It’s a party just off Clapham Common. The host is a young woman who will later become an auspicious feminist. Judy Rumbold is there, something I find vaguely exciting, as I’d spent the last four years or so having her Guardian pieces force-fed to me as part of my crash course on all things fashion. (Alaia; Westwood; Gaultier; Alaia. It’s still the eighties, just.) The party is full of literary/ journo types fresh out of Oxbridge. All quite clearly on their way to somewhere, their destinations marked out, their lives bursting with their first and finest and final flowering, when it still feels like there’s such a thing of freedom of choice.
The hostess invites me into a room that is locked. Inside there’s about half a dozen people. There’s a man sitting on the sofa. He’s clearly very important, in spite of the fact that he’s no older than anyone else there. The others in the room as good as genuflect towards him. His every word is hung upon. Which is not something he seems to mind. The hostess introduces me to him. His name is James Wood. She says we need to speak about Saul Bellow and leaves us to it. We speak about Saul Bellow. I don’t think I have anything of any great import to say about Bellow and I’m not sure that he does either. But the important point is to talk about him. Of him. To be known, one to the other, to have spoken of Bellow. Our conversation is cloistered, a kind of samizdat. It lasts about ten minutes. At the end we acknowledge the Bellowness of our conversation. I leave the room, with the satellites still wheeling round the critic, grateful that Bellow and myself have given him back to them. The room is locked behind me.
This is my first and only meeting with the man who will later write, with some insight, of Geoff Dyer: “To spend one’s life writing is a betrayal of the writer’s life: Dyer knows this is a lunatic paradox, that even Romantics have to sit at boring desks and write, but he would rather have his battered paradox than Barnes’s clean coherence.” At the same time as the critic and myself are discussing Bellow, Dyer is quite possibly getting hammered down the road in Brixton. Ten years later I will stumble across Dyer’s memoir/ novella of Brixton life and it will register as authentic. Thereafter I shall never read anything else by Dyer or Bellow, never meet the critic or Rumbold or the feminist or discuss literature ever again.
And Dyer will begin to mutate into one of the more unlikely success stories of the London literary scene. Who quite possibly now has his own room where the door is locked. Where he might discuss Tarkovsky. Or Alan Watts. Or Calasso. Or Azzedine Alaia. Or not.
Now, having ignored Dyer and this world for so long, I find myself reading his latest book, whose full title is: Zona, A Book about a Film about a Journey to a Room. It’s a blow by blow account of Tarkovsky’s Stalker. In another culture, this might not be such a surprising tome, with its overtly Barthesian premise, but in London it marks Dyer out as a maverick. People are far more likely to talk about Tarkovsky than watch his films. The intellectual exercise of writing a book about Stalker would by and large be viewed as a pretentious Europhile project. Of course, having pulled it off, it then becomes brilliant. As indeed it is. Zona is a small tour de force, a mini-Pegasus, flying over Tarkovsky’s territory, his zone, appropriating the master’s work as a means of displaying the writer’s breath of vision as well as his loyalty. It’s a book about the way in which time works, the way in which we create anchors to measure our progress. For Dyer, Stalker is one such anchor. It’s a point of constant reference, with regard to his relationship with cinema, and hence art, but also his own changing desires and ambitions.
At the heart of the book, as at the heart of the film, is the Room. The room is the place where our greatest desire can be realised. It’s only here that one starts to question the writer’s authenticity. His greatest desire, as he puts it, is so banal that it threatens to undercut the validity of his whole project. As though, on the cusp of the room, his inherent Englishness suddenly exerts itself, and he rises up against any risk of being branded a pseudo-intellectual Europhile. All of a sudden, the book veers towards GQ territory. Denuding his deepest desires, Dyer redeems himself. He doesn’t want to be a savant or a yogi or a radical or a revolutionary. He wants to get wasted and be an extra in Shame, hanging out with a desiccated, overacting Fassbender, whom he vaguely resembles.
I have my doubts. I have a feeling that in the background of Dyer’s supposed orgy, his veritable Room, there would be a screen with a film on it. Something by Antonioni. Which would gradually lure him in. Whilst others hedonised, his mind would drift. In spite of his best intentions to pillage like an Anglo-Saxon, he’d turn to the critic, who just happened to be there because he’s a critic, not a writer, so can get away with the odd orgy without feeling like he’s blowing his creative juices, and find himself locked into a conversation about Barthes. Or Flaubert. Or Virginia Bloody Woolf.