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20 of 24 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A brilliant book about a film I will probably never watch, 2 Feb 2012
This review is from: Zona: A Book about a Film about a Journey to a Room (Hardcover)
Geoff Dyer's books are, by now, divided fairly easily into two categories. There are the novels, and then there are the Other Ones, the books that are the main reason why people admire him. His novels are mixed; The Colour of Memory is a touching and skilful debut, but there are things about it that make you think that he really ought to be doing something else. The Search is basically an attempt at being Italo Calvino. Paris Trance updates The Colour of Memory with a hint of mid-30s crisis. Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi is the only Dyer book I've not been engaged enough by to finish. It read like travel notes that had been at best hastily converted into something resembling a novel.

But the other books: ah, the other books. Dyer's first book, long out of print and which he unfairly dismisses as 'short and dull', was a critical study of the work of John Berger, and Dyer is one of the few English writers who've picked up Berger's technique of writing personal and idiosyncratic non-fiction books, or book-length essays, that have something of the same poetic resonance as the films of Chris Marker. (Berger, Marker, Dyer - OK, 'Marker' isn't Marker's real name, but there's something action-y about all their surnames.) Even Dyer's Berger book had a touch of the personal about it; he notes that Berger, on 'Ways of Seeing', had the kind of haircut that mostly footballers had at that point in the early 70s. But then he started to write books like But Beautiful, a tender and quasi-fictional meditation on jazz. Then there was The Missing of the Somme, a book nominally about World War One but really about the gap Dyer perceived between the experience of WW1 and that of his own generation, and how he and his friends fantasised about it but were also genuinely moved by the sacrifice involved. Then there was Out of Sheer Rage, perhaps Dyer's funniest book, and after The Search the one most obviously influenced by a continental writer, in this case Thomas Bernhard, whose manic, exasperated tone Dyer adopted for a book about his failure to write a serious critical study of DH Lawrence - although the book is itself so full of insight into Lawrence, as well as into Dyer, that we don't miss the book Dyer claims he failed to write. (Not the least of Dyer's achievements in that book is to demonstrate the unexpected and bizarre harmony between Lawrence and Bernhard.)

Besides them, there's been a book on photography, a travel book and two collections of Dyer's essays, journalism and occasional pieces, a form he excels in. Over the years, the Dyer persona has become more apparent. The Dyer persona is that of a forty- and now fiftysomething, slightly nebbishy slacker; a bit bumbling, rather inept with women but basically romantic; liable to get himself into serious gymnastic trauma in the toilet of an Amsterdam coffee shop while trying to change his wet trousers when stoned; but also someone with an informed and acute love of different kinds of music, photography, books, travel, friends and various kinds of recreational drug. And now, film. Zona is a book about what would appear to be Dyer's favourite movie: Andrei Tarkovsky's 'Stalker'.

I have never seen Stalker. And for all that Dyer writes about it with fantastic attention, affection and the kind of judicious distance you get when you're writing in your early fifties about a film you first fell in love with aged 20, I don't think I ever will watch it. But this is not really a book about Stalker. It's about the kind of attention we bring to the films we love, and the different ways we watch films at different times in our lives. Although Dyer gives us a very close account of what happens in the movie, he makes it easy for us to share his experience without wishing it were ours; I don't think I need to watch Stalker to understand and appreciate this book. It's not a critical introduction to the film, so much as a meditation on what happens when we watch films that we love. And that's why it's a great and fascinating book, I think; one of the best pieces of film writing I've ever read, the more so because it does not demand that we see, or have seen, the movie in question.

In sum: a brilliant, intelligent, passionate and also at times very funny piece of writing about what appears to be a very dark and serious film indeed. Once again, Dyer finds his subject in the gap between himself and what he's writing about. That he makes that gap so fascinating is a testament to his talent, but it's also where we get to enter the book, because Dyer is almost unique amongst writers about art, photography, film, literature and so on in that he doesn't write academic or even journalistic criticism. He writes about as someone who loves the stuff, the way the rest of us do. Being a smart guy and a good writer he takes this love seriously, unpacking and analysing it over the course of a book, and we learn something about what we get out of listening to the music and looking at the pictures and reading the writers. In this attention to common experience, Dyer is genuinely Berger's inheritor-and yes, I know Berger is still writing, and writing well, at that. We need more like both of them. In the meantime, Zona is brilliant.
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