While attending the grand Venice art festival the Biennale, however, Jeff meets Laura at one of the endless parties for the members of the media attending the festival. The character is appropriately named, since another Laura was the object of a famous series of love sonnets by Renaissance Italian poet Petrarch (1304-1374). Just as Jeff will fall in love and lust with Laura at first sight, Petrarch’s life was presumably changed forever at the sight of his own Laura, a woman who greatly influenced him yet who remained unobtainable to him. Jeff is immediately obsessed with Laura, both from an aesthetic appreciation of her beauty (again mirroring Mann’s protagonist) and from a more carnal need to possess her sexually. When the two quickly become lovers, Jeff completely revels in her: the sight of her, her smell, her feel, everything about her. His infatuation is so complete that he thinks of how they can continue their relationship, of how they can commit to a life together...
(The entire section is 1740 words.)