Wednesday, August 22, 2007

I can't go on, I'll go on

It's entirely appropriate that, while I meant to write about Geoff Dyer's Out of Sheer Rage: Wrestling with D. H. Lawrence (1997) yesterday, I got distracted and ended up putting it off. For that's what the gloriously titled Out of Sheer Rage is all about: Geoff Dyer putting off writing a "sober, academic study" of D. H. Lawrence.

He's been meaning to write the book--he's told his agent he's going to write it--but he's also thinking about writing a novel, and he can't quite figure out how to get started, and, well, the result is a 230-page tour through Dyer's psyche that at various points takes the form of autobiography, rant, and, despite his worst intentions, even a study of D. H. Lawrence.

Dyer is a betwixt-and-betweener, a hither-and-yonner, constitutionally unable to seize contentment wherever he is and deciding instead that he needs to be somewhere else--where, upon arrival, he instantly begins cataloging all that was good and irreplaceable about the location he just left. Here he is early in the book, having just signed a year-long lease for the apartment he's been occupying in Paris:
I was ecstatic. For about five minutes. Then I realised I had taken on an awesome, not to say crippling responsibility. And far from solving the problem of where to live I had actually put a lid on it so that now my uncertainty was boiling away under pressure, threatening to blow me apart. The one thing I could be sure of was that I had to leave this apartment, where I had never known a moment's peace of mind, as soon as possible. If I stayed here, I now say, I would fail to write both my novel and my study of Lawrence. That much was obvious. The trouble, the rub, was that I had to give three month's notice and therefore had to predict how I would be feeling three months hence which was very difficult. It was all very well deciding today that I wanted to leave but what counted was how I was going to be feeling three months from now. You could be perfectly happy today, I would say to myself, and three months from now you could be suicidal, precisely because you will see the enormity of the mistake you made by not renouncing the lease three months earlier.
And so on. Perpetually dithering and uncertain, Dyer travels from Paris to Rome to Sardinia to Oxford to Taos, accompanied by his surprisingly tolerant and sane girlfriend, simultaneously following Lawrence and bowing to the whims of his neuroses, whining all the way. Sometimes, for example, he has to eat seafood, which he hates:
[S]ea-food is vile filth which I will eat under no circumstances. My favourite foods are all variants of bread, food you can chow down with no effort, without even a knife and fork, food that requires virtually no preparation and little expenditure of money or energy. At the other extreme there is food that you have to fiddle around with, food that comes in shells that you have to prise open, food that you have to prepare for hours and pick the bones out of and pay for through the nose: sea-food, in short, and here we were in a sea-food restaurant. The first course arrived: not any old sea-food (i.e. not simply inedible) but the ultimate sea-food (i.e. there was actually nothing to eat): sea urchins, blackened conker shells with a tiny strip of (presumably) slimy, salty, orange gristle in the middle.

Take that passage and expand it to book-length, and you'll get a sense of Out of Sheer Rage: cranky, unapologetic, utterly self-involved--yet hilarious and impossible to put down. The small difficulties of life wind Dyer up to such a pitch of worry, frustration, and anger that it's hard not to sympathize, even as you're laughing and groaning and realizing that, if you were his long-suffering girlfriend, you'd have to stab him through the eye. Every morning. Instead, she notes his inadequacies in her journal: "G. had a fit, as usual."

Somehow, in the midst of obsessively recounting his travails, Dyer also tells us a lot about Lawrence, delivering a lively and interesting larger critique that one could imagine, after mummification, comprising the sober study he's so utterly failed to write. He's particularly good when writing about photos of writers, and here he is on another topic that fascinates me, the draw of a writer's unfinished or unpublished work:
As time goes by we drift away from the great texts, the finished works on which an author's reputation is built, towards the journals, diaries, letters, manuscripts, jottings. This is not simply because, as an author's stature grows posthumously, the fund of published texts becomes exhausted and we have to make do not only with previously unpublished or unfinished material but, increasingly, with matter that was never intended for publication. It is also because we want to get nearer to the man or woman who wrote these books, to his or her being. We crave an increasingly intimate relationship with the author, unmediated, in so far as possible, by the contrivances of art. A curious reversal takes place. The finished works serve as a prologue to the jottings; the published book becomes a stage to be passed through--a draft--en route to the definitive pleasure of the notes, the fleeting impressions, the sketches, in which it had its origin.
Dyer is intentionally overstating the case, but he's essentially right about the draw of a writer's extraneous material: the thrill of peeking into a favorite writer's letters or diaries is of a different character from that provided by their work, but it can vie with that work in power. And through his consideration of interesting portions of Lawrence's letters, notebooks, and journals, Dyer managed to renew my interest in Lawrence, a writer whom I'd half-consciously decided I was unlikely to enjoy as much as an adult as I did when I was twenty. Maybe he'll even get me to re-read The Rainbow--which he himself regrets re-reading. Of course.

Ultimately Dyer's life on tenterhooks is for me like a dispatch from an alien race: I can't even imagine living in such a welter of dread and regret. I'm lucky enough to be as near the opposite as possible: contentment seems to be my natural state. The grass is never greener, and even if it might temporarily appear that way, I know deep down that thoughtful analysis will prove it to be at best a light brown, relatively.

That easy satisfaction can become a fault, of course--and the same contentment that keeps me from deciding to move to New York or hop from job to job also keeps me from having much ambition at all beyond reading through the perpetually renewing stack of books. So to come up against someone like Dyer who is constantly wrestling with his desires and regrets--and who can turn that struggle into a funny, insightful, compelling narrative--is a treat, a powerful reminder of the glories of difference, of the near-infinite ways one can choose to approach this life.

By the end of the book I'd developed real sympathy for Dyer--even admiration. For even though he knows that he is going to regret and second-guess any decision he makes, any effort he puts forth, he doesn't let that stop him. He keeps moving:
[S]ince the only way to avoid giving into depression and despair is to do something, even something you hate, anything in fact, I force myself to keep bashing away at something, anything. . . . It is a simple choice: work or succumb to melancholia, depression, and despair. Like it or not you have to try to do something with your life, you have to keep plugging away.
The horizon and its certainty are always going to be far away; we might as well keep walking. Dyer, knowing that, makes himself good company for the journey.

No comments:

Post a Comment