A Fortnightly Review.
By ALAN WALL.
IT WILL COME as no surprise to devoted readers of Geoff Dyer that The Last Days of Roger Federer contains few pages about Roger Federer and even fewer about his last days. It does however contain a great many pages about Geoff Dyer’s wonky knees. And here lies a tragic tale.
Geoff’s devotion to tennis might well be as great as Federer’s, and had it not been for a sequence of disabilities (of Wagnerian proportions) relating to the poor fellow’s knees, we might well have seen him on Centre Court at Wimbledon, thwacking away while the crowd grew hushed. But the stony gods who gather yearly at SW19 turned against him early; they decided to block his progress by fucking up the central joints in his legs. His account of this appalling miscarriage of justice needs a chorus; the chorus is his wife. She is smart, long-suffering, unremittingly ironic, and the perfect straight man when Geoff goes off on one, which is not infrequently. Geoff always takes the point, though one suspects it was sometimes only on the morning after that the taking of the point took place.
And Geoff always writes as though he surely has something better to do. Had it not been for the inexplicable mangling of his ginglymus joints, he would undoubtedly have been elsewhere. Writer’s cramp is nothing, pal – go check out tennis knee. Imagine trying to keep John McEnroe locked in a room with a fountain pen and a quire of laid paper for a Wimbledon weekend. You cannot be serious, can you? The whole of Dyer’s Out of Sheer Rage was a rant about the impossibility of writing a book about D. H. Lawrence. The book reaches its apogee when Dyer moves to Oxford (Dullford, he calls it), the one place in the world uniquely designed to make it utterly impossible to write anything serious about Lawrence, and keep a straight face. A curious thing happens here. We become convinced that what is going on in the book is what is going on in Dyer’s life, and that a weird oblique truth is being told about Lawrence. I come from the northern working-class; I went to Oxford; I was very keen on D. H. Lawrence. The three things didn’t mix at all. So when Dyer rants about the impossibility of telling any truths about Lawrence while entangled in the doings of Dullford, I know exactly what he means.
He is with Lawrence, as the great embattled writer, endlessly contra mundum, no sooner sets up home than he breaks sticks and sets out afresh to find another one. In this book he weaves in and out of Lawrence’s letters, sharing his rage, which in Lawrence’s case was unending. Mind you, if your wife commits adultery on your honeymoon – pretty much as a matter of course – one can see how your irritability levels might have a tendency to rise. One can only give thanks to whatever sultry sets of deities the pair of them shared that they never had children. The little mites would surely have been quintessential fodder for next year’s suicide market.
But as for the book under review: It is really a book about late style, a troublesome and troubling concept previously visited by both Adorno and Edward Said. Never has a meditation on late style been so troubled before by knees. However literary, this book is undoubtedly a knees-up. They simply won’t go away, those let-me-down knees. I found by the end of the book that my reading was invariably accompanied by a chorus from John Prine’s great song Please Don’t Bury Me:
Give my knees to the needy –
Don’t pull that stuff on me…
Knees here are a key to a life not lived, the road not taken. They are the phantom limbs in the perfect body so sadly denied Dyer – so he’s had to make do with his mind.
His book But Beautiful was about as near as the printed word can get to jazz. (Well, along with Coming Through Slaughter by Michael Ondaatje.) Dyer’s book is an uncanny inhabiting of the lives of some of the world’s most difficult and brilliant jazz musicians. And while reading each chapter you feel as though the musicians have returned from the dead to lend Dyer their hearts and minds so that they can have some sort of testimonial, apart from their music. The book is a little miracle, and the man who wrote it is an intellectual chameleon, in the best sense of the word.
An old friend recently told me that the fault my essays display is drift. I told him he was missing the point entirely. Drift is not a fault of my essays; it is their founding principle. They are, after all, based on the notion that a mobile intelligence unit (in this case, me) with a distinct enough voice, can move its focus wherever it chooses. Subject matter is infinitely variable. It is the intelligence and its voice that is consistent, not the subject. I had already worked this out before I encountered the work of Geoff Dyer, so I can’t blame him, but reading him was an immense relief, I must say. He was evidently working on the same principle. Each page must refresh. If the subjects sometimes move around like kaleidoscopes, well, what’s wrong with kaleidoscopes? If you don’t want a kaleidoscope but a single colour, then go and sit in the blue room, with the curtains pulled, and contemplate your blue guitar.
Anyway, back to where we started. Dyer has noticed that he’s started to get on a bit, and he’s noticed that a lot of other people have too. So he has become interested, not only in the question of his knackered knees, but also in the question of late style. So, what is it, exactly? Well, it’s a mode where the consciousness of death perennially hovers. This can either darken the skies and make even the sweetest song mumble with thunder, or it can produce an unexpected lightness of spirit. Late Shakespeare can at times seem almost giddy with redemptiveness. Late Dylan often seems as though a block of sandpaper has been placed between the lovers, even if they do share silk sheets. The painter Turner always had late style built into him, even when his style was earliest, but by the end, was the lack of precision a deliberate abstraction or was there, as some thought at the time, something wrong with his eyes? Cataracts dim the visions, yellow the whites. Had there been a decent ophthalmologist around, we might have had no El Grecos at all. It is one of the most exhilarating things about reading Dyer that he does not pretend to know. He asks questions; he seldom makes a pretense of knowing the answers. And we do live in a world of answers – loud, thunderous ones. Usually delivered by people who are all answer and no question.
Now, with this last book, it seems he does not even write essays. They are too self-servingly self-contained, too hermetically sealed in their own subjectivity – we all know that subjects can’t be separated from each other as neatly as that. Epistemologically, it’s not on. So here, in what he calls ‘this meandering milk-train of a narrative’, the only lines of demarcation are numbers, and they are the most perfunctory liminals imaginable. What are contained within these numbers are most certainly not chapters, more like post-its stuck into a crumpled notebook. One subject runs into another, the way the blood and water ran into one another in Turner’s father’s barber shop. The old man proved remarkably adept at framing his son’s pictures too – see how categories cheerfully demolish one another. Subjects only separate themselves out in phoney philosophical abstractions. Mentally, we are a maelstrom.
Dyer is fascinated by Beethoven and Turner, both of whom lived only half-turned towards our grubby world, and got on with their work. They were both shabby and aloof. He could have included Rembrandt here. He went through his period of riches, then went bankrupt, and for the rest of his life looked with unwavering scepticism upon all achievements in this sublunary realm. What all three of these artists have in common is a growing concentration on what they regarded as important in art; they cannot be bothered with anything they regard as unimportant. One late patron of Rembrandt sent back the portrait he had commissioned and asked if the artist would mind finishing it. To this day, certain late Turners are argued over: were they finished or not? And does it matter? In the late quartets, Beethoven created a music that seemed to transcend music altogether. It was, he remarked to one violinist, music for a future age, one the violinist wouldn’t live to see. Such fierce concentration on the artist’s theme leads to a disregard for the usual forms and apparatus of the genre. Rembrandt starts to grow bored with the hands in his later portraits. It’s as though he is saying, look at all the information I have already given you — faces, eyes, what-have-you — do you really want me to spend a day of my life finishing the hands as well? Do a bit of your own observing, for heaven’s sake. Finish them yourself. So we get some pre-modernist dashes, instead. And Turner grows less and less interested in anything we might call representational proprieties. He moves into a kind of colouristic semi-abstraction. What is vision, he seems to be asking? What after all is a rainbow? Now you see it, now you don’t. So, go figure…
Never a man to be self-contained by a subject, Dyer then throws in late Coltrane. This is post-Ascension, post-apocalypse, interstellar, the drummer-can’t-keep-up, Coltrane, who it seems has been blowing our man’s mind for many’s the long year. And a good thing too. Coltrane drove free jazz to the end of the freeway, and then started building a road to the stars so he might carry on driving. It can be hard to listen to – you feel you had to have been there. It had begun to dawn that there was no encyclopaedic knowledge – none – but that if you played your own specific horn hard enough and with enough concentration, well, you might just arrive. You sure as hell wouldn’t arrive by playing the clever dick about someone else’s playing, though this news has not got through everywhere. If there was a single truth discovered in the 60s it was this: all the truth of your life can be expressed in a song. If you’re phoney in a song, you’re phoney everywhere. And even if the song is full of truth, the way you sing it can still inject it with bad faith and untruth. You can fill it with sentimentality, for example. Sentimentality: dead emotion laid on someone else’s grave.
Dyer’s master in writing is John Berger. He wrote a little book about him, and edited a substantial selection of his work. Berger always wanted to battle through to the truth about an artist. He never wanted to fiddle about on the margins, or add a note or two to the glossolalia. He wanted to see something and say something. Dyer admires that, and he has carried it over into his own practice. Sometimes he chucks it all in. Right there. In front of our eyes. There now, he says. Can’t be bothered. Done with all that bollocks. And we applaud. He is always remarkably good company
Alan Wall was born in Bradford, studied English at Oxford, and lives in North Wales. He has published six novels and three collections of poetry, including Doctor Placebo. Jacob, a book written in verse and prose, was shortlisted for the Hawthornden Prize. His work has been translated into ten languages. He has published essays and reviews in many different periodicals including the Guardian, Spectator, The Times, Jewish Quarterly, Leonardo, PN Review, London Magazine, The Reader and Agenda. He was Royal Literary Fund Fellow in Writing at Warwick University and Liverpool John Moores and is currently Professor of Writing and Literature at the University of Chester and a contributing editor of The Fortnightly Review. His book Endtimes was published by Shearsman in 2013, and Badmouth, a novel, was published by Harbour Books in 2014. A collection of his essays was issued by Odd Volumes, The Fortnightly Review’s publishing imprint, also in 2014. A second collection, of his Fortnightly reflections on Walter Benjamin, followed in 2018, and a third collection, Midnight of the Sublime, has just been published. An archive of Alan Wall’s Fortnightly work is here.