Jeff in Venice, death in Varanasi

by Geoff Dyer

Hardcover, 2009

Status

Checked out
Due May 3, 2020

Genres

Publication

New York : Pantheon Books, c2009.

Description

Every two years the international art world descends on Venice for the opening of the Biennale. Among them is Jeff Atman, a jaded and dissolute journalist, whose dedication to the cause of Bellini-fuelled party-going is only intermittently disturbed by the obligation to file a story. When he meets the spellbinding Laura, he is rejuvenated, ecstatic. Their romance blossoms quickly, but is it destined to disappear just as rapidly? Every day thousands of pilgrims head to the banks of the Ganges at Varanasi, the holiest Hindu city in India. Among their number is a narrator who may or may not be the Atman previously seen in Venice. Intending to visit only for a few days, he ends up staying for months, and suddenly finds a hitherto unexamined idea of himself, the self. In a romance he can only observe, he sees a reflection of the kind of pleasures that, willingly or not, he has renounced. In the process, two ancient and watery cities become versions of each other. Could two stories, in two different cities, actually be one and the same story? An irrepressible and wildly original novel of erotic fulfillment and spiritual yearning, Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi is dead-on in its evocation of place, longing, and the possibility of neurotic enlightenment.… (more)

Media reviews

The moral emptiness of “Jeff in Venice” seems all the more devastating when put into relief by its companion, “Death in Varanasi.” The first story is a flowing tide of sex and carnality; the second is dominated by a holy river of life and death, the Ganges. The first gluts itself on fleshly pleasures; the second empties itself of those temptations (there is no sex, and little drinking, though there is a bit of drug-taking). The tale is narrated by a nameless middle-aged journalist, who may or may not be Jeff Atman (or Geoff Dyer, for that matter), and who has come to Varanasi, one of the holiest sites of Hindu pilgrimage, to write a piece for a London newspaper. There are links with the book’s Venice story, and with Thomas Mann’s Venice story.

User reviews

LibraryThing member poonamsharma
I started reading this book with enthusiasm but soon it petered out. It crawls, understandably because protagonist's life in London is just that. I was put off by how sex scenes were written - use of words like 'fuck' 'cunt' kind of took the pleasure out it - it was rather mechanical. However, it was interesting to note down liberally sprinkled names of artists and writers. I'd stop and google and read more about them.

In middle (toward end of Venice phase), book dragged and seemed like a task to finish. Second half (Varanasi) was easy to finish but there wasn't anything new. It was quite a predictable description and fastidious foreigners aversion to all irritating things Indian do at places as such. There are abundant visual details in the book, but it couldn't quite make-up for the reading experience that was more or less devoid of pleasure. Lesson learnt: All book recommendations aren't worthy of pursuing.
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LibraryThing member IronMike
I give a lot of high praise reviews. This is probably because I don't waste my time on books I don't enjoy. I toss them onto the garbage heap, and I don't bother reviewing them. Venice/Varanasi is a book about the character "Jeff Atman" in the 2 cities whose names begin with a V. After completing "Venice," I felt that I had read something exceptional; but I was bothered by what I found to be the coarseness of one of the two graphic sex scenes in that novella. Perhaps I am just a prude. So I hesitated before jumping into "Varanasi."

Much to my relief there was no graphic sex in the Varanasi half of the book, and I enjoyed it immensely. I finished reading the book a week ago, and I have been thinking about it ever since. I'll let some time pass, and then I'll read it again. The book is about the meaning of life. It doesn't answer the question, of course, but in the sense that we are all Jeff Atmans, it suggests alternatives. I found both alternatives personally unappealing, but it's an accomplishment to be able to eliminate two alternatives from consideration. Interestingly, Jeff interviews a woman in Venice, the mother of an upcoming rock star, and it appears that in this most interesting woman Jeff may have come upon the "guide" that most searchers of life's meaning seek. Jeff doesn't realize this, however, botches the interview with the woman, realizes that he should go back to her to take her photograph for his editor, but then much to the reader's chagrin, neglects to do so.

It's not 2010 yet, but it's close. I think I can safely award "Jeff in Venice/Death in Varanasi" my 2009 book of the year award. Highly recommended.
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LibraryThing member Justjenniferreading
This one is giving me mixed emotions... Which I think is a good thing.

The story follows Jeff, a freelance art writer from London. Jeff travels to Venice to cover a festival, where he meets a woman. They have a whirl-wind romance fueled by booze and drugs. The second part of the story is kind of a mystery. The narrator ends up in Varanasi and ends up staying, presumably forever (but we don't ever really know). In Varanasi he undergoes changes, life altering "spiritual" changes. But again, the fruition to which these changes lead the narrator is unknown.

I really liked the story, and although I felt the writing was a bit embellished I liked the writing also. My biggest complaint has nothing to do with the story whatsoever, rather it's the use of one very offensive word - the c word. I'm by no means a prude, quite frankly I could make a sailor blush, but there are a few words that even I won't mutter and the c word is one of them. I don't know why this bothered me so bad, but I actually had to put the book down for a while to let myself cool off. As I was reading the more I kept thinking about that word and the more upset I got. I know it's crazy, but it just bothered me.... Once I cooled off a bit I was able to read it without seething, I guess I was having a moment.

I liked the wit that was apparent throughout the book. I think without the added wit the story would have been somewhat lacking. But the humor made me want to keep reading (after I got over the c word thing). Something that was a little odd, but was part of the mystery of the second part, was that the first part of the book is written in third person whereas the second part is written in first person. But again, there is so much mystery as to who the narrator is (presumably Jeff from the first part, but I'll let you make your own decision). Then the mystery as to if he ever returns home...

I can't say I loved this book, but I think that it was good. I have never read anything that reminds me of this so I can't make any comparison. I liked it, but at times it kind of teetered on a thin line between brilliant and completely absurd.
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LibraryThing member mairangiwoman
Very funny, lots of art goss, inside knowledge of Venice Biennale, sex, drink, drugs, having a good time, ;
contrast with Varanasi - pilgrimage atmosphere - more serious. Great writer. See also his books on art and "Yoga for people who can't be bothered to do it." Laugh out loud stuff.
LibraryThing member polarbear123
Where to start with a review of this book? Well if your arew looking for a book with a straight narative then this is not for you. It's in two halfs, one set in Venice and one in Varanasi. Jeff the journalist is dispatched to these two locations on various laregly irrelevant assignments as a freelnace journalist.

What follows are his ruminations on various experiences he has in these two cities, interaticng with various major and minor characters. The writing is largely entertaining and there is plenty here to enjoy.

Just a few caveats. Sometimes the philosophizing of Jeff gets out of hand - however this is the character and his faults rather than those of the writer. Also some of the turns of phrases that the writer uses do jar at times when sentences are continually turned on their heads, novel at first but its repeated use did tire. Finally I am not sure about Jeff and sex - he uses some words that shocked me a little - not becasue I am prudish - but simply because I found it hard to believe that the character would use them.

Caveats aside this is an entertaining read and will make you chuckle darkyl. First half is better thatn the second.
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LibraryThing member nosajeel
Fantastic book, high energy from the beginning (when Geoff gets his hair dyed to remove the grey before he goes to parties at the Venice Biennale) to the end (where the first person narrator, presumably also Geoff, gets the hair on his head shaved in Hindu mourning fashion in Varanasi).

Really two linked novellas. The first takes Geoff, a clever, self-aware, hackish journalist, on a junket to cover the Venice Biennale. He leaves more focused on the parties and drinks than the art and ends up absorbing both -- along with an almost dreamlike fantasy of a romance.

The second novella is written in the first person with a journalist who seems an awful lot like Geoff taking what is originally a four-day assignment to Varanasi but ends up staying much longer, moving closer to the center of the city, and once again while being wholly ironic and self aware slipping increasingly into the culture. In this case, at the opposite ascetic end of the spectrum from the Venice portion of the story.

Either half of the book would have been good on it's own. And together -- labeled with the not entirely superfluous subtitle "A Novel" -- they are outstanding.
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LibraryThing member dudara
This is Geoff Dyer's fourth novel and is told in two parts. In the first, we meet Jeff, a freelance hack who is covering the Biennale in Venice. He meets and falls in lust with American Laura. The second part is narrated by a british journalist (Jeff pehaps?) who goes to Varanasi in India to write a travel piece and decides to stay.

We never know for certain that our two protagonists are the same, although similarities exist. It is only towards the end of the second part that we realise that they are in sequence, but it still doesn't confirm the reader's desire to know if they are one and the same. This feeling of similarity is compounded by the use of two like settings: Venice and Varanasi. Although worlds apart, both are old crumbling cities surrounded by water. It is in one city that one hero lives an exhuberent, carnal life, while in the other city, our second hero lives a quiet life surrounded by death. References to Ginsberg pepper the second novella while Thomas Mann's novella Death in Venice heavily influences the first part.

Despite the love interest of the first part and the travel-guide quality of the second half, as well as the rich and sometimes funny writing, I just couldn't warm a whole lot to this novel. There is ultimately a lack of conclusion. Perhaps it is a book of the zeitgeist?
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LibraryThing member bookfest
Jeff is living the high life as a freelance journalist attending an important art show in Venice. He has the fling of his life. On his next trip, he goes to Varanasi in India, where he gradually goes native. Although entertaining, I cared little for the main character and did not find his Indian transformation credible.
LibraryThing member JimElkins
A breezy, superficial book, a combination of the English mortification and fretting in "Bridget Jones's Diary" and ordinary travel journalism.

What is the value, for fiction, of detailed, immediate, lightly fictionalized, fairly accurate reporting of unusual places? This book is divided in two: I have never been to Varanasi, so that half struck me as having been transferred as quickly as possible from experience to fiction, as if the details of the place would go stale if they spent too long in the author's head. The result is a kind of raw, sparkling immediacy, but the price is high: the scenes don't seen thought about, mulled over, transformed into imagination and back into prose. They seem jotted down and typed.

The first part of the book, about the Venice biennale, is very familiar to me (I am an art historian). As a result I can understand all the references, and I can judge Dyer's level of engagement with, and understanding of, the art world, and I'm not interested -- and the result of that is I can read only for the idea of realistic detail; I can't be persuaded by Dyer's attempts to conjure the place or the people. As a result all the carefully gathered scenes, artworks, and characters seem to be revealed as gestures at realism, as the author's hopes of creating something that will be entrancing or persuasive. It's like looking behind the scenes at the opera, or like Barthes's "S/Z."

What's left is the author's manipulation of his model reader's sense of anticipation, of drama, love and sex, society and career, aging and vanity... because nothing in the setting was of interest, I lost confidence in whatever interest I might have in the author's other concerns; and because I saw how he assembled elements of the biennale to make his mis-en-scene, I lost the ability to suspend disbelief in anything else in the narrative.

A moral might be: if, as a novelist, you depend on veracity in travel-style writing, you need to also depend on readers' lack of knowledge of those settings. Or, to put it in a positive way, it is probably best to let the details of life sit in mind for some time, changing slowly into something that can only exist in fiction.

This is another book I read for the 2016 AWP meeting.
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LibraryThing member maureen61
terrible book
LibraryThing member berthirsch
A hip English freelance magazine writer travels to Venice to report on an obscure art figure in conjunction with the Biennale Art Fair. There he meets an evocative beauty, a younger art gallerist form Los Angeles. They spend a few days on a wild chase and catch sexual affair fulfilling beyond imagination. Yet after a few days amidst the superficial parties they part ways probably forever.

The 2nd part of this book follows an English writer (is it the same person?) to Varanasi India, the holy spiritual center of the Hindu religion. There along the banks of the Ganges River he loses his way, denounces desire and his sense of self amidst the timelessness of this bizarre cacophonous city of deaths, festivals, wild monkeys, filth, poverty, disease and nothingness. A spiritual journey to who knows where.

This is an intriguing, playful book that questions the meaning of life and success.
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LibraryThing member dbsovereign
A sexy, funny, moving trip to Italy and India. When Dyer is funny, he is hysterically funny, and the rest of the time he’s insightful. The book is of one extremes – with the wanton splendor of Venice contrasting with the completely destitute in Varanasi. As a spectator, the reader has the opportunity to gain from both. It is interesting too that the trip to Venice is fraught with bitter-sweet poignancy while the trip to Varanasi writhes with a knee-slapping dark humor.… (more)
LibraryThing member Steve38
Straight out of the masters degree in creative writing course. Write about what you know. Mr Dyer writes up his family holidays and merges them with his masturbation fantasies. He does it well but it's still just stories from his holidays. A novel? No.
LibraryThing member jasonlf
Fantastic book, high energy from the beginning (when Geoff gets his hair dyed to remove the grey before he goes to parties at the Venice Biennale) to the end (where the first person narrator, presumably also Geoff, gets the hair on his head shaved in Hindu mourning fashion in Varanasi).

Really two linked novellas. The first takes Geoff, a clever, self-aware, hackish journalist, on a junket to cover the Venice Biennale. He leaves more focused on the parties and drinks than the art and ends up absorbing both -- along with an almost dreamlike fantasy of a romance.

The second novella is written in the first person with a journalist who seems an awful lot like Geoff taking what is originally a four-day assignment to Varanasi but ends up staying much longer, moving closer to the center of the city, and once again while being wholly ironic and self aware slipping increasingly into the culture. In this case, at the opposite ascetic end of the spectrum from the Venice portion of the story.

Either half of the book would have been good on it's own. And together -- labeled with the not entirely superfluous subtitle "A Novel" -- they are outstanding.
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