Geoff Dyer has written 15 books, many of which are genre-defying. From John Berger to World War I, photography to jazz, and yoga to Tarkovsky, there seems little Dyer won’t or can’t write about. His new book, White Sands , is an exploration of travel which uses, as impetus, a title from a Paul Gauguin painting: ‘Where Do We Come From? What Are We? Where Are We Going?’ Funny, insightful, and asking big questions of the planet, of art, of the sacred nodality of places, and why we bother to go anywhere at all.
Excerpts from an interview:
You write that your glamorous Aunt Hilda introduced you to the idea of elsewhere. Where was your first journey elsewhere?
I didn’t get on a plane until I was 23, after I left Oxford and was teaching at Lucy Clayton Secretarial College in London. Do you know that fancy place? It’s great. I was teaching, I was about 22, and predictably enough, I fell in love with one of my students. Her mum was developing tourism in Anguilla, which is now a billionaire resort. I think I got into travelling because it was so not in my blood; so against my tendency to just stay put, because my dad just hated going on holidays, because as I’ve said in many essays, the thing that he hated more than anything else in life was spending money. And as soon as you leave your home, you’re spending money. So that was just torture to him.
What’s your compulsion to keep going to new places?
I don’t feel such an urge to leave now because I’m already living somewhere else (Los Angeles). But my god, it just seems crazy not to see the planet. That lovely Annie Dillard quote that I use as an epigraph, “We are here on the planet only once, and might as well get a feel for the place.” The lesson of travel seems to be so banal, but so great, which is that people are just so amazingly decent the world over. Given the disparity of income and wealth, it’s amazing not just that you don’t get robbed everywhere, it’s amazing you don’t get eaten.
You’ve created your own style of writing, as it were. You don’t get questioned much about what it is.
People never read my books for the quality of the documentary value. And it’s not that people would go to my book for the same reason that they would read the book by that guy who chopped off his hand when stuck in the canyon in Utah. The real issue for me is not whether it’s true or untrue in accordance with what actually happened. But it’s to do with form and the expectation of what people give to a certain form. I remember one reviewer who reviewed my D.H. Lawrence book ( Out of Sheer Rage ), saying that if it was a novel, something would have to happen , you know, plot-wise. I mean, what an uninteresting idea! That’s what makes so many novels uninteresting to me — the mechanics of the plot that get going.
I wanted to get to the topic of White Sands and the nodality of places. What makes for the secret nodality of a place?
I’m so interested in what Lawrence calls nodality, not just in this book, but I think it’s one of the things that appears in all of the books I’ve written. More and more, I’m looking for a place that has that thing of the temporal manifesting in the spatial, a sense of history in geography. And although I’m not going around consciously with my antennas up, like a Geiger counter, I’m always drawn to those places. Always.
So, it’s a sensation?
Yeah, it’s what I’m interested in. It happens a lot in this new book. I’ll never forget, when I was writing the book about Venice, we got down to the ghat s in Varanasi. If you get to Varanasi, unless there’s something wrong with you, you are aware that you’re right in the midst of a major place with some incredible power. However much you might be a total atheist of an atheist you may be, as I am, the fact that this religion has been practised here for all those these years… you know, the molecules of the buildings are charged with Hinduism. It’s not a question of do you or do you not believe in it, it just is!
Does nostalgia play any part in your travels?
No, I would say with absolute certainty that I don’t have a nostalgic bone in my body. But I have a strong sense of the elegiac. It seems to me that if you’re prone to the elegiac then you’re immune to nostalgia. If you’re nostalgic, you’re wishing you could go back to something. With the elegiac thing, you’re not wishing that it’d come back, you’re just recognising that it’s gone. I think that would be that. Some sense of the aftermath.
You talk a great deal about purposelessness, but in fact, you’re quite a productive writer. How do you reconcile these tendencies?
Writing has given me a sense of purpose that I wouldn’t otherwise have had. But all it’s doing, all that books are doing, is just kicking the can down the road, isn’t it? So there’s always this engulfing sense of purposelessness or pointlessness. But then I feel quite at ease with that. The best you can do is just kick the can down the road because ultimately those questions asked by Gauguin in that painting — actually, it turns out there’s not some place of arrival you will get to and there it is, yes, that is what we’re here for. So, I’m very happy with this idea of just incrementally plodding along. And I’m also conscious that as long as I’m writing something, I’m relatively happy unless I’m at the mercy of circumstances, you know, waiting for buses, or if I were in England, irritated by the weather.
Pico Iyer said something interesting recently, which ties into one of your themes of regrets and expectations with regard to travel. He said that a bad story was more fun to tell, so in a way, you want things to go wrong.
We know the great all-redeeming thing about writing is that everything that happens to you can be turned to into an advantage. So you know — you fail to see the Northern Lights, you break your legs, your parents die — whatever it is, writing is a way of redeeming it. But I tend to go to places not wanting to be disappointed, because being English, god, I’ve had a lifetime of disappointments. My belly is full of disappointments! And it is, in some way, easier to write about dissatisfaction, but I’d hate to be one of those writers who is always going to take the piss out of other people or to deride things because that seems to me a lower order of response. What I really want to be able to do is to articulate some sort of awe and wonder, which is what so many of the writers I really like do — like Dillard and Lawrence. I hate to be just trapped at that level of being inhibited by only being funny or even worse, being a sort of satirist. Ultimately, I want to be able to articulate that sense of wonder. And hopefully all the funny stuff, and the moaning and groaning, ends up enhancing that final and elusive sense of either wonder or arrival.