Thursday, 11 August 2011

Jeff In Venice, Death In Varanasi by Geoff Dyer

Notionally a work of fiction, but peppered with a hefty amount of travel writing, Jeff In Venice, Death In Varanasi is a contemplation of life, love and enlightenment in the titular cities.

Jeff, a middle aged freelance journalist, has been sent to Venice to cover the 2003 Biennale for the magazine Kultchur. He meets up at the airport with the familiar crowd of hacks and arty types, who already getting stuck into the drink before the horrors of their budget flight:

It was like being on a school trip, organized by the art teacher and part-funded by a range of sympathetic breweries.

He’s ostensibly there to do an interview and cover the event, but things never entirely work out as planned:

That was the thing about the Biennale: it was a definitive experience, absolutely fixed, subject only to insignificant individual variation. You came to Venice, you saw a ton of art, you went to parties, you drank up a storm, you talked bollocks for hours on end and went back to London with a cumulative hangover, liver damage, a notebook almost devoid of notes and the first tingle of a cold sore.

As the group lurch from a free party to a bar, Jeff feels the artistic atmosphere beginning to rub off on him:

In the bar, waiting to get served, Jeff decided that, following the example of Tracy Emin’s Everyone she’d ever slept with tent, if he were an artist he would build a one-to-one scale model of all the booze he’d ever poured down his gullet. Beer, wine, champagne, cider, the lot. Christ, he’d need a gallery the size of an aircraft hanger just for the beer: the pints, the tins, the bottles. It would be a portrait not simply of his life but of his era. Some of the brands he’d started out with had since disappeared: Tartan, Double Diamond, Trophy, the inaptly named Long Life. And it would be international too; not just the domestic beers, but the ones you swilled when abroad – Peroni, for example, five of which he order from the busy barman.

Better than that, he meets a beautiful American lady called Laura, and he contrives to make sure their paths cross again. Even so, there are still artworks to view, interviews to conduct (badly) and parties to attend:

Inside, everyone was belting back bellinis as usual. The waiters were struggling to cope with the insatiable demand for bellinis. There was barely room to move and around the drinks table it was mayhem. Jeff had got it into his head that risotto has been promised. He assumed that he’d got this idea from the invite, but there was no mention of it there and, at present, no risotto was in evidence. In view of the numbers, producing risotto was an absurdly ambitious and labour-intensive undertaking, but it seemed that Jeff was not alone in expecting risotto. The risotto and its potential non-appearance was, in fact, the chief topic of conversation in the garden. People were counting on risotto to line their stomachs; a lack of risotto would have a significant impact on their ability to belt back bellinis.

Perhaps because of the lack of blotting paper, everyone seems more pissed than usual. Conversation gets increasingly complicated:

You could say anything at this point in the evening. It didn’t have to make sense and you didn’t have to wait for the other person to finish what they were saying before you said it, but, by the same token, no one had to listen to what you were saying, or wait for you to finish saying what you were saying. “Constable–,” said a woman Jeff didn’t recognise, but that was as far as she got because the Kaiser was saying, “There’s only one artist in the Biennale I care about.” Unusually, there was a pause as everyone waited for the result of this declaration. “Bellini!” he said, raising a glass in acknowledgement of the enthusiastic applause with which this remark was endorsed.

The evening is not entirely wasted as Jeff and Laura end up going back to the same hotel, and the rest of his stay in Venice is spent in a trance of athletic sex, endless bellinis, cocaine and art. The last day comes all to quickly and they say goodbye, promising to meet again but not exchanging numbers. Jeff wanders slightly shell shocked into the bar where they first met and tries to order a drink:

The bar was open, but quite deserted. Even taking into account the fact that it was a Sunday afternoon, it was surprisingly empty. Staff were stacking chairs on tables. It had the look of a place that had been looted. “What’s happened?” Jeff asked. “We run out.” “Ran out of what?” “Drink.” “You mean there’s nothing left to drink?” “Si, nothing.” “Nothing?” “Niente. Is all gone. Beer, wine, whisky. Finito.” He seemed exhausted, proud, amazed and a little appalled by what had occurred. He had, evidently, never experienced anything like this. Or expected it. If an English football team had been playing in Venice, then he might reasonably have assumed there would be a huge demand for booze, but he had seriously underestimated the insatiable thirst of the international art crowd.

After all this, it’s perhaps not surprising that the second section, set in Varanasi, is the more contemplative part of the book...

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