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Spring 2006

My Life as a Gatecrasher

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Geoff Dyer

In the autumn of 1989 I served some time at the Institute of Jazz Studies at Rutgers University in New Jersey. I'd gone to New York to write a book about jazz and was browsing through the Institute's archives. One of the librarians was more than a little curious about my unsystematic rummaging. He wanted to know if the book I was writing was a history. No, I said. A biography? No. Well, what kind of book was it going to be? I told him I had no idea. Having made little progress with this line of inquiry, he turned his attention from the book to its author. Was I a musician? No. A jazz critic? No. Was I this? Was I that? No, I was neither this, that, nor anything else. Becoming a little frustrated, he asked, "So what are your credentials for writing a book about jazz?"

"I don't have any," I said. "Except I like listening to it."

It was an honest answer, simultaneously modest and confident. The Institute of Jazz Studies is a place of special interest and expertise, and to that extent I had no right to be there. I didn't know much about jazz. Certainly not enough to write a book about it—that, precisely, was the motivation for doing so. I loved jazz but it was infinitely mysterious to me. If I'd known what I needed to know before writing the book, I would have had no interest in doing so. Instead of being a journey of discovery, writing the book would have been a tedious clerical task, a transcription of the known.

People doing dissertations spend a certain amount of time researching the subject and then, when they've done the knowledge, begin writing it up. As far as I was concerned, writing the book would bring me to exactly the point at which I needed to be in order to be qualified to start writing it. But it's not what you know that's important; it's what your passion gives you the potential to discover.

If my answer was modest because I was in this haven of specialist expertise, it was slyly confident for exactly the same reason. In the presence of specialists I am always conscious of all the things they don't know and are not interested in, all the things that lie beyond their particular area of expertise. So I was pretty sure that this jazz buff would not have read Roland Barthes's book about photography, Camera Lucida, would not have known that Barthes constructed his great book around some snaps of his mum, a few pictures that he liked looking at. E. M. Cioran's excellent suggestion—that "we are enriched only by frequenting disciplines remote from our own"—is ignored by the very people who would gain most by heeding it.

The jazz book was the beginning of my life as a literary and scholarly gatecrasher, turning up uninvited at an area of expertise, making myself at home, having a high old time for a year or two, and then moving on elsewhere. This, it goes without saying, is no way to make a career (a word which, for anyone seriously committed to a life of writing, should never be spoken, only spat). The usual course of action is to map out an area of interest that you can call your own. My first book had been about John Berger, a writer profoundly opposed to any kind of specialism. It was a boring, timid, sub-academic thing, almost a textbook (and, as such, an unintended insult to its subject). As soon as I finished it, my then-editor asked if I'd like to start a new one, on Raymond Williams!

After the jazz book came out I sort of had a chance—though to be honest nobody actually asked—to become a jazz critic, but by then I was busy reinventing myself as a military historian. To be precise, I was living in Paris, failing to write a novel that would in some ways be a version of Tender Is the Night. In the footsteps of Fitzgerald's hero, Dick Diver, I took a train to Albert to visit the cemeteries of the Western Front. I went on a whim, but when I got there it felt almost as if I had been summoned to a rendezvous. Standing in front of Sir Edwin Lutyens's memorial to the Missing of the Somme, I knew I would write a book about the Great War. I spent the next several years doing just that.

I never quite made it as an orthodox military historian but, after the book came out, I did become enough of an authority on the Great War to be invited on to Newsnight to debate the quality of Haig's command with Corelli Barnett—who rolled over me like a tank.

Not that it mattered; by then I was writing some kind of half-assed book about D. H. Lawrence, someone who never let the fact that he was technically ill-qualified to write about something deter him from doing so. On the contrary. Rebecca West remembers him arriving in Florence and beginning an article about the place "without knowing enough about it to make his views of real value." Late in his life, when he became interested in the civilization of the Etruscans, Lawrence wrote to thank a friend for sending a book by Roland Fell that he had hoped might help with his writing. Fell was "very thorough in washing out once more the few rags of information we have concerning the Etruscans: but not a thing has he to say. It's really disheartening: I shall just have to start in and go ahead, and be damned to all authorities! There really is next to nothing to be said, scientifically, about the Etruscans. Must take the imaginative line."

My own latest attempt at taking Lawrence at his word is a book about photography, a book that owes much —how could it not?—to Berger and Barthes. Arriving unannounced at this already crowded area of expertise conformed to a pattern established by turning up uninvited elsewhere. Some of those already safely ensconced are generous and hospitable from the outset; others are xenophobic, fearing that the outsider might piss in their jealously guarded pot. This suspicion—that you have not paid your dues, have not worked your way up through the ranks of scholarly specialism—tends to manifest itself in ferocious nitpicking. Then, when you have left and moved on elsewhere, it is conceded that you were actually quite a nice guest, that an unfamiliar face livened up the place somewhat.

Being a gatecrasher is especially precarious if you don't have the support of any kind of institution to back you up. But independence from academic responsibility comes with its own freedoms and rewards. It might be comforting to be the Something Professor of Anything at the University of Whatever, but the writer's self-sufficient—and therefore ideal—status is expressed with sad and beautiful pride by Lawrence: "I am no more than a single human man wandering my lonely way across these years."

Lawrence, needless to say, is not the only inspirational example of intellectual nomadism. Nietzsche, an important influence on Lawrence, abandoned his university job as a philologist and became a vagabond and renegade, profoundly hostile to those who "study and prowl around a single domain simply because it never occurs to them that other domains exist. Their industriousness possesses something of the tremendous stupidity of the force of gravity: which is why they often achieve a great deal." He preferred the type "who never penetrates into the depths of a problem, yet often notices things that the professional with his laborious poring over it never does."

If Rebecca West was initially shocked by Lawrence's habit of issuing intuitive bulletins about the places in which he found himself, she came later to derive considerable confidence from his methods. In the course of writing Black Lamb and Grey Falcon—a book about Yugoslavia which, she concedes at around the seven-hundred-page mark, "hardly anyone will read by reason of its length"—West meets a student interested in writing a thesis about her work. "I explained that I was a writer wholly unsuitable for her purpose: that the bulk of my writing was scattered through American and English periodicals; that I had never used my writing to make a continuous disclosure of my own personality to others, but to discover for my own edification what I knew about various subjects which I found to be important to me; and that in consequence I had written a novel about London to find out why I loved it."

This is valuable not only as a statement of West's own practice and goals. It reminds us that although great store is set by measuring incremental progress ("research" in academic parlance) in precisely demarcated areas of knowledge, significant advances are often made by people happy to muddle along within the splendidly vague job description advanced by Susan Sontag, whose "idea of a writer [was] someone interested in 'everything.'" Why, in all modesty, would anyone be interested in settling for less?

Geoff Dyer is the author of many books of fiction and nonfiction, including Out of Sheer Rage, But Beautiful, and, most recently, The Ongoing Moment.

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