share


Interview with Geoff Dyer

‘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.

 

Q

The White Review

— Your first literary love was D. H. Lawrence – you wrote Out of Sheer Rage (1997) ‘in his shadow’ – so I’ve brought you some correspondence about the police suppressing his novel The Rainbow (1915).

A

Geoff Dyer

— Yes – was it copies of the Rainbow which were burned by the public executioner? This is great. I can see how one could get easily addicted to archives.

Q

The White Review

— Well you’ve already written an essay which The Guardian sub-headed something like ‘Why would Geoff Dyer spend over a grand on one of Lawrence’s letters?’ Was it partly that you knew you’d get an essay out of it?

A

Geoff Dyer

— No, but I did think that one way I could recoup some of the cost was to write something about it. To be more serious about it, Lawrence was dead before I was born, of course, but as a reader I feel I’ve had a very intimate relationship with him. His work has meant so much to me, and his life has been so important. My wife works in the art world, but I realised that the art object I most wanted was a letter by Lawrence. Just as whatever the opposite of a memento mori is – a memento vivere? – it feels like a lovely living presence in the flat. I don’t have it with me in California at the minute, but it would go hand in hand with the other thing I like to have with me wherever I go, which is some kind of picture of Don Cherry. In different ways they’re kind of kindred spirits. They were both very happy living these nomadic lives, though Cherry was less at odds with the world than Lawrence was.

 

But it’s not the case that one is seeking out experiences to write about. That image sort of suggests someone sniffing around – is it possible to write about this? That poem ‘Snake’ by Lawrence loses something if you imagine Lawrence waking up and walking out in his white pyjamas, hoping, waiting for something extraordinary to happen to him. It’s more that he lived in this state of perpetual receptiveness to what might happen to him – some writers arrange their lives in such a way as to maximise the potential for that happening. Lawrence’s wandering the globe was both a good and a bad thing: it made him a totally international writer but – I can’t remember who said it – ‘it left him floundering in a sea of impulses’. There’s the Updike model, of living a fairly uneventful  life in Massachusetts. Or there’s Berger’s example, whereby he moved to a place where he would be at the mercy of new kinds of experiences – living in the midst of peasants in the Haute Savoie.  This also meant that he felt an obligation – both literary and moral – to become the best human being he could, in a quite traditional sense of maximising of his capacity for kindness and sympathy. I think that’s gone hand in hand with his project of being a writer with a long creative life.

Q

The White Review

— That’s a good moment to get out some of the Berger archive, which is an expression of that long creative life. He gave it to the Library in exchange for help with the haymaking in Haute Savoie, where, as you say, he moved to live with the French peasants he wrote the Into Their Labours trilogy (1979–90) about. This is part of his decision to define all of his creative activity – art writing, TV, novels – as storytelling, and one of the earliest and clearest articulations of this was in a 1984 Marxism Today interview with you…

A

Geoff Dyer

— Oh was it? A great moment in my life, that was.

Q

The White Review

— Was that the first time you’d met him?

A

Geoff Dyer

— He’d signed a book for me And Our Faces, My Heart, Brief as Photos – the week before, and then we did that interview. I remember it so, so vividly. I’ve met loads of writers, but Berger was the first writer I’d met, and he was the writer I most loved on earth. This first encounter has such a long track record of disappointment – the young admirer meets his idol who turns out to have not just feet, but everything of clay. But Berger sets such a high standard of not just how to behave, but how to be.

 

In a very different way, this is something he has in common with Lawrence: everybody who met him for a minute wrote a memoir of their encounter with him. But for someone of Berger’s age – he was born in 1926 – Lawrence was a very big figure. I remember clearly John telling me once about how Lawrence had meant a lot to him, and he said {puffing his cheeks out},‘Yes, especially his hatred of England’. And when you look here at that correspondence to do with The Rainbow, Lawrence had a lot of reasons to curse England.

Q

The White Review

— Actually one of the earliest things in the Berger archive is a private view card from an exhibition he had with John Latham in the Forties – he had to take a nude self-portrait down from that because the gallery were afraid the police would get involved.

A

Geoff Dyer

— Just like the Lawrence show at the Warren Gallery! The similarities between Berger and Lawrence become more apparent to me than they were when my thoroughly boring book about him came out in 1986.

Q

The White Review

— And of course Berger thought that his first novel, A Painter of Our Time (1958) was ‘virtually, practically suppressed’ for its politics. These are the four notebooks of drafts of it, which are quite fun because it’s based around a fictional art critic, John, going through his diaries and trying to piece together why his painter friend, Janos, has disappeared around the time of the 1956 Hungarian Uprising.

A

Geoff Dyer

— Oh wow, it’s all getting very meta now isn’t it… but isn’t it funny looking at this, seeing the permanencies – John’s handwriting is the same. It’s just like the letters he sends to people now.

Q

The White Review

— There’s also a letter from his Dad’s secretary saying she’s typing it up on company time. On that ‘meta’ point, was this book on your mind when you wrote the Jeff character in Jeff in Venice: Death in Varanasi (2010)? He’s an art critic of sorts…

A

Geoff Dyer

— Oh, no, not at all actually, that wasn’t on my mind. What Berger does by having this John character is very similar to the Michael character in Ondaatje’s The Cat’s Table, and then in the Coetzee books there’s John, and then in the Knausgaard books it’s Karl Ove Knausgaard, but that’s a bit different. In Jeff in Venice the character has a different name: Jeff not Geoff.

Q

The White Review

— Berger uses the idea of storytelling to look at all of these different forms of writing he’s doing in a more useful way than ‘this is fiction, this is journalism, this is non-fiction’. But you don’t follow Berger in thinking of yourself as a storyteller, I don’t think.

A

Geoff Dyer

— No, I’d go further than that. I’d be very surprised if his fondness for the idea doesn’t relate to the Benjamin essay ‘The Storyteller’ – so there’s a theoretical side to it. It’s not just that John is the straight-down-the-line inheritor of some sort of beer-around-the-campfire tradition. For someone of my age it has other, perhaps less fortunate associations of Max Bygraves’ ‘I wanna tell you a story’.

 

OK, if it works for John, great, but I’m not so crazy about this idea of the storyteller, because I think there’s so much of what he does that is not storytelling, and there are all sorts of people who are a lot less clever and wise than John who are probably better storytellers. I think it’s quite interesting that Susan Sontag – who as I rather rudely joke in an essay about her, couldn’t tell a story to save her life – kept claiming she was a storyteller too. John is a much better storyteller than her, but actually, I think that writer is a much better way of summing up what they both do. Into Their Labours is where he becomes a really fantastic storyteller, but I feel that to emphasise the storytelling part is to subordinate some other things which make Berger the remarkable and unique writer that he is.

 

As for me, now that we’ve talked about Berger and Sontag and Benjamin, of course we’ve got to talk about me, how could we not? I certainly wouldn’t consider myself a storyteller for a moment. I think I’m probably quite weak as a storyteller, and as a reader, I’m not even that drawn to the story aspect of things.

Q

The White Review

— But you’ve put that in quite a narrative line: Bygraves vs. Benjamin, Sontag vs. Berger, Dyer vs. Knausgaard…

A

Geoff Dyer

— {laughs} Well yeah, if you’re speaking, you have to make things sequential, but I think there’s a difference between narrative and storytelling – it’s that homey gathered-round-the-fire aspect to it which I don’t feel drawn to. I can  see how important that was to John’s sense of his vocational identity, but as with many self-definitions, I’m not sure that it’s the most accurate one.

Q

The White Review

— It’s also maybe a good way of thinking about influence itself, because the two big words for Berger are storytelling and collaboration. Thinking of himself as a storyteller rather than a novelist, instead of having the influence of, say, Benjamin weighing down on him in an Anxiety of Influence way, he can think of it as a collaboration, or a kind of family relationship. That’s definitely one of the things you see growing out of the archive – the co-existence of voices rather than one thing weighing down on the other historically. A generation later, you have this too: there’s the interview you did with Jonathan Lethem, on the ‘Ecstasy of Influence’…

A

Geoff Dyer

— Yes, I was going to mention that rather weary old Bloom idea – I think it’s great the way Lethem so ecstatically puts it to rest. It has a kind of currency for academics, but actually if you read another Jonathan – Franzen – he’s beautifully dismissive about this idea of influence,  saying that it it’s not much more meaningful than the fact that at fifteen his favourite group was The Moody Blues.

 

It seems to me that for Lethem and for Berger – for different reasons – and for me, I would say as well, the influence thing has not been at all a burden or a weight, it’s just been this great opening up of potentialities. In Berger’s case it really wasn’t a problem for him because he didn’t go to university.

 

What Lethem and I have in common is that we’re both fans, we have lots of hobbies and enthusiasms. In a different way John too is such a great advocate and enthusiast for other people’s stuff, and hand-in-hand with that goes his emphatic rejection of certain things. John had lots of friends who encouraged him – he’s talked a lot about the art historian Frederick Antal and the sculptor…

Q

The White Review

— Peter Peri…

A

Geoff Dyer

— Yes – who make up the composite character of Janos in A Painter of Our Time, who  encouraged him. Nobody did more to encourage me than Berger did. Encourage is the right word, because to claim that he was any sort of teacher would be to exaggerate the hands-on-ness of our relationship, and it has too many associations of the schoolroom.

Q

The White Review

— That’s a good point to bring in something from the correspondence section of the archive where the ‘influence’ works both ways. When John donated it, he said he was interested in ‘the company of the past’, the other voices in there besides his. This is actually from you – two letters in response to a draft of his novel To The Wedding (1994). Can you remember this?

A

Geoff Dyer

— Gosh… I’m struck by my diligence, it’s a long, detailed thing. And I’m embarrassed that I was kind of workshopping a piece of John’s! Just looking quickly at what I say: ‘the slang is a problem’, and I think it also was in Lilac and Flag (1990). That was a product of him having so thoroughly immersed himself in the lives of the peasants that it was a problem when he had to take them to the city.

 

I certainly stand by this – I think what I’m saying here is the importance of actualising things. In late Berger the voice tends to be more philosophical, and quite often you don’t get that complete creation of a scene. This is a transitional work.

Q

The White Review

— This is written from Rome – what was happening in your life then?

A

Geoff Dyer

— I was living with my then-girlfriend – there was a group of friends there and it was just wonderful. Jeez – it can’t be twenty years ago,  can it? I remember being so touched that John didn’t just want me to pat him on the back and say ‘it’s a flawless masterpiece’, but did seem to really enter into this editorial  process with me  – to get some feedback, as the kids call it.

Q

The White Review

— Feed-forward, these days. Was this the first thing he’d sent you?

A

Geoff Dyer

— No, he’d sent me shorter pieces, but nothing as long as this.

Q

The White Review

— Had he worked on pieces of yours?

A

Geoff Dyer

— Yes, he  responds so whole-heartedly, and so quickly with such generosity. It’s kept him young – that’s one of the many things that’ve stopped him shrivelling up in a way that happened to Larkin, for example.

Q

The White Review

— You see that in the correspondence sections of the archive, and all the more so because it’s not John’s miserly hoarding of himself, but his wife Beverly’s loving gathering of John.

A

Geoff Dyer

— I’ve just finished writing an introduction to Raymond Williams’ Politics and Letters: Interviews with New Left Review. Berger’s name doesn’t come up at all, but I wanted to ask you: is there any correspondence between them in the archive?

Q

The White Review

— I was similarly expecting something but didn’t find it. I get the impression they held parallel lives, actually.

A

Geoff Dyer

— It makes me wonder if Williams’ world was much more circumscribed by some version of the academy than one might have supposed. John was an art person, Williams was a literary person broadly conceived. They both knew Eric Hobsbawm, they both worked on ideas of the country and the city, Mike Dibb worked with both of them… of course the fact that there isn’t evidence of it in the archive isn’t evidence that it didn’t happen!

Q

The White Review

— Williams liked to think of himself of a ‘Welsh European’, and Berger thinks of himself as a ‘European writer’… I think this is something that is intellectually quite central to Berger’s work, this idea of things being related not necessarily by the cause and effect of influence, but by a kind of historical simultaneity, two things happening in different places at the same time…

A

Geoff Dyer

— Yes, and not just two things –the great example of that would be the fantastic essay ‘The Moment of Cubism’ (1969), where he’s explaining all the things that were going on to make Cubism happen. In its two parts I think that was the only thing he published in the New Left Review. John is the least bitter person on earth, but I remember him saying with just a trace of bitterness about the NLR, which had gone into that phase of Althusserian gobbledygook, ‘I think they thought I was a vulgariser’.

Q

The White Review

— And the NLR itself comes out of the historical moment that Painter of Our Time marks – Khrushchev’s Secret Speech, and the end of a certain phase of communism… But moving on from storytelling, Berger’s longest collaboration has been with the photographer Jean Mohr on books like A Fortunate Man (1967) and A Seventh Man (1975). Your new book, Another Great Day at Sea, is comprised of your text and the Magnum photographer Chris Steele-Perkins’s images. Did you approach it as a collaboration?

A

Geoff Dyer

— I came into my creative life thinking collaboration’s a good thing because Berger did it, and writers always complain about being on their own. But I very quickly discovered that I wasn’t a collaborator. And why’s that? Well, I make the same lame excuse I do for all the defects in my character: it’s because I’m an only child. But I do have a great capacity for friendship, and one of my great new friends is the former poet laureate of America Billy Collins, who like me is an only child with no kids. As he says, being an only child means that you are always left thinking and feeling: ‘Mmm, my turn again!’ So no aspect of collaboration has appealed to me, and it’s got worse as I’ve got older –I don’t even like to write in public places.

 

As for the so called collaboration with Chris Steele-Perkins, ‘the snapper’ as I call him –

Q

The White Review

— You don’t name him once, I assumed that was an in-joke between you…

A

Geoff Dyer

— Well I thought it was a joke like Hunter Thompson’s ‘my attorney’ in Fear and Loathing, but when he got sent the book he was rather pissed about it, and I was thoroughly unsympathetic to his pissed-offness. And I said, ‘Oh come on, lighten up…’

 

He took his pictures, and I did my writing – that’s how Berger and Jean Mohr would have worked – it’s not like they were deciding how they would divide up their experiences, but then of course where they did collaborate was in the editing and the sequencing. When it came to it, I remember speaking to the designers and saying, ‘I don’t really care, whatever you come up with is fine with me.’ I found I just wasn’t that bothered about it, though, of course, it’s not like I don’t have any interest in photography. I knew his work, but I think even if I’d been on the boat with a photographer whose work I was really passionate about – like Alex Webb’s, say – I don’t think I’d have got any more involved in it than I did. That surprised me in a way, but I always have confidence in the designers.

 

I suppose the other thing is that I certainly wasn’t interested at all in what Chris thought of my writing. What’s that line in the Ulysses poem by Tennyson – ‘He works his work, I mine’? The opposite of collaboration.

Q

The White Review

— Interesting though that Steele-Perkins had been embedded with the Taliban before, and now on a US aircraft carrier?

A

Geoff Dyer

— Quite literally embedded, because he was sharing a cabin with the others, whereas I, as an only child, was absolutely opposed to doing that.

Q

The White Review

— Yes, and it becomes quite a large part of the book. Did the whole thing have to go through a military censor?

A

Geoff Dyer

— No, it’s inconceivable that I could have embarked on something like that if it did need to be vetted in anything other than an operational way. Even with a book like David Finkel’s The Good Soldiers – I think there were a couple of things they wanted changing–  but all writers who’ve been embedded with the military have said how the military didn’t try to influence what they wrote. There was nothing Snowden-like or Assangeish.

 

The only time I’ve been in a situation like that, actually, is with my photography book The Ongoing Moment. I had to get permission to reproduce pictures, and that was an incredible headfuck; awful, boring, dreadful and incredibly expensive. I knew that the Diane Arbus estate were going to be difficult: they demanded to see the text beforehand if they were going to grant permission to reproduce the pictures and since it meant that maybe I’d be able to use the pictures, I showed it to them. And they wrote back and said,‘Oh no you can’t because the stuff you say about Diane is full of factual errors.’ And then I realised – shit there aren’t any facts, it’s just interpretation, if you like.

 

Janet Malcolm has written about this, the way that the Arbus estate have tried to control what’s said about the pictures – they say they’re trying to protect them. It’s just bollocks, intellectually nonsense. Anyhow the words appear in the book unchanged, but there’s this very blatant lack of Arbus pictures. If I’m stupid enough to go to read reviews of my own work on Amazon people complain about the quality of reproductions or the lack of reproductions, I think, ‘It’s not my frigging fault! Get Doon Arbuson the line!’ With whom, oddly, I have become quite friendly since.

Q

The White Review

— There was a similar situation with Julian Stallabrass’s High Art Lite (1999); some galleries wouldn’t release images of works he was discussing, so it has this stultifying effect on criticism. Or of course with Ways of Seeing, which is directly about making arguments through imagery, and can’t be reissued as a DVD because the copyright would be impossible to clear.

A

Geoff Dyer

— Indeed, I remember attending this conference in New York called Comedies of Fair Use, which was about quoting from other people, that kind of stuff. It turned out to be one of the most intellectually stimulating weekends of my life. It was actually about the nature of creativity in the twenty-first century and Lethem’s essay ‘The Ecstasy of Influence’ grew directly out of that. By the end of it we were all ready to storm the Bastille of oppressive copyright, saying ‘next edition of The Ongoing Moment we’re gonna reprint it with all the pictures without permission and set a precedent…’ But the situation you’ve described is so important because if you decide you wanted to write a book of criticism about my stuff, and you decide that The Ongoing Moment is a shitty book, and here’s a passage that illustrates the way in which I’m a shitty writer, I can’t stop you doing that, and it’s great that I can’t.

Q

The White Review

— Just like Berger didn’t ask to see your book about him.

A

Geoff Dyer

— Right. Actually, going back a couple of minutes to talk about influence for a moment, The Missing of The Somme (1994) was written very much under the spell of Berger: perhaps tonally still there was more of the Berger style in the prose, but I think already by then I was moving towards this jokier way of doing things. But I think just formally really it was Berger who made available to me this way of writing that was not straight-down-the-line literary fiction, and it wasn’t criticism: it was this mixture of everything, and that book – crucially – has pictures too.

 

I’m trying to think of another word than influence, but the freedoms Berger made available formally are very evident in the structures of that book. And of course the jazz book is dedicated to John, because there the idea is to listen to music with the same intensity that he looked at pictures.

 

Again – influence? Well, some sort of presence, some sort of formal terrain that he made available to me. But tonally he’s not present at all in Another Great Day at Sea.

Q

The White Review

— No, I can’t imagine Berger writing a book in which he summons a sailor by farting. But as a project, doesn’t Another Great Day at Sea go against what you’ve said about not specifically going out in search of experience?

A

Geoff Dyer

— This was a commissioned thing, something that I signed up for, it was an experience I wanted to have. It’s not properly a book by me, or at least it only gradually becomes one: the deal was, spend time on an aircraft carrier and write a book of 35,000 words which will be part of a series. Then the series semi-collapsed in that three of the six books didn’t get written, and I ended up writing 70,000 words thinking that I’d cut it back to 35,000. But then I found that I’d become rather fond of the 70,000 and I could only cut it back to 65,000. It became a book in its own right, but it’s not like other books like me which – I say without boasting, but just as a matter of fact – are pretty interesting structurally, formally.

 

Structurally, formally, there’s nothing interesting going on in the carrier book – it begins with me landing on the carrier and ends with me taking off from the carrier: it couldn’t be more simple.

Q

The White Review

— How will this tone develop then, what’s the next Dyer project?

A

Geoff Dyer

— Oh I don’t know. There was some onstage interview where I asked Berger, ‘Did you ever imagine you’d be this old fellow with this huge body of work?’ and he said, ‘I always think that every book is going to be my last, non?’ So I don’t know what’s next.

Q

The White Review

— One of the things that gives Another Great Day at Sea another sense of structure is circumstantial – the fact that your mother died before you went on the boat, and your father after. Berger writes a couple of amazing, elegiac essays about his parents’ deaths, and in the second one, about his mother, he says that it would be the ideal moment to write an autobiography, because it’s an ‘orphan form’, and the book would be there ‘like a parent’. But he doesn’t, as all that interests him are ‘the common moments’. You riff so much on your life – could there be a Dyer autobiography or would that be a tautology?

A

Geoff Dyer

— I’ve mined quite a lot of my own life, and I’ve written about my parents and my childhood in essays. My wife is always saying I should write my memoir, but I’ve got no interest in writing a memoir as such. I am aware that there’s a historical interest in my life, because of the time it was, and the nature of it. But so much of it would be so painful for me to write actually, particularly about my mum and dad. Not because they weren’t nice to me – they couldn’t have been nicer – but because of the various ways in which I made them unhappy. More mundanely, I’ve just not got round to it.

 

I know people say I write a lot about myself. To that I sometimes I feel like responding ‘Look at the Ongoing Moment and But Beautiful – there’s nothing of me in those books.’ And it’s certainly not the case that I’m any more self-absorbed than the average writer. Probably if you did some sort of test you’d find that my levels of self-absorption are absolutely average or maybe below average. But I really do have absolute faith in myself as a researcher, I can find exactly what the author wants. I’m the canary in the coal mine of whatever it is I happen to be writing about. Let’s say the First World War – I’ll write about my own very peculiar take on it, this idea that the thing about the First World War is that it happened in the past: a stupid thought. Except that it’s such an obvious thought that nobody has had it. And I elaborate on that, and it turns out that by being very faithful to the vagaries of my own perception of things, it strikes a chord with other people whose circumstances are very different to mine. I have that faith in the fact that by being very particular and very personal, then it’ll have some sort of general resonance.

 

There’s a version of the Berger thing in that, when he’s looking at art, though he’s drawing on his huge amount of learning – he’ll say,‘When we look at this…’ then he’ll relate it to something that happened to him in the orchard back home. That faith in the litmus paper of your own experience, your particular individualised personal experience of a thing being so crucial to the process of interrogating that thing, so crucial as to reveal something that’s immanent in that thing, that’s certainly derived from Berger. Though tonally again I certainly now go about it in a much lighter way.

Q

The White Review

— We’ve talked a lot about the space Berger opened to you as a writer – what space do you feel you’ve opened up? If, as you say in your introduction to his essays, his example urges us to redraw the maps of literary reputations, do you feel you’ve done this? How?

A

Geoff Dyer

— This is a good question – and one any lawyer would advise me not to answer! Obviously this is for others to say (as I said it re: Berger). All I would say is that in America we can perhaps see a not entirely healthy tendency for people to blah on about themselves in the course of – or instead of – writing about whatever the proposed/intended subject is. I’m not so arrogant as to think I should be held solely responsible for this but I’ve perhaps encouraged or appeared to legitimize it. Also – at the risk of straying into territory the lawyer told me to stay clear of – I’ve followed Berger’s lead in terms of formal innovation and a non-academic or non-specialist approach to subjects that often tend to be treated academically.

Q

The White Review

— On a final point, I noticed your references to your tatty exercise book in Another Great Day at Sea, and I’ve seen you toting around an iPadare there any Dyer archives?

A

Geoff Dyer

— No there aren’t actually, because unlike John I’m a very poor correspondent, I just send off typo-ridden emails…

Q

The White Review

— Though the To The Wedding letters we’ve just seen are proof to the contrary…

A

Geoff Dyer

— It was pre-digital. There’s not much really, and a lot of what there was has been chucked out. Having moved around a lot it’s been difficult to keep track of it. And also this whole thing of successive drafts: if you take Lady Chatterley’s Lover, there are three distinct versions of it, and a subsidiary industry of comparing them, whereas the whole idea of the draft isn’t so sustainable now if you write on a computer: one draft is all the time being folded into the next one. The whole geology of the finished work is in danger of disappearing.

Q

The White Review

— Don’t be so sure, libraries these days can use police forensic software to unearth these things.
A

Geoff Dyer

— It’s funny to be here: when I was at Oxford I was told the Bodleian was my main educational tool. I’ve always hated working in libraries and I’ve always liked owning my own books, and annotating them like crazy: they’re full of underlinings and marginalia like the Lawrence one we saw, and with a little index at the back. The other thing I should say is that I’ve got a great collection of books signed by writers I admire, friends, this kind of stuff. And I’ve got a great collection of books signed by Berger, and now, in my bag, I’ve got a copy of the Penguin edition of {Berger and Anna Bostock’s 1969 translation of Aimé Césaire’s} Return to My Native Land, and we’re on our way to a reading of it – I hope it’s soon to become value-enhanced.
 

 

The Berger Archive is now open to readers at the British Library.



ABOUT THE CONTRIBUTOR


Tom Overton is a Postdoctoral Research Fellow on the archives of the Barbican and Guildhall School of Music and Drama. He edited Portraits: John Berger on Artists and Landscapes: John Berger on Art (Verso, 2015 and 2016)and is writing Berger’s biography, and a book on archives and migration (Allen Lane). He tweets at @tw_overton and collects his articles at overton.tw.