Monday, 22 March 2010

Out of Sheer Rage by Geoff Dyer


This is a book about how not to do things: how not to write a book, how not to live abroad, how not to work, how not to have a holiday, how not to be relaxed and how not to read effectively. As a result, it strikes a painful but amusing chord with most of us who read and write.

Geoff Dyer (himself, a successful writer, though he keeps this fact well hidden here) decides to write a book about D H Lawrence, one of his long-time literary heroes. Like Lawrence, GD lives abroad most of the time and dislikes England all of the time. Like DHL, he is restless, dissastisfied, and prone to irritability with the ceaseless minor inconveniences of life. As he dislikes most foreign food, extremes of hot/cold weather, and suffers badly from hypochondria, these irritations are many and he appears never to be at ease:
I am always on the edge of what I am doing. I do everything badly, sloppily, to get it over with so that I can get on to the next thing that I will do badly and sloppily so that I can then do nothing - which I do anxiously, distractedly, wondering all the time if there isn't something else I should be getting on with. ... When I'm working, I'm wishing I was doing nothing and when I'm doing nothing I'm wondering if I should be working. I hurry through what I've got to do and then, when I've got nothing to do, I keep glancing at the clock, wishing it was time to go out. Then, when I'm out, I'm wondering how long it will be before I'm back home.

To prepare for writing the DHL book, Dyer resolves to read all of Lawrence's collected letters, but, instead of working systematically through them, making notes, he finds himself devouring them all in one great reading binge (also in the wrong order because the volumes are not available sequentially from the library). Later, he goes, armed with many books, for an extended holiday to a quiet Greek island - ideal for concentrated study of Lawrence's work, or so he believes. But infinite time and opportunity manage to defeat him and he can settle to neither serious reading nor writing, and, after a scooter accident, he and his girlfriend Laura return home early and empty-handed. Later or earlier than this, he does manage visits to Lawrence's birthplace as well as to his homes in Sicily and Mexico, but still the book refuses to actually be written.

Anyone who has tried to study at length or write a book will recognise the self-imposed delaying strategies and obstacles that come between the writer and their work. Dyer is brilliant at pinpointing feelings of regret, inertia, lack of self-organisation and endless vacillations about where to begin.
Despite not perhaps being the book he intended, Out of Sheer Rage is full of genuine observation and truth about the bitty, unsatisfactory reality of life and work, as well as information and observations on Lawrence and his writing. In the end, this has become Dyer's book about DHL - really a book about how he did not write a book about DHL, but one still full of perception and wit.
While I was reading this book, I experienced a typically Dyerian moment. Browsing in my local Oxfam shop, I glanced through a nice old hardback copy of Twilight in Italy but, for some inexplicable reason, decided not to buy it, something I regretted as soon as I got home, especially when I read a little later that Geoff Dyer considers it his second favourite DHL after Sea and Sardinia.
Here is GD on exactly this kind of experience:
Looking back, the tiniest regrets weigh heavily with me: the time I bought a Weekly Travel Pass and fell fifty pence short of breaking even; the day in February when I was too miserly to pay 79 francs for a rare Yma Sumac CD which, when I went back to buy it two days later, had disappeared. Even now, ten months later, I can't stop thinking about that Yma Sumac CD: I wish I'd bought it when I had the chance but since I didn't buy it when I had the chance I wish I'd never seen it in the first place because then I wouldn't be tormented by the thought that I could have bought it .... Looking back through my diary is like reading a vast anthology of regret and squandered opportunity. Oh well, I find myself thinking, life is there to be wasted.

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