‘I’ve always believed that an artist is someone who turns everything that happens to him to his advantage’, Geoff Dyer writes in But Beautiful: A Book About Jazz (1991). In January this year, a few months short of turning fifty-six, he suffered a minor stroke and wrote it up as an essay for The London Review of Books, ‘Why Can’t I See You’. As he walked into a British Library meeting room this May, he seemed physically and intellectually undiminished.
At one point in the interview that followed, Dyer questioned the value of writers’ self-definitions. It’s only fair, then, to take the outsider ethos of his own – ‘a literary and scholarly gatecrasher, turning up uninvited at an area of expertise, making myself at home, having a high old time for a year or two, and then moving on elsewhere’ – and compare it to his acquisition of the trappings of the insider: his teaching contract at Iowa, his two essay collections, the recent republication of most of his backlist, his listing in The Guardian’s 2011 ‘Britain’s top 300 intellectuals’ (under ‘Critics’), and the upcoming academic conference on his work at which he’s keynote speaker. If there’s a party after that, he’ll hardly be crashing.
If he’s being canonised – if Dyer studies are becoming an area of expertise in themselves – it seems an appropriate time to think about what his place in a canon would be. The question was particularly present in this interview because John Berger was also in London to give a poetry reading. Dyer was one of the first people I got in touch with when I started cataloguing Berger’s archive, as he wrote his first book, Ways of Telling, about Berger, and dedicated But Beautiful to him. Following George Steiner’s advice that ‘the best readings of art are art’, that book fictionalised the lives of jazz musicians, developing what Berger learnt from Joyce: ‘to separate fact from fiction is to stay on dry land and never put to sea.’
Consciously initiating the mature phase of Dyer’s writing, But Beautiful observes that ‘so often in jazz, a paradox is at work: to sound like themselves, musicians begin by trying to sound like someone else.’ The further paradox is that Dyer’s unhierarchical attitude to influence is both pure Berger, and, I think, distinctively his. In Ways of Telling, and then again in his introduction to Berger’s Selected Essays, he argued ‘it is not enough for us to argue for Berger’s name to be printed more prominently on an existing map of literary reputations; his example urges us fundamentally to alter its shape’. How, then, has Dyer altered this shape?
With this in mind, I sat him down in front of the Berger and D. H. Lawrence archives, the very existences of which represent scourges of the establishment being canonised. As a transcript hides in plain sight, the boundary between Dyer’s prose and conversation is noticeably permeable; his talk fills with flashes of his writing. In the context of the nightly performances of a book tour, it makes sense to compare these to remembered phrases in jazz: in our email correspondence, he referred to Berger’s upcoming ‘gig’ as a good time for our own.