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A polymath in full

Rediscovering Dyer’s humor, erudition — and the rich potential of essay

By Saul Austerlitz
Globe Correspondent / April 3, 2011

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Polymaths come in a variety of sizes. There’s Christopher Hitchens, who never met a harebrained neocon scheme he didn’t love; there’s Clive James, whose mastery of disciplines ranging from modernist poetry to Formula One racing borders on the terrifying; and then there’s Geoff Dyer, whose effortless erudition is masked by a pose of affable confusion. Dyer is the kind of scholar whose attempt to write the definitive study of D.H. Lawrence resulted in the marvelously funny “Out of Sheer Rage,’’ a chronicle of his increasingly anguished attempts to come to grips with the author he loves above all, and comes to despise more than any other.

Dyer is a poet of boredom and procrastination, and his nonfiction studies in particular are sideways odes in which the author himself, his sloth and confusion on helpless display, cannot but take a supporting role in the narrative. Where Hitchens expects his readers to know all, and James expects to explain all, Dyer forgives all, beginning with his own indolence: “My parents worked hard,’’ Dyer reports in one autobiographical fragment, included in his indelible new essay collection, “Otherwise Known as the Human Condition,’’ “and I didn’t like the look of it at all.’’

For all his professed laziness, Dyer’s book is proof positive of his insatiable desire to learn. A generalist making his living by his pen, Dyer is a throwback to the days when Edmund Wilson and John Berger (the subject of Dyer’s first book) saw fit to tackle nearly every subject under the sun. The author of witty, wise, world-weary considerations of photography (“The Ongoing Moment’’), jazz (“But Beautiful’’), and travel (“Yoga for People Who Can’t Be Bothered to Do It’’), Dyer’s breakthrough work in the United States was, of all things, a novel: “Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi’’ in 2009.

And yet, the incongruousness is illusory. As a novelist, Dyer is more the journalist type, transforming visits to Italy and India into flights of fancy; concomitantly, a book like “But Beautiful’’ takes the lives of jazzmen like Ben Webster and Art Pepper and constructs elegiac short stories, all mental hospitals and slow declines and faded melodies, atop the biographical skeleton. His novels feel like reportage, and his nonfiction often feels like novels.

The essay collection “is considered a pretty low form of book,’’ in Dyer’s estimation, and yet “Otherwise Known’’ may be Dyer’s masterpiece: a living journal documenting the wealth of his interests, the depth of his insights, and a stealthily powerful argument for the essay, not the novel, as the richest mode of contemporary letters.

It is also something of a key to his other books, allowing readers to grasp the hidden meanings of his serial digressions and disquisitions. “I don’t even try to sip anymore,’’ British expatriate Luke notes in Dyer’s bittersweet comic novel “Paris Trance.’’ “I prefer to gulp and then just sit here wishing I had sipped.’’ Dyer defines himself as “a gulper, not a sipper’’ in “Otherwise Known,’’ allowing us to conclude what we had already intuited: that many of Dyer’s fictional protagonists are lightly disguised versions of the author himself. Fiction and nonfiction collide and intertwine until they are inextricable.

In “Unpacking My Library,’’ whose title tips its cap to Walter Benjamin, Dyer thoroughly enjoys sorting through his books after a move, but wonders how to categorize them: Alphabetically? Chronologically? By subject? If the latter, then what of unclassifiable writers like Raymond Williams, or Benjamin himself? Dyer might as well be asking about his own work, which straddles the seemingly unbridgeable gap among fiction and reportage and personal essay. Dyer has so thoroughly jumbled categories that classifying him is a loser’s proposition. Instead, let us note of Dyer what he notes of one of his subjects: that “[t]he more he saw, the more he wanted to learn. The more he learned, the more he saw.’’ And let us be thankful that this polymath chose to ignore his father’s own words of wisdom: “Never put anything in writing.’’

Saul Austerlitz can be reached at swa204@gmail.com.

OTHERWISE KNOWN AS THE HUMAN CONDITION: Selected Essays and Reviews
By Geoff Dyer
Greywolf, 421 pp., illustrated, paperback, $18