According to publishing wisdom, readers don’t buy collections of anything, least of all collections of essays and occasional journalism. I’ve never understood the reasons for this, since I know that many people turn to the essays and reportage in magazines before anything else, except the cartoons. A good review or article opens our eyes to some new subject, while the author’s tone, voice, style — call it what you will — carries us along. What we value, in particular, is contact with a well-stocked mind and an appealing or provocative personality.
Geoff Dyer belongs to that seemingly never-ending line of smart and witty Englishmen and -women of letters. He himself might point to D.H. Lawrence — the subject of his most famous nonfiction book, “Out of Sheer Rage” — as his mighty progenitor, especially the Lawrence of the essays and travelogues. Yet there’s a tubercular austerity about Lawrence that is alien to Dyer, who during the 1980s and ’90s was very much into sex, drugs and rock-and-roll. Like other hedonists of letters, such as Cyril Connolly and Kingsley Amis, Dyer is more than just a good critic; he’s also extremely funny, passionate about women, drink and life’s varied pleasures, a bit of a show-off and immensely enjoyable to read.
“Otherwise Known as the Human Condition” draws on the past 25 years of Dyer’s journalism, selecting material from “Anglo-English Attitudes” and “Working the Room,” two retrospective collections published only in Britain. The 65 or so pieces are divided into cleverly titled sections: “Visuals,” “Verbals,” “Musicals,” “Variables” and “Personals.” As this suggests, besides books, Dyer’s passions include photography, music and, not least, his own sweet self.
Like many other writers, Dyer finds in photography an impetus to philosophical and erotic reverie. He falls in love with a sunbather photographed by Jacques Henri Lartigue and imagines the conversation between an Italian soldier and a woman with a bicycle in a picture by Robert Capa. A chapter on Richard Avedon deconstructs the “contrived naturalness” of that artist’s many images of celebrities: “In one of his most famous portraits, [writer] Isak Dinesen looks like she was once the most beautiful woman in the world — about two thousand years ago.”
Dyer includes his deeply moving, yet scholarly, introduction to “What Was True: The Photographs and Notebooks of William Gedney,” who died of AIDS, then follows with a sharp appreciation of the outsider art of the Czech Miroslav Tichy, who worked with a cheap Russian camera and jury-rigged hardware, scavenging and “building his equipment with whatever came to hand: a rewind mechanism made of elastic from a pair of shorts and attached to empty spools of thread; lenses from old spectacles and Plexiglas, polished with sandpaper, toothpaste, and cigarette ash.”
Surely, such a determined artist went on to surreptitiously chronicle political atrocities or social injustice? Not at all. Tichy crept around swimming pools and secluded parks snapping pictures of women, preferably with as few clothes on as possible. Dyer shrewdly likens him to the leering British comedian Benny Hill.
In the middle of “The Awakening of Stones: Rodin” — a meditation on the French artist, the sexuality of his sculpture, and Jennifer Gough-Cooper’s photographs of his work — Dyer refers to his essay as “this ragbag of quotations.” In just a few pages, he cites Milton, Blake, Rilke, Baudelaire, Yeats, Mary Shelley’s “Frankenstein,” a late novel by John Updike, and several contemporary art critics. Is this too much? Maybe. At times, Dyer sounds as if he were data-dumping or name-dropping — or just channeling his inner George Steiner.
In the “Verbals” section, Dyer offers essays on more than a dozen writers ranging from F. Scott Fitzgerald to Don DeLillo, Lorrie Moore and James Salter. In a particularly neat phrase, he both sums up and mildly criticizes Salter’s great novel “Light Years” as being “saturated with its own intensity.” He also reprints two superb introductions: to the gossipy “Goncourt Journals” and to Rebecca West’s magisterially digressive “Black Lamb and Grey Falcon.” Of the latter, a two-volume travel book about 1930s Yugoslavia that is “one of the supreme masterpieces of the twentieth century,” Dyer tellingly observes that its rambling pages are held together largely by tone.
He adds that West’s best work “is scattered among reportage, journalism, and travel — the kind of things traditionally regarded as sidelines or distractions.” With similar approval, Dyer underscores that the distinctive appeal of journals, like those of John Cheever, lies in “the way that the incidental and irrelevant do not get pushed aside as must happen in the course of more streamlined narratives.” Like the genre-bending Dyer, many of his favorite writers — another is W.G. Sebald, revered for autumnal masterpieces such as “Austerlitz” — aim to meld essay, fiction and reminiscence.
Given the contents of the other sections of “Otherwise Known as the Human Condition,” Dyer must surely rival Clive James and Christopher Hitchens in “intellectual nomadism.” To use his own term, he is “a literary and scholarly gate-crasher, 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.” Thus, besides all I’ve mentioned, this hefty collection contains a survey of books about the war in the Middle East, a report on a Paris fashion show, a visit to Albert Camus’s Algeria, an analysis of all the John Coltrane versions of “My Favorite Things” — Dyer’s attention to detail rivals that of an opera queen discussing bootleg recordings of Maria Callas — and musings about the sexual charge of luxury hotel rooms.
He closes his book with the “Personals” section, which should more accurately be called “Even More Personals” because everything in these pages is suffused with the author’s wry and brazenly honest self. Among the “Personals” are accounts of a youthful passion for Spider-Man comics, a portrait of Dyer’s working-class family, the dazzling “On Being an Only Child” and several short memoirs of a young manhood spent taking drugs, living on the dole and chasing girls. Not least, the book’s title piece, “Otherwise Known as the Human Condition,” gradually builds to a virtuoso dissertation on routine, obsession and the quest for the perfect doughnut.
Years ago, Geoff Dyer’s dad gave him a bit of worldly advice: “Never put anything in writing.” As always, it’s a good thing that sons never listen to their fathers.
Dirda reviews books for The Post every Thursday. Visit his book discussion at washingtonpost.com/readingroom.