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Out of Sheer Rage

by Geoff Dyer

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By

Out of Sheer Rage Geoff Dyer
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1997

Geoff Dyer is, arguably, one of the whiniest people on the planet. He begins this 1997 memoir by describing his endless vacillation in setting out to write a sober, academic study of D.H. Lawrence, the writer who had inspired Dyer to write. After 5 pages or so of bambling back and forth as to whether or not he would be able to write this study, he finally settles on doing it and then proceeds to hedge and vacillate over where he should live in order to write the study, a masturbatory exercise which goes on for another 10 pages of whining about how, as he is free of economic or vocational constraints, he can actually live anywhere, which is really quite difficult.

"In addition to deciding whether or not I was going to write my study of Lawrence, I had to decide where I was going to write it - if I was going to write it. If not when because once my initial euphoric resolve had collapsed the possibility of writing the novel made itself felt again as an attractive option. And even if I didn't decide to write my study of Lawrence I still had to decide where I was going to live because, irrespective of whether or not I was going to write my study of Lawrence, I still had to live somewhere - but if I was going to write a book about Lawrence then that brought in a whole range of variables which I would need to weigh up when considering where to live, even though deciding where to live was already complicated by a massive number of variables."
Out of Sheer Rage is not for everyone, but, if like me, you find the preceding passage oddly compelling in its circumspect introspection, then Out of Sheer Rage just might be for you. The sober and academic study of D.H. Lawrence is never written. Instead, Dyer delivers this surprisingly amusing memoir of his attempt to write a sober study of Lawrence.

Where he does decide to live is Rome, the home of his almost-wife, Laura. Dyer can't stand Rome, mostly because the movies are dubbed into Italian there. Unlike Laura, who learns languages by watching the country's soap operas, Dyer has no knack for languages. He is captivated by the notion of learning a foreign language, but admittedly hates doing anything in life that requires an effort.

"Over the years I had got out of the habit of doing anything that required any effort whatsoever and so there was no chance of learning Italian and scarcely any prospect of getting on with my study of Lawrence which would require a massive, not to say Herculean labor."

In spite of his tendency to whine, complain, and purportedly procrastinate, Dyer manages to fascinate the reader with his observations upon the mundane and the minute. While in Italy he comments on the foreshortening of the Campidoglio Piazza in Rome, the inability of Italians to go forty minutes without ingesting something sweet (a cornetto, a gelato...), and the origination of the handshake:
"He had a perfect, firm handshake, the sort that suggested that the handshake originated here in the south and was then exported north and west. I wondered: did the handshake originate, as I had once read (in a Fantastic Four comic) as a gesture of trust, a way of demonstrating that you had no weapon in your hand? Or was it, from the outset, a compromise, enabling both parties to offer one hand in friendship while keeping the other free for protection, a way of establishing physical contact while maintaining the maximum possible distance?"

Dyer likens himself to Lawrence in their propensity for travel, which might be better termed an inability for each of them to make up their mind as to where to live. Consequently, he is very much at home while on the road, dogging D.H. Lawrence's historic heels. In Taormina, Sicily, Dyer seeks out the Villa Fontana Vecchia, Lawrence's abode for 3 years in the 1920s. Upon finding the house, he comments on the inevitable letdown of the moment:

"I knew this moment well from previous literary pilgrimages: you look and look and try to summon up feelings which don't exist. You try saying a mantra to yourself, 'D.H. Lawrence lived here.' You say, 'I am standing in the place he stood, seeing the things he saw…', but nothing changes, everything remains exactly the same: a road, a house with sky above it and the sea glinting in the distance."
If there is one aspect essential and characteristic in Dyer's writing it is this sense of letdown and dissatisfaction in the present moment. At the Villa Fontana Vecchia, he is so caught up in what to do next that only later does he realize how the present moment escaped him, how he had missed the opportunity to learn something of Lawrence from a woman who had delivered mail to him as a girl.

"This was as near to Lawrence as I was ever likely to get, and I hadn't asked her anything."

And this essential dissatisfaction is not something that escapes Dyer's notice. If anything Dyer is so acutely tuned in to his character defects that their description becomes an integral part of his writing. While in England, Dyer drives to Eastwood, Lawrence's childhood home, and comments on his desire to take the Birmingham exit to the Ikea store instead:

"I was half-tempted to abandon the Lawrence Experience in favour of the Ikea Experience: it's a recurring problem this urge to abandon what I've set out to do in favour of something else, not because this other option is more enjoyable but simply because it is something else."

Of course, the entire book is a self-admitted divergence from writing the Lawrence book which, in itself, is a diversion from writing a novel he has in mind. More than study Lawrence, Geoff Dyer seeks to imitate Lawrence - Lawrence, who in his study of Thomas Hardy, threw up "an electrical storm of ideas! Hit and miss, illuminating even when hopelessly wide of the mark. Bang! Crash! Lightning flash after lightning flash, searing, unpredictable, dangerous."
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