Geoff Dyer: Expeditions into the Zone
Geoff Dyer speaks about the art of speculation and his journey into Andrei Tarkovsky’s STALKER.
Zona is an essential book about a remarkable film. The apogee of Andrei Tarkovsky‘s achievements as a director, Stalker shifts slightly with each viewing. It is never quite the same film twice. Geoff Dyer’s scene-by-scene analysis, extensively footnoted and replete with digressions, warrants the same attention. Zona is an ideal companion piece and, like much of Dyer’s writing, worth reading again and again.
It is upon a cascade of recent activity (on the heels of a recent essay collection, Otherwise Known as the Human Condition, and the decade-plus delayed U.S. publication of the Sebald-ian yet entirely Dyer-ish Missing of the Somme, finally expressing some renewed American interest in WWI-by-way-of-Britain in a post-Downton Abbey climate), that Fandor co-founder Jonathan Marlow spoke about Zona with justifiably celebrated author/essayist Geoff Dyer, who, we’ve been given the opportunity to announce in advance, will be the Guest Director of the 2012 Telluride Film Festival.
Setting the scene: The telephone rings. Silence. Dead air, as it’s called. A second call and then…
Geoff Dyer: I don’t know what was going on there.
Jonathan Marlow: There was nothing. Now there is something.
Dyer: Now there is something.
Marlow: The opposite of nothing.
Dyer: Something. At any rate, here we are. Person-to-person.
Marlow: Yes, here we are. I have to begin by saying how disappointed I am that I will be in New York the week before you arrive. I will be in Austin when you’re in San Francisco. I venture to Seattle a few weeks after you’ve disappeared. I’ll miss every part of your visit!
Dyer: It’s a perfect storm of irritation and disappointment on my part, then. (Laughs.)
Marlow: It’s not your fault. Poor planning on my part, honestly. If I’d only known a bit earlier. Is this the entirety of the book tour for Zona?
Dyer: New York, San Francisco and Seattle, yes. But I’ll be out again in the U.S. in June, giving some talks in Palm Springs, Charlottesville and Bennington. But that’s not specifically about Zona.
Marlow: Tom Luddy recommended that I take a look at Out of Sheer Rage in advance of our talk (which I had the opportunity to finish on the flight back from Berlin). I learned long ago that Tom’s recommendations should be immediately observed! I was mildly curious about the subtitle. In the U.K., the book is amended In the Shadow of D.H. Lawrence but in the U.S. it is Wrestling with D.H. Lawrence. What does that say, if anything, about the opposite sides of the Atlantic?
Dyer: What it means is that the American editor came up with this altogether superior subtitle after the English edition had already come out! But bear in mind that we’re now going back a really long while, actually. Since then, I’ve liked the idea of my books not having any subtitle at all. I’d rather that they’re not defined by their subject matter. The galleys of Zona had a subtitle, ‘A book about a journey about a film…’ Whatever it is. By the time the book was finished, we deleted that subtitle. It’s now become a bit of blurb on the cover. Subtitles are increasingly a thing of my past, really.
Marlow: The intent of Out of Sheer Rage was always to write about D.H. Lawrence and that’s what it is, largely. Or, rather, a book about not writing about D.H. Lawrence. But with Zona, as I understand it, your initial intent was to write a book about tennis.
Dyer: Well… just to be absolutely accurate, with the Lawrence book, Out of Sheer Rage, it was always my intention to write a completely crazy book about Lawrence. It was never my intention to write the sober, academic study that I claimed I wanted to write on the first page. With Zona, yes, it was a kind of displacement activity because of the frustration I was experiencing in trying to write the book about tennis that I thought I was wanting to write and discovered I was incapable of doing it.
Marlow: Why would you say that is?
Dyer: I think it was a question of timing. There are various sized windows for certain books. And I think I just missed the boat with regard to tennis. The time when I could’ve written it was when I was writing my novel Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi. That’s when my tennis enthusiasm was at its peak. And then I got this really troubling, irritating wrist injury from which I had real trouble recovering. Just in that time it went off the boil as a thing to write a whole book about.
Marlow: With Jeff in Venice I am reminded (before we actually talk in-depth about Zona) there is something peculiarly cinematic about the novel. I found it very interesting that Jeff in Venice is divided in two. There is little effort to connect the first and the second in a ‘literal’ sense but the two sections mirror each other in compelling ways.
Dyer: Indeed. There is no causal or plot or story relationship. Instead, there are just these little sorts of echoes. These little sorts of filaments.
There are a couple of George Steiner lines that are relevant here. When he says, ‘All criticism should arise from a debt of love.’ And then another line, somewhere else, where he says, ‘Implicit in any deep reading of any book is the desire to write a book in reply.’
Marlow: There are clearly some parallels in your personal experiences that you bring into the fiction of Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi. This is not unusual in your work. Your non-fiction writing shares characteristics with your novels and your novels share elements with your essays. It’s as if there is no particular reason to classify your books into any particular genre. They’re merely more of one thing or less of something else….
Dyer: That’s absolutely true. Since we’re talking about movies here, I would just quote Werner Herzog who says that, as far as he’s concerned, there is no difference at all between his fiction films and his so-called documentaries. Herzog says, to him, they’re all just ‘films.’ And I feel exactly the same way about my books. It’s nice to hear that you think there is a cinematic quality to Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi. I think that’s right. But it’s funny because, so often, the aspect of a book that appeals to a potential filmmaker is the plot. To that extent, it’s not obvious movie fodder, really.
Marlow: Perhaps not in the U.S.…
Marlow: …but it certainly has enough plot to satisfy certain cinematic trends in Thailand, for instance.
Dyer: (Laughs.) I see! Okay, well… I’m afraid this is Geoff Dyer you’re talking to and not Mark Cousins. I can’t sustain a conversation about Thai cinema at the level that he could!
Marlow: Well stated. I’ve had the luxury of tearing through a bunch of your work lately but it is Zona (published in the U.S. the same day as this conversation) that prompts this particular call. I can admit that I am your target audience, given my fondness for Tarkovsky in general and Stalker in particular. There is something about the film that is never tiresome. I should note that I am not the sort of person who generally watches a film more than once but Stalker is a rare exception. I’ve seen it more than a dozen times. How did you arrive at tackling the film from beginning to end?
Dyer: There was a screening of it here in London and it was going to be preceded by a panel discussion. I remember thinking, ‘Why didn’t they ask me to participate in this panel discussion?’ And then I figured that it didn’t matter because I could write a little article for a paper about Stalker. But then, after I arranged to do that, I found it rather frustrating because I had both a great deal to say about Stalker and I’d hit upon a quite fun way of discussing it. A way that would be fun for me as well as for the reader. I also realized (and there wasn’t anything very clever about this) that the remarkable thing about the film is that it lends itself both to a straightforward summary where you just describe the action but, because of the nature of the journey, that also means that you could very easily go off on these metaphysical or even theological sort of speculations. And, of course, that’s something that I like doing. In other words, this film lent itself very, very well to the kind of stuff I’m sort of temperamentally and artistically disposed to do.
Marlow: One thing I’ve always found interesting about Tarkovsky is how he regularly insisted that there were no symbols in his work and yet, from one film to the next, he used the same images and the same sounds and the same themes. There really is no way around interpreting the films, when viewed together, in a way that is somewhat different than what is presented on the screen.
Dyer: That’s absolutely right. He comes back obsessively to these certain tropes.
Marlow: What was the later epiphany with Stalker that had you invest the time in such an exhaustive book?
Dyer: When I first saw it (and I talk about this in the book, as you know), because of my education, I was much more predisposed to reading things symbolically but at the same time the film always resisted any kind of schematic reading. It had its own self-corrective mechanism sort of built in. When I first saw Stalker, I could see it was an important film but it wasn’t love at first sight. I had one of these weird, delayed epiphanies. I was with my girlfriend at the time and we were walking in this park in London. I saw this bird flap over the landscape in a way that was weirdly reminiscent of the bird flapping over the sand in one of the rooms. But that reminded me of something which I’d never even forgotten. The film had stayed with me all that time and I think this not at all uncommon, really. It’s one of the few films that people like you and me who don’t like seeing the same thing over and over again return to. Something in it refuses to let you go. You often see it again because you want to see, ‘Was it really like this? Is this how I remembered it?’ One of the things I discovered in the course of writing this book is that many things in the film are not as you remembered them. And, of course, going on from that, there are always fresh things to see. Very late in the day, when I was going through the proofs for the nth time, I noticed something very late in the film which was so hugely important that I had to add a line (at great inconvenience to the publishers) to take account of something even after seeing the film God knows how many times I’d only just noticed.
Marlow: What was that?
Dyer: I don’t know if we want to include spoilers, for the sake of your audience….
Marlow: Spoiler ahead! If you’ve never seen the film, you’ll want to skip a few paragraphs.
Dyer: It’s the thing after Writer and Stalker have that kind of scuffle and they sit down and they’re on the very threshold of the room. I hadn’t realized that the camera actually goes into the room! It’s an extraordinarily important thing. None of the three blokes go into the room but the camera does! That is really something, isn’t it? I just hadn’t noticed it before.
When I first saw ‘Stalker,’ I could see it was an important film but it wasn’t love at first sight. I had one of these weird, delayed epiphanies. I was with my girlfriend at the time and we were walking in this park in London. I saw this bird flap over the landscape in a way that was weirdly reminiscent of the bird flapping over the sand in one of the rooms. But that reminded me of something which I’d never even forgotten. The film had stayed with me all that time and I think this not at all uncommon, really. It’s one of the few films that people like you and me who don’t like seeing the same thing over and over again return to. Something in it refuses to let you go.
Marlow: It’s very subtle. The viewer has to put themselves in the geography of the Zone.
Marlow: It happens, as it always does in a Tarkovsky film, quite slowly. I imagine many folks miss it. One of the things that I found fantastic about your book (which few writers ever seem to address) is the sense of humor in Tarkovsky’s work, particularly Stalker and Solaris. Granted, there is a noticeable lack of humor in his later work, The Sacrifice and Nostalghia, but in Stalker… on the surface, the film is about a journey. However, the journey gets progressively slower to the point where, once they’re at the precipice of their destination, the journey stops altogether. There is something perverse about it. Were you ever compelled to read Roadside Picnic?
Dyer: I wasn’t. It was so obvious that it was something that I should read. Generally speaking, I’ve never been a big reader of science fiction. And then, by the time I was writing this book, I acquired this sort of resistance to it for no real reason (though I was able to construct some sort of superstitious reason for not doing so). But, yes, I agree with you completely about the humor side of things. There is even a bit of slapstick in Stalker, isn’t there?
Marlow: Yes, exactly, and other bits of hilarity as well. In their first moment into the Zone, for instance, there is something absurd in the momentary transition to an action film in which there is little action at all. For all of the suggested danger, there never seems to be much of a threat. You mention in passing (in the book) this desire of viewers to occasionally draw parallels between Stalker and The Wizard of Oz. I’ve been guilty of that as well. While those sorts of intersections are intellectually entertaining, it doesn’t have much to do with either film. You mentioned that you hadn’t seen The Wizard of Oz. Is that right?
Dyer: Yes. But, you know, I really regret two things. One, I really regret not seeing The Wizard of Oz. And two, I really, deeply regret having said that I hadn’t seen it! In some of my books, when I’ve talked about the things I haven’t read or the things I hadn’t seen, there’s been a point to it. By omitting something, I’ve actually gained something from it. Here, it was just a completely gratuitous thing to mention. I’m now the victim of the rather perverse structure and format of Zona, [so] that I don’t think, even in subsequent reprints, that I can eliminate the line because, of course, every change you make disrupts the flow of the book. One of the people reviewing the book the other day complained about that line and I thought, ‘You know what? You’re absolutely right.’ Unfortunately, I’m stuck with it.
Marlow: In much the same way, my inquiry about The Wizard of Oz derives from your comments about Roadside Picnic. I spent years locating a copy and yet I can’t bring myself to read it, either. I know that I would start seeing the film in the revised context of what I’ve imagined from reading the book, despite their differences. As you mentioned, Stalker lends itself quite well to your style of writing. Is there another film that would work as well?
Dyer: I am tempted on some level to write a not dissimilar book about Where Eagles Dare, partly because it’s the exact opposite kind of film to Tarkovsky. But it is one that is similarly, deeply etched in my consciousness and it would enable me to address a whole load of other things. But before I get round to that, there are a couple of other things I want to do.
Marlow: Clearly, you have the book tour and your travels in June. And you have this thing in September that I am not allowed to talk about yet…
Dyer: (Laughs.) Yes.
Marlow: You’re clearly not lacking for things to do. It seems like all of your writing to date feeds into Zona. It’s as if you’re in an interesting position where you can essentially do anything you want.
Dyer: I would just sort of explain that a bit. The thing is that I’ve actually always been in that position! The way we tend to imagine these things is that once you’ve achieved a certain degree of success (or sales or commercial viability) then you’ll be free to do less viable things. But I think that doesn’t happen partly because, in the way that economists have always realized, people find it difficult to downgrade their living standards. Having become accustomed to selling God knows how many hundreds of thousands of copies of books, it wouldn’t be at all unusual for a writer to feel like they’d like to remain at that sort of level of feasibility. Now, for me, because my early books were such abject failures, because they attracted no audience at all, there was never a level of sales that I needed to maintain. So it really made no difference at all to either my publishers or anyone else what I did. I wrote, for example, The Search, a novel which, in commercial terms, was an absolute failure. To go on from that to write this little essay about the first World War, The Missing of the Somme, it really made no difference to anybody. In some weird way, there is a kind of freedom that can come with what might seem like failure from the outside. Certainly, as you can probably tell, I’ve become an expert at the sophistry of translating what seems like failure into a version of success. It’s also just a kind of selfishness. I could never have done it the other way. I was always too impatient to get on with what I wanted to do.
Marlow: I was struck by a quote from a review that appeared for Working the Room in the Brisbane Times, an Australian newspaper. The fellow wrote, ‘Dyer has been suspiciously prolific for a layabout.’ And you talk a lot in your essays about how you’ve mastered the art of not doing the task you’ve set out to do. But now, perhaps inadvertently after all of these years, you have what they call in the music industry a ‘back-catalogue.’ You have this wealth of material behind you. Maybe your public persona and your private life are in conflict. You describe yourself as unproductive and yet all evidence suggests the opposite.
Dyer: Yes, well, last year seemed like a very busy year in America because, for example, The Missing of the Somme came out in the U.S. for the first time. But, you know, I can’t remember when it came out in Britain. Ninety-something, ’94 or ’95, something like that. It might appear that I was rather busier last year than I really was just because of the lag of these things. Seriously, over the whole period of time I’ve been writing, I’ve been reasonably busy. It’s not that I’ve just had this burst of massive productivity in the last couple of years.
Marlow: As it relates to the rest of this year, will you write essays about the films you’re selecting for Telluride in your role as Guest Director?
Dyer: I really don’t know. All I can say is that I’m very much looking forward to Telluride. I’m still very happily thinking about the films that I might show. I’m torn at the moment between a scattershot way of doing things, ‘I’ll show this film because I like it and I’ll show that one ̕cause I like it,’ or adopting a rather more constrained process where I feel that there should be some overriding rubric or there should be something in common with the films apart from the fact that I like them.
Marlow: As Paris Trance finds a precedent in Tender is the Night or Jeff in Venice’s modest debt to Thomas Mann, your inspirations seem to be in the right place. You set interesting challenges for yourself. I presume that the programming for Telluride will be interestingly eclectic.
Dyer: (Laughs.) Let’s hope! Some of what influences is what has gone before. There are a couple of George Steiner lines that are relevant here. When he says, ‘All criticism should arise from a debt of love.’ And then another line, somewhere else, where he says, ‘Implicit in any deep reading of any book is the desire to write a book in reply.’ And in some ways, Tender is the Night by Fitzgerald has always been of my favorite top two books. I always wanted to write my own version of it. Similarly, with this Stalker book, I’m sort of obeying the Steiner diktat here. I think, in a way, it’s not unusual. There is a tradition of doing versions or remixes of what had gone before.
Marlow: In preparing for this conversation, I read a handful of few interviews with you and it is safe to say that there has yet to be a great interview of you in the U.S.* This will do little to remedy that…
Marlow: …but I’ve read in these piece and, of course, Yoga For People Who Can’t Be Bothered to Do It, of your affinity for Black Rock City. In the context of this discussion, I was interested in how, in some respects, Black Rock City resembles the Zone, a place where seemingly anything is possible. How much of your experience with the Zone came out of your travels to Black Rock City?
Dyer: That’s one of the things I realized I hadn’t said in the book. For me, this is a book about a film. Okay, obviously, it is. But it’s also about this actual place that the film makes available to us. The Zone. And once we make that sort of adjustment, we then see a sort of deeper continuity with stuff that I’ve written about before. I like these charged, magical places and, you know, there is no place on Earth more charged and magical than Black Rock City. For many years, I was every bit as evangelical about Black Rock City as Stalker is about the Zone. I still look back on the period when I used to go to Burning Man as one of the things in my life that I’m most glad and, oddly, proud to have done. To me, it seems important. It isn’t just some sort of fabulous or fable-type thing that Tarkovsky has come up with. There really is a place where your deepest dreams can come true. Increasing numbers of people have realized that, which is why, this year, they’ve had to have a lottery for tickets. Because, of course, it’s reached capacity now.
Marlow: When you were regularly attending Burning Man, did you resemble Stalker in temperament? Were you leading people there?
Dyer: I guess. I’d been in 1999, first of all, and then I met the woman who became my wife the following year. We were dating and I said, ‘Let’s go to Burning Man.’ Later, back in Britain, I was kind of lobbying people and urging them to go. Finally, in that Yoga book, I was proselytizing! I wasn’t so much a ‘tour operator’ but I was certainly a very persuasive ‘travel agent.’ It’s the Labor Day weekend. It seems to me if I’m not going to be at Burning Man, Telluride is a pretty good substitute.
Marlow: You’ve never been to Telluride, I take it?
Dyer: No, I haven’t.
Marlow: It definitely different than Burning Man….
Marlow: …but there are certain parallels.
*I stand corrected. Tom Luddy directed me to an interview of Geoff Dyer by Jonathan Lethem that is, unsurprisingly, a delight to read.
Geoff Dyer appears with Zona in New York, San Francisco and Seattle in early March. His website (www.geoffdyer.com) has all the details. On March 13, the Telluride Film Festival hosts a reading and book-signing with Dyer at the Cerrito Theatre in El Cerrito, California.