I bought this book because I heard the author interviewed on the Litopia Daily podcast. In the gap between purchasing it and reading it I heard his name mentioned almost exclusively in conjunction with superlatives. The best writer practising in English today was one of them. Like a young Kingsley Amis was another.
To say I had high hopes is an understatement.
The writing is without doubt accomplished; the perfect mix between quick and easy to read, and intelligent and poignant. I don't think it deserves either of the two monikers above, but as a writer he is certainly impressive.
Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi is really two books.
The first part is a third person romp through the Biennale, as journalist Jeff Atman drinks and snorts his way through parties and exhibitions and enjoys a passionate but shallow affair with American gallery director, Laura. This section is very funny, often laugh out loud in it's grotesqueness and stays on just the right side of parody or whimsy.
The second is first person, as an unnamed journalist (I assumed it is still Jeff, but I could be wrong) becomes increasingly seduced by the madness of Varanasi. There is a lingering sadness to the second part of the book, and while still funny in parts it lacks the frenetic, almost farcical nature of the first part.
Based on Death in Venice by Thomas Mann, both parts of the book borrow themes and motifs from this classic Novella- unrequited love, the personality of places, and indeed it is Venice and Varanasi that are the real main characters here. Both are lovingly described in exquisite detail, both are decaying beauties, both are facades under which there is very little substance and yet both are revered as place of spiritually and culture.
The people are secondary, as too is the plot really, and it is the spirit of the two cities, so perfectly captured, that made this book such a pleasure to read.