A Journalist Abroad

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Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi By (author) Geoff DyerAlthough the title of the book, Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi, a play on Thomas Mann’s famous Death in Venice, may appear to be one single title, it isn’t – there are two separate novellas in the book. Jeff in Venice is about a middle-aged journalist called Jeff who goes to Venice for the Biennale (a contemporary art exhibition). He is there to cover the Biennale and to interview the wife of a famous artist, but he manages to find plenty to do to entertain himself as well. As well as the huge number of parties that he has access to, he meets a beautiful American woman called Laura, with who he takes drugs and lots of sex. Will he manage to do the job that he has come to do and will the relationship with Laura go anywhere?

To be completely blunt, I found Jeff in Venice to be a tedious piece of writing. Anyone with little or no knowledge of contemporary art will struggle with the story, because a great deal of the descriptive part of it is about the art work that Jeff witnesses. It’s probably very well described, but for someone with little interest in contemporary art, it just comes across as being very dull. This is a story that would probably be most appealing to anyone with a real interest in art and has possibly been to the Biennale. The descriptions of Venice and the canals do partially make up for this, but only a little bit.

The story itself is possibly even more dull than the descriptions of the works of art Jeff sees. It really is a piece of navel-gazing; he’s a forty-something man who wants to relive his youth by wasting people’s time, taking drugs and having adventurous sex (which is described in great detail). There is nothing redeeming about his character, or Laura’s – she comes across as being just as selfish and immature. The reader keeps waiting for something to happen so that the ‘story’ will begin to have a point, but it doesn’t and, in the end, it is simply a relief to get to the end. Thankfully, the novella is only 156 pages long.

Death in Varanasi is something quite different. It could be about the same main character, but we don’t find out because he is never named – this story is told in the first person, whereas Jeff in Venice is told in the third person. Our man, a journalist, is sent to Varanasi, an Indian town by River Ganges, and falls in love with it. It is easy to understand why this is. He moves to a cheaper hotel nearer the centre of town, starts making friends and decides to stay around for a while – his life back in London is dull and pointless anyway. The longer he stays, the more he questions his former life. Will he ever go back? And if he doesn’t, just what will he do in Varanasi apart from take drugs?

This story is much more interesting, probably because this time the descriptions are focused on the town of Varansi and the local culture. The descriptions of Varanasi, particularly life around the ghats (steps that lead down to the river) are vivid and fascinating. Our man meets a number of interesting characters, not all of whom he can actually communicate with in words, but he finds ways of getting his point across, sometimes in the most amusing of ways. There is a certain amount of toilet humour, but that is unavoidable in a country where the food plays havoc with your stomach and it certainly lightens the mood of the story overall.

The plot of Death in Varanasi is a little bit vague, almost to the point of being non-existent. It is more a diary of someone’s travels and it doesn’t really provide the reader with much of a point to get their teeth into – although there is definitely more to it than Jeff in Venice. Every time it starts to take a certain direction, it seems to be cut short. The ‘death’ of the title is slightly confusing too. There is one definite death, but it is one that is very much in the background. The other potential death isn’t really made clear – it comes towards the end and really keeps the reader guessing without any resolution. However, at least it provides something to think about, unlike Jeff in Venice.

The cover, inside and out, of the book is covered in praise from newspapers and other famous authors, who apparently loved both novellas. I really cannot understand the praise for Jeff in Venice. It is pretentious, navel-gazing nonsense that provides the reader with nothing to mull over. Those with an interest in contemporary art may find it appeals more though – there are a lot of references thrown in that may mean a lot more to them. Death in Varansi shows a lot more promise. It is funny at times, but most of all, the descriptions of Varanasi are beautifully done. I wouldn’t recommend the book just on that though – on the whole it is not a book that is going to appeal to a wide audience. Two and a half stars out of five.

Advantages: Death in Varanasi is entertaining
Disadvantages: Jeff in Venice is horrendously dull

Published by Canongate Books Ltd, it has 304 pages.

Thanks to Canongate Books for providing a free review copy of the book.

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Jeff in Venice, Death in Varansi
by Geoff Dyer

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Written by sunmeilan

My background is varied. I studied Chinese at Durham University in the UK, Renmin University in Beijing and Nanjing University. I then lived in China for many years, before returning to the UK to study criminology at the London School of Economics, from where I have a Masters. I have published articles on drug treatment and the criminal justice system. Although I have now left this field, I do enjoy crime fiction and reviewing books from this genre. I also have a strong interest in Chinese modern fiction.

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