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on 26 March 2014
This book effectively contains two related novellas featuring the same protagonist, Jeff, a London arts critic and writer. The first half recounts a short assignment to the Venice Biennale, written in the third person. The latter half is a first person account of his elongated stay in Varanasi. Both halves riff on common themes, many of which relate to Thomas Mann’s Death in Venice.

I was sorely tempted to put this novel down having only read the Venetian segment, thinking that the best thing about it was the punning title. The art world that Jeff orbits is only slightly more superficial than his daytripper-level insight into the city. The references to Mann are there –the older man colouring his hair to recapture youth, the obsessive lust for a distant figure– but they only serve to illustrate that this novella is deeply reductive. There are some nice passages and amusing turns of phrase but it felt pretty lightweight and I found myself alienated by the insincerity of the characters and the affectations of the writer. Another north-Londoner writing about just how clever and cosmopolitan north-Londoners are, I thought.

I underestimated Mr Dyer. He plays on the same themes in Death on Varanasi but uses it as both a critique of the society he has already described and Jeff’s angst-ridden participation in it.

Relocating the themes to unreconstructed Varanasi allows Dyer to show just how synthetic Jeff’s concerns and passions were in Venice. The ennui and lust that enveloped Jeff when he was there may have echoed those of Mann’s Aschenbach but just as the city has over the 20th century become a theme park for those rich in money and cultural capital, so the people and their concerns are cartoons.

The revelation of little details in Varanasi, like Jeff’s lack of education in the classical arts, serve to skewer both Jeff and the society in which he has thrived. How can a man with no understanding of the history and language of art be a nationally recognised art critic? Relatively easily, when the art community itself values those things less than the parties and the international travel and, ultimately, the cultural cache of being part of that elite community.

Stripped of the consumerism and pretention of the first-world at the beginning of the 21st Century, Jeff undergoes a striking transformation in Varanasi far more redolent of Aschenbach. First world problems give way to issues of self and spirituality. The reader’s tolerance for this kind of introspection and the travelogue style narrative will very much decide how much they enjoy this half of the novel.

I’m deeply conflicted about this novel. I reacted deeply against its first half and found the conclusion unsatisfying. The plot is inchoate, the characters –with the exception of Jeff- are sketches and long passages feel like they’ve fallen out of a travel guide. Yet beneath this veneer is some weapons grade thinking about society, culture and their relationship with the individual.
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on 4 December 2012
I thought this was an incredibly compelling novel and vividly written. I liked the way that it was split into two separate stories and the title was a fantastic teaser, and this fact alone kept me reading through the second half of the story - I did think, however, Varanasi was lacking the same sense of desire as the first. The characters in Venice, however, were wonderfully developed and I could almost touch Laura and, furthermore, I wanted to on many occasions. For the most part then the sex was actually well written! The only sense of lacklustre with this book came from the fact that I had purchased it from a website that currently isn't contributing its fair share of tax. This has not been a pleasant chaser - one feels robbed when they have enjoyed an experience that a crook has facilitated, however enjoyable. Thus, in summary, I would recommend buying this book, certainly. However, I would strongly urge any reader to consider the outlet from which they purchase it.
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on 13 August 2009
First up, Geoff Dyer is a very talented writer - he's written art criticism, WWI history, literary biography, you name it. But the book he's best know for is, obviously, the brilliantly written (and titled, it's fair to say) short story collection Yoga For people Who Can't be Bothered to Do It.

I'll be honest, I wasn't convinced that Geoff Dyer could neccesarily take his wonderful short story writing style into the novel territory - it's fair to say that he's not big on plot development and narrative arcs - and arguably this book is, in fact, two novellas. There's no real plot to speak of and yes - the two halves do have very different tones.

However, to say there's nothing connecting them is strange. I found the two narratives flowed rather wonderfully from one to the other and - maybe I'm being far too literal here - I just read it as though they were about one and the same person. Two sides of the same story, in fact.

To suggest that this book isn't memorable seems a bit strange too, as many of the scenes, particularly those in Varanasi, are beautifully evocative and hugely visual. He writes wonderfully about the pace and mood of Indian life, the weird rituals and events that pass as normal in any given day in this extraordinary city. And the character's progression (or maybe regression) is compelling and pretty heartstopping.

It's fair to say that this won't be for all the fans of Yoga... but it's nonetheless a very rewarding experience. You'll be hard placed to find such an unusual and arresting piece of writing published this year.
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on 17 April 2017
I've been to Varanasi 4 times ( Venice once ) and the descriptions of the old city are incredibly evocative . Yes , the story doesn't really go anywhere but the writing is utterly superb and very funny in places . For any prospective travellers to the city this book ( alongside a decent guidebook ) should be mandatory .
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on 24 May 2012
To describe this book as a novel is to mislead the prospective reader. It is a book in two halves - two novellas? I'd have to say not, as there is an almost total absence of plot. Without any coherent story to follow, I was surprised that I was not more bored. I was bored, obviously, but not as much as I'd have expected from the second half, which reads like a lengthy travelogue, with almost nothing happening for over a hundred pages. I did however raise a smile at the hero's (I use the term loosely) determination to reach the ATM ahead of the queue jumpers. I continued reading because the cover (apart from announcing it as a novel) described it as `a beautiful story of erotic love and spiritual yearning'. It also said it was `playful, stylish, sensual, comic' and with this I would agree, though not with many of the other superlatives on the cover. However well written, for me, the absence of plot and characters with any depth made it an unsatisfactory read.
`Quite possibly the best living writer in Britain'? Oh dear, have all the real authors I know died?
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on 21 April 2012
I couldn't decide on 2 or 3 stars - should be 2 1/2 really but there isn't that option. This book is not really fiction, it's more a travelogue as the two cities (two of my favourites in the world which propelled my purchase)are the main characters and described in great detail although do we really need to know the name of every single vaporetto stop that Jeff gets on or off at?
I got through the first story - Venice - amusing but becoming tiresome with its endless round of Biennale parties with too much coke and booze. I decided that was the point.I'd read somewhere that Jeff's heart is broken but it isn't, at least not from the reader's point of view, he's just having a weekend shag. And what a shag it is - And people have said 'Last Tango in Buenos Aires" has a lot of sex - "Jeff..." is not for prudes.
When I got to Varanasi, I really lost interest. Nothing happens. Mr Dyer doesn't seem to understand the basic requirements of the arc of fiction. I had expected him to meet up again with the fling but she is never mentioned again (we don't know what happens to them after they leave for their respective abodes)and in Varanasi nothing happens other than his somewhat sarcastic fall into spiritualism (while staying at a luxury hotel).
Nothing holds these two novellas together other than their water and alleyways.
As for all those glowing reviews from super-famous folk, all I can say is it must be nice to move into authoring from journalism via the Groucho and have so many kindly biased friends.
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VINE VOICEon 26 May 2009
Format: Paperback|Vine Customer Review of Free Product( What's this? )
This is the first Geoff Dyer book I have read and found it very enjoyable. The prose style is deceptively light and, essentially, the theme running through the book is one of escapism - whether through physical ('Jeff in Venice') or spiritual pleasure ('Death in Varanasi'). Essentially it is two novellas linked through theme and actual mentions in the text - Varanasi is mentioned in the first half and Venice in the second.

'Jeff in Venice' is a libetarian romp through the Venice Biennale, an art exhibition which runs every other year, written in the third person where Jeff has immense fun through the use of alcohol, drugs ands sex, (as well as viewing some art). The major theme is about physical enjoyment and living life to the fullest - a sort of antithesis to Thomas Mann's 'Death in Venice'.

'Death in Varanasi' slows things down and, this time written in the first person, it is more about losing oneself to thought and contemplation, letting life pass you by as you muse (detractors would call it navel gazing). In Varanasi where death is the way of life and everything revolves around the Ganges river you don't need anything else to feel 'out of it'. By the end the narrator has succumbed totally to Varanasi and surrendered himself to the eternal (or he's just lost his mind).

The novel uses a device which has become very common over the years in English fiction - interconnected stories to make up one novel - and most of the time this doesn't work, but here each part complements the other and there is a point to the writing. On the strength of this novel I would say Geoff Dyer is a very subtle writer and his novels, taken at face value, could seem rather simplistic, but there are deeper themes coursing through the prose.

I would definetly recommend this novel and would be happy to read his other work.
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Format: Paperback|Vine Customer Review of Free Product( What's this? )
A "novel" but actually two stories. First, Jeff in Venice, the city of love and romance - where he enjoys a few fleeting days of drug and alcohol fuelled sex with stranger Laura, which leaves him feeling empty, "gone from Plus One to Minus One."

Then someone, probably the same Jeff - still alone - is in Varanasi, city of religion and spirituality, where he tries to satisfy his craving to "reside squarely in the present" and be rid of the "longing for things to be over."

It could be said that the stories go nowhere, meander. Perhaps they are more about the concepts of love and enlightenment - and the dozens of authors, photographers and artists who have gone before in the two cities.

This is a very contemporary depiction of cynicism, ennui, pointlessness and superficiality - not to mention the fact the bedroom door is definitely NOT shut in our faces when Jeff and Laura enter. Does Jeff ultimately find enlightenment? Its debatable.

Four stars for the evocation of the two cities and the wonderful language. I particularly enjoyed the description of the man sitting in a gondola jam "as if he were Genghis Khan, belatedly coming to terms with the futility of a life devoted to conquest."
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on 11 May 2009
Format: Paperback|Vine Customer Review of Free Product( What's this? )
This book came smothered in glowing reviews for Geoff Dyer from highly respectable sources and I have to admit, I have no idea why.

It - they (is this one book or two?) is a perfectly respectable book, the sort of thing it would be fun to take with you when visiting either location, the style is jaunty and fun but both books have no plot to speak of and what there is has the substance and appeal of a stale marshmallow.

Venice is about a holiday romance, Varanansi more of a simple travelogue. Both are clearly autobiographical. They have nothing to do with each other - I don't know why they're together in the same volume other than for the fact that neither would be long enough to stand alone.

In short, it's OK, but absolutely nothing to text home about.
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VINE VOICEon 13 September 2009
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.
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