One novel that includes two distinct and stunning novellas in the life of Jeff Atman. Jeff, of course, seems to be a thin disguise for Geoff. I have no idea how biographical these stories may be, but they read with a gripping authenticity.
The title is more than a play on words for the Thomas Mann story Death in Venice. These are stories of requited lust in Venice as well as spiritual desolation and a breakdown in Varanasi.
Jeff is a freelance writer of some competence. He lives well enough to pay rent and enjoy a reasonably active life in London. He appears to have no real ties or obligations and is close to no one. Life is changing for him, and he dyes his hair. He is searching for some meaning or perhaps just trying to hang on to what he has.
One particular detail tells the reader a lot about Jeff—He received an advance to write a book. He never writes it and does not return the money and is pleased to find out the publisher doesn’t care when editors are changed. He is sent on assignment to write a story about the Biennale, a contemporary art festival, in Venice, Italy. The art appears to be as shallow as the piece Jef will write. He knows a number of people at the show that he socializes and drinks Bellini’s with at any of the innumerable parties or art receptions. The art does not give anyone a reason to care about it. There seems to be a dinner or event for Ed Ruscha each year and the hustlers selling fake handbags on the street is really an installation. It’s all just a reason to have a party. Venice is the magically historical playground for this artificial and decadent even
Jeff is drawn to a tall, dark-haired beauty, Laura, from Los Angeles. The connection is immediate, but she puts him off and won’t give him her number or hotel. She believes if they’re meant to get together they will run into each other. They do. And it turns into a drunken, drug-filled, lustful satisfaction for them both.
Jeff does have real feeling for her. He hopes that she will show interest in seeing him again. He finally lets her know that he hopes they see each other again. She is fine with that, but you understand it’s never going to happen. Earlier she had them each buy the other an expensive, beautiful Venice glass to remind them of each other. These fragile mementos are all their relationship will ever be.
After the Western decadence in Venice the second half of the book is spent in Varanasi. Jeff is sent there to write a travel article he completes as an afterthought. Dyer captures the color of Varanasi: The burning or cremation of the dead on the Ganges, the ridiculous traffic, the children constant hassling you for money, the dogs feeding on a corpse, the colors, the odors, the food.
Jeff does not get the girl in Varanasi. In Venice he ends up alone, truly alone. And in India it doesn’t change. He has no desire to return to England so he remains in Varanasi because he has nothing else. He goes native, dressing in native garb, and taking dips in the Ganges. When a girl he meets says she is worried about him and comments that his hair is as fluffy as a gosling’s, he repeats that it’s “as fluffy as a gosling and smooth as an otter,” several times. He has lost himself.
These are two intense stories that draw you into the human experience in two famous water cities. Dyer’s has written something special that you will never forget in the same sense you never forget Death in Venice.
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