Geoff Dyer Essay - Critical Essays

Dyer, Geoff


Geoff Dyer 1958-

English novelist, nonfiction writer, biographer, and essayist.

The following entry presents an overview of Dyer's career through 2000.

A self-styled novelist and author of diverse nonfiction works on subjects including jazz, World War I, and British writer John Berger, Dyer is known for his unconventional subjective approach and impressionistic, often highly expressive prose. While his novels The Colour of Memory (1989) and Paris Trance (1998) focus on the dissolute, transient lives and friendships of young Britons, Out of Sheer Rage (1998) is a mixture of memoir, travelogue, and criticism that relates Dyer's failed attempt to write a scholarly study of D. H. Lawrence. Dyer has evinced an interest in the process of artistic creation and authorial self-reflexivity that, despite his disdain for the vacuity of contemporary literary theory, lends much of his writing a postmodern quality.

Biographical Information

Born in Cheltenham, England, to working-class parents, Dyer received a scholarship to attend Corpus Christi College, Oxford, where he received a B.A. with honors in 1980. But Beautiful (1991), a book that explores Dyer's passion for jazz music, won the Somerset Maugham Prize in 1992 and was short-listed for the John Llewellyn Rhys Memorial Prize. Out of Sheer Rage was nominated for a National Book Critics Circle Award in literary criticism in 1998. Dyer is a regular contributor to various periodicals, including New Statesman and New Society.

Major Works

Dyer's first published book, Ways of Telling (1986), is a critical study of John Berger, the English art critic and Booker prize-winning novelist who served as Dyer's model and mentor. Arguing that Berger is among the most important British intellectuals of the mid-twentieth century, Dyer laments that Berger's work has not received the scholarly appreciation that he believes it deserves. Dyer's homage to Berger, an iconoclastic stylist with Marxist convictions, also reflects Dyer's own affinity for literary experimentation and rejection of traditional narrative conventions. Dyer's first novel, The Colour of Memory, describes the aimless lives of a group of young people in Brixton—a depressed, crime-ridden area of South London. The text consists primarily of plotless scenes in which the close-knit friends, including a painter, an aspiring novelist, and other bohemian twenty-somethings, attend parties, drink beer, and expound on art and literature. The Search (1993), a novel influenced by Italian novelist Italo Calvino, is a mix of genres—a philosophical detective thriller crossed with medieval romance, specifically borrowing elements from the legend of the Holy Grail. The novel is laden with arresting images and makes the suggestion that people can only know one another through their physical reflections. Paris Trance surveys a year in the lives of four people: two young Englishmen, Luke and Alex, and their respective girlfriends, Nicole, a Serb, and Sahra, a North African. Their year of hedonism—including excessive drug use, visits to nightclubs, and sexual adventures—leads to a conventional life for three of them. Alex and Sahra marry and have a child, while Nicole remains in Paris as a single mother. Only the anti-hero Luke, who originally goes to Paris to write a novel, is unable to settle down. But Beautiful consists of a series of vignettes about various jazz musicians, including Chet Baker, Duke Ellington, Charles Mingus, Thelonious Monk, Art Pepper, Bud Powell, Ben Webster, and Lester Young. Dyer argues that the hardships of their respective personal circumstances—poverty, drug and alcohol addiction, and racism—are inseparable from the music they produced. In The Missing of the Somme (1994), Dyer considers the lingering cultural legacy of World War I in the British national consciousness. As Dyer notes, ten percent of all English males under the age of forty-five died on the Western Front between 1914 and 1918. This unprecedented loss continues to be commemorated in diverse ways, from ceremonies on Remembrance Day, to stone monuments, to nonfiction accounts of the war. Dyer's descriptions of these memorials serve as a buffer against indifference and obscurity, drawing attention to the veterans of the war and the heroic events that took place. Out of Sheer Rage, which was originally intended to be a serious critical study of the works of D. H. Lawrence, is instead an account of Dyer's struggle to overcome writer's block. Though Dyer admired Lawrence's novels, he becomes more interested in Lawrence's letters and travel writing, and is stalled by the temptation to write a novel instead. The resulting book chronicles the procrastination, relocations, and self-delusions that helped perpetuate Dyer's inability to write. The work also provides some commentary on Lawrence's works and Dyer's own Lawrentian diatribes against a host of personal grievances, including academic literary criticism and the English people. Anglo-English Attitudes (1999), a compilation of essays written between 1984 and 1999, also includes book reviews, prose pieces on photographers, musicians, and painters, and reminiscences of Dyer's various misadventures.

Critical Reception

Critics have often been divided in their assessment of Dyer's work. Ways of Telling was generally appreciated as a welcome study of an important intellectual figure, and Dyer's sensitive, lyrical descriptions of jazz music in But Beautiful attracted several favorable comments. The Missing of the Somme also garnered positive reviews, though some found shortcomings in Dyer's lack of focus and over-reliance on Paul Fussell's own study of the cultural impact of World War I, The Great War and Modern Memory. While some reviewers have commended Dyer's quirky, difficult-to-classify books for their evocative meditations, other critics have found narcissistic tendencies in Dyer's writing and have criticized his sometimes overly emotional descriptions. As a result, several critics have noted that Dyer's ambitious ideas are not followed through to the level of excellence they expected. Dyer's first novel, The Colour of Memory was faulted for its lack of feeling and character development, which may be attributed to Dyer's disavowal of novelistic conventions. However, The Search was regarded by reviewers as an interesting epistemological thriller, and Paris Trance was praised for its engaging story and shifting perspectives.

Principal Works

Ways of Telling: The Work of John Berger (biography) 1986

The Colour of Memory (novel) 1989

But Beautiful: A Book about Jazz (nonfiction) 1991

The Search (novel) 1993

The Missing of the Somme (nonfiction) 1994

Out of Sheer Rage: Wrestling with D. H. Lawrence (nonfiction) 1998

Paris Trance: A Romance (novel) 1998

Anglo-English Attitudes (essays) 1999


Simon Frith (review date 23 January 1987)

SOURCE: “A Fortunate Man,” in New Statesman, January 23, 1987, pp. 28–29.

[In the following review of Ways of Telling, Frith commends Dyer's homage to John Berger, but finds that the book raises more questions than it answers.]

This is in every sense a good book [Ways of Telling], an affectionate introduction to John Berger's life's work, covering the criticism and essays from 1950s New Statesman days to 1985's The White Bird. It takes in all his fiction and poetry along the way, examining his collaborations with photographer Jean Mohr, TV producer director Mike Dibb and, in an added interview with Berger himself, film maker Alain...

(The entire section is 985 words.)

Peter Campbell (review date 19 March 1987)

SOURCE: “Agreeing with Berger,” in London Review of Books, March 19, 1987, pp. 9–10.

[In the following review of Ways of Telling, Campbell discusses the career and influence of John Berger.]

John Berger is 60. He is not forgotten. Permanent Red, his criticism from the Fifties, is in print. Ways of Seeing is the antidote put in the hands of students who have drunk too deeply of Courtauld art history. His novels, too, have created a stir. His first, A Painter of Our Time, had such vitriolic reviews that the publishers withdrew it, and G won the Booker Prize: Berger's hard swallow on that sugarplum made him briefly notorious. His...

(The entire section is 1914 words.)

Lynne Cooke (review date 24 April 1987)

SOURCE: “Under Constraints,” in Times Literary Supplement, April 24, 1987, p. 449.

[In the following review of Ways of Telling, Cooke concludes that Dyer's account of John Berger's life is “a lively introduction but not a definitive critical study.”]

Geoff Dyer's claim [in Ways of Telling] that John Berger has been “the brightest figure in British intellectual life” over the past twenty-five years has the effect of bringing the reader up short. Intrigued, incredulous, provoked, one waits to see how the author will plead his case—but in vain. Rather than arguing closely, and with reference to British cultural life of the past quarter-century,...

(The entire section is 565 words.)

Mark Ford (review date 2–8 June 1989)

SOURCE: “Idleness en Masse,” in Times Literary Supplement, June 2–8, 1989, p. 619.

[In the following excerpt, Ford offers an unfavorable assessment of The Colour of Memory.]

Everyone hates having the toad work squat on their lives, but doing nothing all day, every day, can be even worse. Both The Colour of Memory and When the Monster Dies [by Kate Pullinger] describe the aimless “alternative” lives of South London scroungers, in squats or on the dole, and doggedly chronicle the pleasures and vexations of drifting, purposeless days.

The Colour of Memory is the more successful. It is set in Brixton and celebrates in...

(The entire section is 449 words.)

Nicholas Lezard (review date 2 September 1989)

SOURCE: “A Lesson from America,” in Spectator, September 2, 1989, pp. 31–32.

[In the following excerpt, Lezard offers an unfavorable assessment of The Colour of Memory.]

When publishers wake up, as they periodically do, to the fact that young people look good on dust-jackets, the results can be pretty inspiring. Geoff Dyer's first novel, The Colour of Memory, has inspired me to leave the country. It is a plotless novel, not so much written as observed, where youngish people on the dole in Brixton with mildly precious names like Foomie and Sternako sit on roofs, drink beer, go to parties, name-drop a lot and smoke loads of grass. It is a pleasant existence,...

(The entire section is 364 words.)

Adam Lively (review date 7 June 1991)

SOURCE: “Romantic Heroes of Jazz,” in Times Literary Supplement, June 7, 1991, p. 23.

[In the following excerpt, Lively commends Dyer's study of jazz music in But Beautiful, but notes that his interpretation lacks adequate social and historical perspective.]

But Beautiful is unclassifiable, and all the better for that. Geoff Dyer tells us in the preface that when he began writing, he was unsure of the form the book should take. His improvisatory method has led to a series of semi-fictional portraits of some of the tortured geniuses of jazz—men like Lester Young, Monk, Art Pepper, Ben Webster and Bud Powell. Chet Baker is beaten up by his heroin...

(The entire section is 700 words.)

David Widgery (review date 21 June 1991)

SOURCE: “Lullaby of Birdland,” in New Statesman and Society, June 21, 1991, p. 44.

[In the following review of But Beautiful, Widgery commends Dyer's ability to convey his passion for jazz, but finds shortcomings in his conventional interpretations and apolitical stance.]

There has been “little first-rate writing on jazz,” thinks Geoff Dyer (sorry, Hentoff, Russell and Balliet, Wilmer, Case and Fordham). Until, it is implied, now. Well, some of these jazz fictions are superb, but others are an infuriating mixture of the pretentious and the vacuous. The lovely lines are offset by bits of young love in Paris and...

(The entire section is 655 words.)

Erica Wagner (review date 20 November 1993)

SOURCE: “Make That Thy Quest, and Go Rot,” in Spectator, November 20, 1993, p. 45.

[In the following review, Wagner offers a positive assessment of The Search.]

[In The Search] Rachel meets Walker at a party and sends him off to find her vanished husband. Straightforward: Walker's a tracker, a retriever of the disappeared, and Rachel sends him on his way with a promise of big money and a wad of papers in his pocket that the missing man must sign and fingerprint. It goes without saying that Walker is half in love with the lovely and mysterious Rachel. This is familiar territory.

Not for long. Walker sets out into a nameless but familiar...

(The entire section is 623 words.)

Peter Jukes (review date 26 November 1993)

SOURCE: “Track Events,” in New Statesman and Society, November 26, 1993, pp. 46–47.

[In the following review, Jukes offers a generally positive assessment of The Search, but finds shortcomings in the novel's film noir style.]

Three factors weight very heavily in Geoff Dyer's favour. His first book, a critical biography of John Berger, showed him to be one of the few younger writers taking on Berger's tradition of experiment. His second, The Colour of Memory, was effectively a critical biography of a generation. Of all the hyped novels about 1980s London it remains one of the most genuine. And his third, But Beautiful: eight improvisations on...

(The entire section is 685 words.)

Alex Clark (review date 3 December 1993)

SOURCE: “Gratification Deferred,” in Times Literary Supplement, December 3, 1993, p. 20.

[In the following review of The Search, Clark finds shortcomings in the novel's muddled eclecticism and lack of “authorial presence.”]

In his first novel, The Colour of Memory, Geoff Dyer set snapshots of his narrator's life against the structure of the minutes of an hour ticking away. Unsure of what was important and what was trivial, why these details have been selected and others excluded, the reader could only observe. The point was to disturb the story, to tell by showing, to mix it a little. One of the characters, a writer, expresses his contempt for...

(The entire section is 800 words.)

Martin Chalmers (review date 28 October 1994)

SOURCE: “The Lost Boys,” in New Statesman and Society, October 28, 1994, p. 41.

[In the following review of The Missing of the Somme, Chalmers discusses the legacy of the First World War in Britain and Dyer's treatment of the subject.]

By the end of the first world war—or Great War, as Geoff Dyer still prefers to call it—10 per cent of the males of Great Britain under 45 had simply disappeared. The country, however, to which the survivors returned from that “zone of obliteration” called the Western Front was virtually untouched by war, unlike in 1945. “The problem,” notes Dyer, “was to find a way of making manifest the memory of those who were...

(The entire section is 639 words.)

David Horspool (review date 11 November 1994)

SOURCE: “At the Going Down of the Sun,” in Times Literary Supplement, November 11, 1994, p. 22.

[In the following review of The Missing of the Somme, Horspool finds shortcomings in Dyer's overreliance on existing sources, particularly Paul Fussell's The Great War and Modern Memory, and Dyer's scattered meditative approach to the subject.]

The rituals of Remembrance Day are intended to commemorate the dead of both World Wars, but Geoff Dyer, though he has lived through neither, is not alone in identifying those rituals—and the act of remembrance itself—overwhelmingly with the First World War. The Great War is still for him, in Wyndham Lewis's...

(The entire section is 841 words.)

John Litweiler (review date 7 April 1996)

SOURCE: “Life in the Jazz Lane: The Misery of Stan Getz, the Loneliness of Dark Rooms and the State of the Music,” in Chicago Tribune Books, April 7, 1996, p. 5.

[In the following excerpt, Litweiler offers an unfavorable assessment of But Beautiful.]

Beauty of melody, purity of sound—these are the obvious qualities of tenor saxophonist Stan Getz's music at the beginning of his 49–year career, at the end when he was wracked with cancer, and usually in between.

Indeed, throughout the bop era and into postmodern times, has any other jazz artist been so thoroughly identified with romance? Yet Stan Getz, by Donald L. Maggin, is the most...

(The entire section is 1184 words.)

Phil Baker (review date 28 March 1997)

SOURCE: “Blocked Down Memory Lane,” in Times Literary Supplement, March 28, 1997, p. 32.

[In the following review, Baker offers a positive assessment of Out of Sheer Rage.]

“It will be about anything but Thomas Hardy I am afraid,” D. H. Lawrence wrote of his book on Hardy: “queer stuff—but not bad.” Geoff Dyer takes this as his epigraph for Out of Sheer Rage, a book which often seems to be about anything but D. H. Lawrence, and begins as a confession about the painful business of not-writing.

Dyer builds up an impressive stack of notes: notes which, “it is obvious to me now, actually served not to prepare for and facilitate the...

(The entire section is 854 words.)

William Scammell (review date 19 April 1997)

SOURCE: “Look! He Has Come Through!,” in Spectator, April 19, 1997, p. 44.

[In the following review, Scammell offers a positive assessment of Out of Sheer Rage.]

To everyone else on the island it looked like I was in deep thought, wrestling with philosophical problems, when all I was doing was trying to bear the awful weight of my head—which, on reflection is what all philosophical thought comes down to anyway: how to bear the awful weight of your head.

What Geoff Dyer was doing on this idyllic Greek island, apart from nursing an injury and having a thoroughly bad time, was reading Lawrence, notionally in...

(The entire section is 1120 words.)

Andy Beckett (review date 6 June 1997)

SOURCE: “Off His Moped,” in New Statesman, June 6, 1997, pp. 47–48.

[In the following review, Beckett offers a positive assessment of Out of Sheer Rage.]

Readers will do well to get past [Out of Sheer Rage]'s first sentence. It is eight lines long, its wheels spin in a swamp of commas, and its gist is as follows: Geoff Dyer has attempted a biography of D. H. Lawrence to make himself feel better. Over the next 20 pages the implications of this become haltingly, horribly clear. Lawrence barely surfaces. Instead, Dyer's neuroses reveal themselves: he wants to write a novel but cannot face starting it: he has resolved to write a biography instead: but he...

(The entire section is 715 words.)

Candia McWilliam (review date 17 April 1998)

SOURCE: “A Glorious Elegy to Youth and Paris,” in New Statesman, April 17, 1998, p. 49.

[In the following review, McWilliam offers a positive assessment of Paris Trance.]

Charm is a tricky quality. We like to feel it but where we identify it we often feel compelled to condemn. Charming books tend to wither as fashion moves on or as we grow older. The Catcher in the Rye, and maybe Ginger and Pickles seem to be exceptions. Then there are books, such as The Great Gatsby, whose callowness is itself profound, whose charm is persistingly, enduringly, transient.

Geoff Dyer has written such a book [Paris Trance]. His career has...

(The entire section is 615 words.)

David Irvine (review date 25 April 1998)

SOURCE: “The Famous Five at a Loss,” in Spectator, April 25, 1998, pp. 40–41.

[In the following review, Irvine offers a positive assessment of Paris Trance.]

There is an initial fear that a book called Paris Trance may join the ranks of the increasingly hackneyed ‘ecstasy generation’ literature. Geoff Dyer has achieved far more with his compelling third novel.

The novel charts a year in the lives of two couples in a place called Paris, Trance, which ‘bears only an approximate or incidental resemblance to the city of that name in France.’ Luke and Alex are two Englishmen who become close friends whilst working in a factory in...

(The entire section is 618 words.)

Richard Eder (review date 6 May 1998)

SOURCE: “In This Case, Writer's Block Became a Conduit for Creativity,” in Los Angeles Times, May 6, 1998, p. E6.

[In the following review, Eder offers a positive assessment of Out of Sheer Rage, though he notes that Dyer's approach to the subject matter is somewhat self-defeating.]

You just might wrestle a pig out of the mud, but it is quite as likely that the pig will wrestle you into the mud. Geoff Dyer, a writer of fine but jittery sensibility, found himself in a state of personal and literary breakdown. He was beyond blocked; he was splintered. Accordingly, in the hope of grounding his out-of-control fancifulness, he decided to attempt, or so he tells,...

(The entire section is 829 words.)

David Thomson (review date 14 June 1998)

SOURCE: “Solitary Man,” in Los Angeles Times Book Review, June 14, 1998, p. 14.

[In the following excerpt, Thomson offers a positive assessment of But Beautiful.]

Chet Baker was a soft white kid who loved black music and wanted to imitate it but who never had the depth or energy to keep up. Born in Yale, Okla., in 1929, he moved to California when he was 11 and joined the Army five years later. He was by then a bugle boy increasingly drawn to jazz on the radio and sometimes in live performance. He left the Army in 1948, reentered in 1950—a strange move—and was deemed unfit for service in 1952. His professional jazz career took off soon after, with Charlie...

(The entire section is 1369 words.)

Steven G. Kellman (review date Summer 1998)

SOURCE: “Biographer: Get a Life!,” in American Scholar, Vol. 67, No. 3, Summer, 1998, pp. 140–42.

[In the following excerpt, Kellman discusses the problem of biographical writing and offers a positive assessment of Out of Sheer Rage.]

“You have but two subjects,” growled Samuel Johnson at James Boswell, “yourself and me. I am sick of both.” The first great modern biography, Boswell's The Life of Samuel Johnson reveals as much about its author as about its subject, and readers sick of both Johnson and Boswell are sick of life.

A human interest in the lives of other sustains the health of the publishing industry. Abraham Lincoln...

(The entire section is 1510 words.)

Rosellen Brown (review date 14–28 June 1999)

SOURCE: “The Perils of Irreverence,” in New Leader, June 14–28, 1999, pp. 28–30.

[In the following review, Brown offers an unfavorable assessment of Paris Trance.]

It was D. H. Lawrence who cautioned readers not to trust the teller but to trust the tale. Perhaps, therefore, it isn't useful to hold a novelist's own words against him, or rather, to hold them up as his defining standard. Yet if they are in print, why not assume they were meant to be taken seriously?

A few years ago, British writer Geoff Dyer published a hybrid work that was neither biography nor criticism, and not quite a memoir, called Out of Sheer Rage. It chronicled his...

(The entire section is 1813 words.)

Jonathan Levi (review date 17 June 1999)

SOURCE: “Frozen in Time and Youth in City of Light,” in Los Angeles Times, June 17, 1999, p. E3.

[In the following review, Levi offers a positive assessment of Paris Trance.]

For sheer fun, few books published last year could beat the Englishman Geoff Dyer's Out of Sheer Rage. The most hilarious example of indecision since Waiting for Godot, Dyer's book told of a multi-year hegira while the author wandered between France, Italy, Greece and Mexico, trying to decide whether to write a novel or a big book on D. H. Lawrence, and ended up writing neither.

The novel, though, has finally seen the light of day in Paris Trance. And...

(The entire section is 668 words.)

James Sallis (review date 27 June 1999)

SOURCE: “Innocents Abroad,” in Washington Post Book World, June 27, 1999, pp. 8–9.

[In the following excerpt, Sallis offers a positive assessment of Paris Trance.]

When blurbs apologize for a book's offering up “escapism” and depicting “sad, unremarkable lives,” the reader takes caution. In the case of Paris Trance such caution, any caution, is unwarranted. The book, by the author of last year's Out of Sheer Rage: Wrestling with D. H. Lawrence, is a fine novel, written with a light, sure touch, affecting far beyond its length and apparent (but only apparent) insubstantiality. Dyer's novel suggests that, just as once America gave to the world...

(The entire section is 521 words.)

Jonathan Bolton (review date Spring 2000)

SOURCE: A review of Out of Sheer Rage, in Southern Humanities Review, Vol. 34, No. 2, Spring, 2000, pp. 181–84.

[In the following review, Bolton finds Out of Sheer Rage “amusing and provocative,” but concludes that “those seeking a keener understanding of Lawrence will be disappointed.”]

British novelist and freelance writer Geoff Dyer's entertaining book takes its title aptly from a phrase in D. H. Lawrence's correspondence regarding his Study of Thomas Hardy, lines which also serve as an epigraph to Dyer's study of Lawrence: “Out of sheer rage I've begun my book on Thomas Hardy. It will be about anything but Thomas Hardy I am...

(The entire section is 1025 words.)

Further Reading


Bernstein, Richard. “Jazz's Dark Forces and the Artists Who Love Them.” New York Times (20 March 1996): C20.

Bernstein offers an overview of Dyer's inspirations for But Beautiful, and calls the book “marvelously literate.”

Eder, Richard. “Old Bliss, in a New Arrondissement.” New York Times (2 June 1999): E8.

Eder offers a mixed assessment of Paris Trance, giving praise to the novel's comedy, but criticizing the work's awkward narrative voice.

Kirn, Walter. “Lost Generation X.” New York (9 August 1999): 50–51.

Kirn offers a...

(The entire section is 226 words.)