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VICTORY AT SEA AND ITS TRAGIC AFTERMATH IN THE FINAL YEARS OF THE PELOPONNESIAN WAR
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FIVE HUNDRED 1ST LINES IN 140 CHARACTERS OR LESS
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« Russo, Richard: Straight Man | Main | Aczel, Amir: The Riddle of the Compass »

Dyer, Geoff: Out of Sheer Rage

  

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North Point Press © 1999, 256 pages [amazon]
2.5 stars

The title of Geoff Dyer's Out of Sheer Rage: Wrestling with D.H. Lawrence is taken from something Lawrence wrote of his own author-inspired work: "Out of sheer rage I've begun my book on Thomas Hardy. It will be about anything but Thomas Hardy I am afraid--queer stuff--but not bad." Just so, Dyer's book is not really about D.H. Lawrence--it is like one of "those wild books" Dyer describes "in which there is no attempt to cover the ground thoroughly or reasonably"--though Lawrence's life and writing do provide the book with what framework it has.

In the process we learn a little about Lawrence--he paid his bills on time, he is unlikely to have been comfortable naked, he tended to be angry much of the time, he was handy around the house.In conversational prose that makes his meandering narrative a fast read, Dyer recounts his experiences while trying to write a serious book about Lawrence. We follow the author as he travels around the world visiting the places Lawrence lived--Sicily, England, New Mexico--and while he pores over Lawrence's preserved correspondence. In the process we learn a little about Lawrence--he paid his bills on time, he is unlikely to have been comfortable naked, he tended to be angry much of the time, he was handy around the house. Mostly we learn about Lawrence's characteristics because they are shared by Dyer, about whom we learn a great deal. (Dyer, too, pays his bills on time, though he is not handy around the house.)

Dyer's defining characteristic is what he describes as his "rheumatism of the will, this chronic inability to see anything through."  It is the reason he cannot decide finally where in the world he wants to live (a trait he shares with Lawrence), why he therefore lives "perpetually on the brink of potential departure," not acquiring the "trappings of permanence"--because while he may detest his current living arrangements, he suspects that he would regret at once the decision to give up the sublet he now finds stultifying.

"The trouble, the rub, was that I had to give three months' 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."

Dyer's paralyzing indecision likewise renders him unable to do the exercises that will repair his knee and save him from continual pain, unable to decide whether or not to pack a particular book in his luggage, unable to write the serious study of Lawrence he originally had in mind, unable to write the book he was postponing writing by beginning the book on Lawrence. It is a wonder, in the end, that Dyer manages to conduct his life at all.

Dyer is also, like Lawrence, an angry man. While Lawrence was allegedly "angry even in his sleep," Dyer describes himself, sometimes amusingly, as cursing and muttering under his breath throughout the day, raging over insignificant annoyances.

"A few days ago the local delicatessen had run out of the luxury doughnuts which I have for my elevenses and on which I depend utterly, just as I depend on my cornetti integralifrom the Farnese when I am in Rome. Right, I thought to myself, turning on my heel and walking out, grim-faced and tight-lipped, I will return later in the day and burn the place to the ground with all the staff in it--friendly, charming staff, incidentally, who have often let me owe them money--so that they could experience a fraction of the pain that I had suffered by not being able to have my morning doughnut."

Dyer complains in the book about a lot of things--Italians, children, parents of children, literary criticism. I thought him a bit obnoxious early on in my reading, when he faulted the Greek fellow he'd rented a moped from for refusing to return his deposit on the bike after he (Dyer) had totaled it (through his own fault). Lawrence called the Italians swine, Dyer writes. "He should have gone to Greece, should have hired and crashed a moped on Alonissos before making such an insulting generalisation--insulting to the Greeks, I mean, for they pride themselves on being swine." Dyer's attitude becomes somewhat more forgivable when you come to understand that he recognizes, at least sometimes, how inappropriate his anger is.

There were times that Dyer's writing annoyed me. Particularly in the beginning of the book, he tended to repeat himself. He may have done so in a conscious attempt to add to the informal feel of his prose, but if so I think he went too far:

"Laura and I were walking through the little wood before you get to the rocks and we saw it at the same time. All my life I have dreaded seeing a snake and on Alonissos I saw one. We both saw it at the same time, turned on our heels and fled.

I just sat there, moaning and groaning, stunned, hearing Laura groaning.
"Did you hit your head?" I said.
'Yes,' moaned Laura. I just sat there moaning and groaning.

The next morning I could not move. I had to be helped out of bed. I couldn't move.

And then, abruptly, there were no more letters. It was the end: oblivion. There were no more letters."

On a number of occasions, too, I was left wondering whether he was getting sloppy with his writing or was achieving some poetic depth I couldn't appreciate:

"The mountains in the background were cut from the same cloth as the sky: a slightly darker shade, that was the only difference. Had we the capacity to analyse it there would almost certainly be a geology of the air as well as of rock.

We looked at the view. That is exactly what we did; we did not look at the sea and the sky, we looked at the view.

The puddles by the roadside offered no reflection: the water was too old for that, was no longer sensitive to light."

But there were also a number of things in Dyer's book that I quite liked. His observation that we always think we look like ourselves, but those whom we know only through photographs become fixed in our minds at certain intervals. Or his description of the conflicting feelings a reader has toward a good book: "However much you are enjoying a book you are always flicking to the end, counting to see how many pages are left, looking forward to the time when you can put the book down and have done with it." There was the occasional simple, lovely sentence: "Not a great choice [of restaurants] from my point of view since sea-food is vile filth which I will eat under no circumstances." The relationship between Dyer's acquaintances Ciccio and Renata, who phone one another compulsively throughout the day, was priceless. And perhaps my favorite part of the book--the only part I found downright funny--was Dyer's description of his mortifying experience giving a lecture about Lawrence in Denmark. Thoroughly unprepared for the talk and sick with a bad cold, Dyer tried to use his illness and an ill-timed nose bleed to, at the least, gain a measure of sympathy from the audience. Which he failed to do.

As a window into the personality of a writer--Dyer, of course, not Lawrence--Out of Sheer Rage makes good, if not great, reading.

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About the blogger: Debra is the mother of two preternaturally attractive girls and the author of a number of books about ancient Greece, including Trying Neaira: The True Story of a Courtesan's Scandalous Life in Ancient Greece. She writes and blogs from her subterranean lair in North Haven, CT. Read more.

  
  
  
  
  
  
  
  






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Book-blog.com by Debra Hamel is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution - Noncommercial - No Derivative Works 3.0 License.