Geoff Dyer is known as a writer who likes to wander all over the map. He has traveled from his native England to Italy, Algeria, Libya, India, Cambodia, Indonesia, and the Nevada desert. Along the way he has written novels, reviews, criticism, essays, and reportage about whatever happened to interest him, which is to say just about everything. His subjects have included photography, jazz, writers and their writings, comics, haute couture, donuts, movies, and flying a MiG-29, getting fired, being an only child, living on the dole, and having sex in expensive hotels.
In the United States, Vintage has just brought out The Missing of the Somme, which was originally published in England back in 1994. On the surface the book is an examination of monuments to the millions who died in the First World War, but in essence it’s a meditation on the mechanisms and functions of memory. It has all the virtues Dyer’s fans have come to expect: it’s wildly original, richly researched, eccentric and funny and sad and brainy from beginning to end. Dyer spoke with The Millions recently by telephone from his home in London.
The Millions: Before we talk about your Somme book, let me ask you about the recent riots in London. Was your neighborhood affected?
Geoff Dyer: We were on vacation in Ibiza when it happened… We live in Notting Hill. It’s a very, very mixed neighborhood. There’s a combination of fantastically wealthy houses and all sorts of projects. A number of shop windows got smashed, a gang of forty hoodies stormed a fancy restaurant near here and were robbing everybody in the restaurant until they were fought off by the kitchen staff. So it was really nearby, and it’s possible it seemed even scarier at a distance than it might have done if we were here.
TM: I was a teenager in Detroit in 1967, when that city exploded and 43 people got killed. It was the worst riot in American history and its cause is pretty clear, at least to me: Black people were tired of being ignored by politicians and mistreated by the cops. Do you think that was the case in London too – or was it more complicated than that, more difficult to understand?
GD: There are signs of a degree of racial integration here, actually. Apart from that incident in Birmingham, where the three Asian guys were run over by a car driven by black guys, it’s been a long while since we’ve had anything in Britain that resembles a race riot. You could say this was a riot of the disenfranchised or the underclass, but certainly not a race riot. I think race here is nothing like the problem it is in the States.
TM: Let’s talk about your book. I’m curious what drove you to write a book that, on the surface at least, is about monuments to people who died in First World War. It doesn’t seem like your kind of subject. What led you to write this book?
GD: First of all, I would say I’ll give you ten dollars if you can tell me what a Geoff Dyer subject is [laughs].
TM: You got me there. That’s fair enough.
GD: I’ve written about so many different things, and there’s no telling what I’m going to write about next. In a way, this was one of the least surprising things for me to turn to, if only because the First World War occupies such a central position in the collective memory of all British people. And although it’s very much about my particular experience of the memory of it – which overlaps not only with people my age, but people of all ages – the shadow cast by the First World War is really huge. For many people in Britain, their first introduction to poetry is the anti-war poetry of Wilfred Owen.
TM: You write in the book, “The issue, in short, is not simply the way the war generates memory, but the way memory has determined – and continues to determine – the meaning of the war.” Can you describe the meaning of the war?
GD: Always in the book I’m just trying to articulate impressions of it. It’s certainly not a history book. I always have faith in this idea that if I remain honest and open about my own confusion, the blurriness of my impressions – it’s not because I’m short-witted or stupid – the chances are those feelings will be shared by other people. And I just had this very distinct sense of the First World War as being something rather buried in its own memory. There’s so much discussion, as the war is going on, about how it will be remembered, or if it will be forgotten. So right from the start it just seems preoccupied with how it will be remembered. The other crucial thing is that distinction I make with the Robert Capa pictures of D-Day, where it all seems to hang in the balance and there’s a great sense of immediacy. With the First World War there’s no immediacy to it. It comes buried in so many layers of myth and memory.
TM: Speaking of Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon and Robert Capa, I think of the First World War as a very literary war, much like the American Civil War. Whereas the Second World War was much more photographic.
GD: Yes, I agree.
TM: You end your book with a visit to the Thiepval Memorial to the Missing of the Somme, designed by Edwin Lutyens. You call it a memorial to “the superfluousness of God” and you add that it’s “not simply a site of commemoration but of prophecy, of birth as well as of death: a memorial to the future.” This seems to touch the heart of this book. Tell me about this link between memory and prophecy, past and future, people remembering something even before it has happened.
GD: I guess in many ways you could see the First World War as the beginning of the twentieth century proper. That’s the war that breaks the continuum. It’s when the old imperial orders start to break up. It’s a convenient cut-off point for the end of the nineteenth century and the beginning of the twentieth. Also this thing of commemoration and the memorials, in some ways there is a prophetic quality to it. Again, as I mentioned, the twentieth century was the century of disappearances on a huge scale, whether people disappear in the Holocaust, the famine in the Ukraine –
TM: The gulags.
GD: Exactly, the gulags, all of this kind of stuff. In that respect, and in its peculiarly atheistic style – which was the product of the Imperial War Graves Commission and the predisposition of Lutyens himself – the monument at Thiepval seems prophetic.
TM: Lutyens made the monument to the Missing of the Somme very religion-free, didn’t he?
GD: Yes. There were people who wanted a bit more religion in it, but I think it works very effectively. I make this contrast between the aspiring nature of, say, a cathedral and its endlessly upward-reaching quality, and the stubborn, land-locked, defiant, earth-bound kind of construction that Lutyens came up with.
TM: It’s immobile, and certainly the opposite of ethereal.
GD: Indeed, yes.
TM: To go back to the idea of memory and prophecy. In your recent collection, Otherwise Known as the Human Condition, there’s an essay about Oradour-sur-Glane, the French town where the Germans massacred the citizens during the Second World War. You write about the untouched ruins of the town: “Like all monuments, the ruins at Oradour were intended not simply to preserve the past but to address the future. To that extent they are like a bid at prophecy, an attempt to call into being. And what is called into being by these ruins is – in a final paradoxical resolution – the moment when this process of restoration is complete. Only then can they be forgotten.” Do you think, then, that forgetting the ultimate goal of remembering?
GD: Well, I can’t remember where it is, but there’s a Holocaust memorial which is designed in such a way that it’s going subside into the ground an inch or two every year. The idea being that by the time it physically disappears there will be no need for it because it will be permanently installed in everybody’s memory. The tricky thing with Oradour is that they had this nice idea of leaving everything as it was – and it’s a very intense and moving place – but time and nature have worked on it so it’s in danger of becoming too ruined. So now they’re faced with the question of should they take steps to artificially preserve it or just let it rot away?
TM: So they’re talking about sending a ruins-maintenance crew out there?
GD: Yes, exactly, there’ve been all sorts of discussions about it. This is something I’m consistently interested in – places where time has stood its ground. I like the particular charge of that. It’s something I address in my Yoga book (Yoga for People Who Can’t Be Bothered To Do It), where I talk both about the ruins in Rome and, of course, the much more recent ruins in Detroit.
TM: And certainly the monument to the Missing of the Somme is part of that thing, of time standing its ground.
GD: Yes. When you’re there you’re so conscious that you’re coming into a place where history is manifest as geography. The temporal manifests itself in terms of the spatial. I’m always drawn to places like that, whether they’re old places that have fallen into ruins or modern places like the ones I wrote about in the New Yorker recently, the Lightning Field and the Spiral Jetty.
TM: Elsewhere in Otherwise Known as the Human Condition, you were reminiscing about your heady days of living on the dole in London back in the 1980s. You wrote, “I liked the idea of writing because that was a way of not having a career.” Now here we are, a quarter of a century has rolled by. Do you still feel that way, that writing is a way of not having a career?
GD: I suppose by now I am somewhat more conscious of it as a career. In some ways, I think I was quite lucky, looking back, that my early books had such a distinct lack of success. So I was able to write things without any sense of whether they had any commercial potential. The books were all sooooo unsuccessful, nobody had any expectations, and I was certainly under no pressure from publishers. Although that was a source of grievance to me and somewhat of a mystery – I was constantly amazed that the books were doing so badly [laughs] – I can see that was a liberation as well.
TM: The Missing of the Somme originally appeared in England in, what, 1994?
TM: Why the 17-year lag? Are American publishers just stupid? Why does it take so long for foreign books to make their way to America?
GD: In the case of this particular book, I hadn’t published anything in America at that point. I was still pretty well seething with indignation that But Beautiful, my jazz book, had not been published in America. That seemed so weird to me. And that was the fault of the British publisher, by the way. So anyway, this funny little essay on the missing of the Somme would have been a weird one to start with. Partly because, at that point, nobody knew who I was in America, and partly because the First World War was missing altogether from the bookshelves of American stores. It went straight from the American Civil War to the Spanish Civil War. Back in 2001, Vintage U.S. wanted to publish The Missing of the Somme, but I’d given away the American rights to the British publisher to distribute it in the U.S. So Vintage wanted something I no longer had. That was just awful, really. So Vintage acquired the rights, not from me, but from the British publisher, who were being such complete shits all the time, just hanging onto something that they didn’t even want. The bottom line is that it is out in America now, and I’m really glad it is even though it’s fifteen, sixteen years late. But I’m still around to enjoy it.
TM: That brings us, finally, to your new gig, writing for The New York Times Book Review. We started off talking about the fact that there’s no such thing as a typical Geoff Dyer subject. But I must tell you, it seems to me like a strange marriage – that guy with the bong on the roof, living on the dole in London, now he’s writing for the Gray Lady. What happened, did they make you an offer you couldn’t refuse?
GD: To jump from the bong on the roof to now, that’s quite a fast-forward! The bong on the roof was me in my late twenties – and when you talk about the Gray Lady, well, I’m this gray-haired, middle-aged guy now. It would be awful if I was still under the delusion that I was in my late twenties. This seems quite an appropriate gig.
TM: How often will your column appear in the Times?
GD: For a while I did a weekly column for The Guardian, and the awful thing about a weekly column is that it seems to come around daily. This will be a monthly column, which for me is already starting to feel like it’s coming around weekly.
TM: What are you working on now? Do you have a new book in the works?
GD: I have a book coming out in January or February. It’s a very detailed study of Andrei Tarkovsky’s film, Stalker, which is the film that I’ve seen more than any other. It has really stayed with me for the thirty years since I first saw it. This book is an unbelievably detailed study of that film.
TM: Will it be coming out in the States too?
GD: Yes. I think at this point the subject of the books is less important in determining their fate than the fact that they’re by me. Let’s say early on, a publisher sees me as an unknown guy writing about the First World War, sort of an unattractive subject. But now we’ve got this guy who’s a bit better known in the States, who’s writing about a subject that’s not as appealing as, I don’t know, the rise of the Tea Party – but hopefully people will buy it because it’s by me, irrespective of the fact that they’ve not seen the film, or perhaps not even heard of it.
TM: Are you going to go back to writing fiction anytime soon?
GD: I wouldn’t rule it out, but I certainly feel that ultimately I’ll have a longer life as an essayist than I would as a fiction writer, even though the distinction means nothing to me. But I’m a rather limited kind of fiction writer, whereas there will be plenty of things I’ll want to continue to write about in the realm of the essay, or as a critic, or whatever.
TM: Best of luck with The Missing of the Somme in the States.
GD: Well, thank you. Been nice talking to you.
Image credit: Thiepval Memorial to the Missing of the Somme via WW1 Battlefields