'Dazzling', 'wonderfully entertaining', 'extraordinarily reflective' 'Dyer can write as beautifully as Lawrence and Proust', are just a small sample of the critics' comments from the inside cover of this book. So why have I given it only two stars? Yesterday, when I finished it, my review might have read as follows: 'I have nothing to say about this book because I am unwilling to spend any more of my precious time trying to think of something to write that won't be too harsh and dismissive.' Instead, I decided to sleep on it and see if a new day might offer me a different perspective and indeed today I did find some positive things to say.
The book is full of literary and artistic references which I always find interesting but I do like them to have a purpose and I did not always understand their purpose in this novel. Direct references are made to Thomas Mann, Mary McCarthy (Dyer used the quotes from her very well), D H Lawrence, Henry James, Somerset Maugham and other writers too, but nothing much is made of the references. Dyer also refers to some Venetian artists, to Giorgione, although I failed to understand why he kept underlining the threatening storm in Giorgione's version of The Tempest, and to Tintoretto's paintings in the San Rocco church which was one of the better bits in the book. He also mentions many, many contemporary artists. This is valid referencing since the first part of the book is set during a Venice Biennale but eventually the listing of names became boring. There were also some more veiled literary references, the most intriguing for me were the subtle evocations of Dante and his Beatrice, especially in the pieces about Isobel, in the second part.
Considering all of this literary citation, I expected the writing to be more polished but instead I found it very variable in quality, even awkward at times, forcing me to reread some sentences in order to grasp their meaning. I didn't find the the story elements in the Venice section compelling in any way. The 'Julia' theme might have been interesting but Dyer didn't develop it at all and by the end of the first half, I was ready to abandon the book but then the story veered off in a different direction, to Varanasi in India, this time with a first person narrator. Ah, I thought, now it will be interesting, especially since I'd just read Damon Galgut's 'In A Strange Room' which has a section about India. Damon Galgut's writing is part travelogue, part story and he is very good at weaving together fact and fiction without losing the reader through boredom or incredulity. Galgut isn't interested in plot as such but the reader quickly accepts this and follows the story wherever it leads because his writing is so good and his voice is so deeply human. I tried to apply this principle to Dyer's Indian section as it seemed to be some sort of travel writing. I tried very hard to follow the narrator without question in his wanderings around Varanasi but Dyer kept throwing in plot hooks which distracted me and lead nowhere and the narrator's voice sounded so banal, even smug at times. On several occasions, thinly disguised references were made to elements of the Venice section leading the reader to suppose that some connection would eventually emerge between the two. I didn't particularly need this connection to be made but Dyer did lead me to expect it. Instead he offered a different resolution. Not death as the title might suggest but a sort of living death, for the narrator, and for the reader. I was relieved when it was over.
The book is divided in two sections and the protagonist almost seems a different person in the second part. The Venice story is inconsequential to the second, which moving to Varanasi, follows a thread that will lead to the inevitable end. Even though I found the difference between the person Jeff was in Venice and the one he was when arriving in India a bit too stark, I liked watching Jeff losing parts of oneself bit by bit, following a flow of change from which is very hard to go back.
Not having read Death in Venice by Mann I could not see how it inspired this book, and what in this book echoed the first.