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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction/music


But Beautiful

Geoff Dyer

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To purchase But Beautiful

Title: But Beautiful
Author: Geoff Dyer
Genre: Fiction/Music
Written: 1991
Length: 216 pages
Availability: But Beautiful - US
But Beautiful - UK
But Beautiful - Canada
But Beautiful - India
Jazz impro - France
But Beautiful - Deutschland
  • A Book about Jazz
  • Dedicated to John Berger
  • Winner of the 1992 Somerset Maugham Award
  • Shortlisted for the Mail on Sunday/John Llewellyn Rhys Prize

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Our Assessment:

A : remarkable writing, interesting portraits

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Hungry Mind Review A 11-12/1995 Bart Schneider
Neue Zürcher Zeitung A+ 27/12/2001 Manfred Papst
The NY Times A+ 20/3/1996 Richard Bernstein
The NY Times Book Rev. A 24/3/1996 Ralph Blumenthal
Salon A- 30/12/1995 James Marcus
Die Welt A- 5/1/2002 Tom Schulz
Die Zeit A (2001) Konrad Heidkamp

  Review Consensus:

  Enthusiastic, though fairly uncritical: Dyer writes well and it is about jazz -- good enough. And everybody quotes him extensively. (The Germans loved most of the book but didn't like the translation or the afterword.)

  From the Reviews:
  • "Geoff Dyer builds a lovely monument to jazz out of the common images and lore that wallpaper the imaginations of most jazz lovers. He takes the stories you've read a hundred times on liner notes (...) and insinuates his way inside, creating intimate portraits of a group of innovative men whose lives are checkered by racism, drugs, and madness." - Bart Schneider, Hungry Mind Review

  • "Zwar zögert man, es als bestes Jazzbuch überhaupt zu preisen, da es jeden analytischen Zugriff bewusst ausspart; doch ist es gewiss das schönste und anrührendste Buch über jenes schwer fassbare, Melancholie und überschwang in sich vereinende Lebensgefühl, aus dem der Jazz entstanden ist und immer wieder neu entsteht." - Manfred Papst, Neue Zürcher Zeitung

  • "But Beautiful is . . . beautiful, an ingenious and brilliantly written book. Even readers not fascinated by jazz above other kinds of music are likely to find Mr. Dyer too good a literary craftsman to put the book down." - Richard Bernstein, The New York Times

  • "(H)ere they are as Mr. Dyer imagines them to have been, which, since he knows jazz and is a very fine writer, makes these cats more real than real, you dig? You don't have to be a jazz buff to savor this book -- but you may be one when you're done." - Ralph Blumenthal, The New York Times Book Review

  • "In the end, But Beautiful is a splendid meditation on jazz and the personalities that created it, couched in a prose as lyrical -- and as rigorous -- as the music it describes." - James Marcus, Salon

  • "So glücksschwanger von Atmosphärischem Dyers Prosa in den Geschichten ist, so hölzern liest sich sein Nachwort." - Tom Schulz, Die Welt

  • "(E)inem der einfühlsamsten Bücher über diese und jede Musik. (...) Tausendemale sollte sich dieses Buch verkaufen, damit der Verlag den Gewinn in eine neue Übersetzung investieren könnte." - Konrad Heidkamp, Die Zeit

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       But Beautiful is a paean to jazz, a study and homage in fictional form. Dedicated to his mentor, John Berger, Dyer follows in the master's footsteps in looking for novel approaches to presenting a literary work. In his preface Dyer states:

When I began writing this book I was unsure of the form it should take. This was a great advantage since it meant I had to improvise and so, from the start, the writing was animated by the defining characteristic of its subject.
       The words are somewhat disingenuous; But Beautiful is a carefully constructed book, almost conventional as a piece of fiction. Dyer's statement is not meant to point to the fortuitous improvisational bent of the writing: he is emphasizing the form, wanting to make sure the reader does not dismiss the book as mere fiction.
       Dyer also claims in his preface: "Before long I found I had moved away from anything like conventional criticism." It is a subtle trick, to get the reader to pay closer heed to the book and not treat it as some simple jazz-story collection. Because there is no reason, in picking up the book, to believe that it is criticism, conventional or otherwise -- unless someone makes that claim for it. As its author does. Planting the seed he explains his method (with justifications such as: "since even the briefest simile introduces a hint of the fictive"), defining his book then as "as much imaginative criticism as fiction." (His italics.)
       All fiction is imaginative criticism (though most of it, like most criticism, is also superficial, beside the point, and unremarkable), but in emphasizing the point Dyer wants the reader to look at his book through different eyes. Mentor Berger did so well on occasion (and less well on others) -- though, generally, without thrusting the issue so directly in the reader's face. Young Dyer, perhaps still unsure of himself, wants to make sure that the reader gets what the author is after. Perhaps he is correct that the reader needs to be hit over the head to realize what is going on; more likely the reader will fail to understand regardless.
       An afterword "picks up and expands some of the concerns of the main body of the text in a more formal style of exposition and analysis." Here is a straightforward, very conventional piece of criticism, useful but dry (in comparison with the preceding fanciful fiction), and Dyer carefully distances it from the body of the text. "(I)t is supplementary rather than integral to it." Fair enough, perhaps, though it begs the question why the critical aspect could not, in fact, be integrated in the body of the text, or presented in a manner that did make it integral to it.
       These are quibbles, but Dyer is correct in thinking that form matters and thus form must be considered when considering the text. Dyer plays some neat tricks, but he does not live up to his stated claims.
       That said it must be emphasized that But Beautiful is both a very good and a remarkable book. It tells the stories of many of the jazz greats, chapters (generally dark chapters) from their lives that sum them up. Separating the chapters is the one thread through the book, vignettes of a car trip by Duke Ellington and Harry Carney. The book, based firmly on fact (most of the events described are based on actual events), is entirely fictional -- in that uneasy modern balance of fact and fiction.
       Dyer writes exceptionally well, only rarely trying too hard. The improvisational character of jazz can not be captured on the page: writing is fixed and inflexible once set down, jazz is essentially of the moment and, even more than most music, ever-changing. Dyer's writing does create the illusion of conjuring up the smoky world of jazz, though, in fact, the book is very carefully written -- and, in most respects, respectfully traditional. Dyer captures the sad stories of these jazz greats in the relatively short episodes he recounts, managing to make each story different and in its own way remarkable.
       All the men Dyer writes about -- they include Chet Baker, Lester Young, Art Pepper, Charles Mingus, and Bud Powell -- are obsessed with jazz. It is all they can do or want to do, and they find it difficult otherwise living in the world around them. Dyer romanticizes the figures, seeing something noble in their madness and sadness. They exert a certain fascination, so far removed from the world at large and yet so supremely talented in one area. Several of the stories show the tragedy of their fate when it is no longer possible for them to make music. All of them are at sea, practically their only talent being jazz.
       Dyer's portraits are very accomplished, reducing much of the essence of these complex lives to a few pages. Certainly this is how most people would like to see these jazz greats, all melancholy, drug-addled, perpetually drifting, and certainly these are good stories. Dyer also suggests the various mens' places in jazz history, who influenced them and who they influenced in turn, and what their music might have meant to them.
       All well and good -- it is very well done and astonishingly good -- but what Dyer does here can not be overlooked: fact is fictionalized to (so the author) critical ends. Any fictionalization of fact is naturally a critical reading of those facts, but most writers do not emphasize that aspect of their fiction. Dyer does. Aesthetically accomplished, Dyer can seduce with his fiction, colouring fact. This truly is a book that presents the jazz masters as people like to think of them. As a product of a writer's imagination, even if based in fact, it should not be confused with fact. Naturally it will be. Arguably myth long ago replaced fact regarding the jazz world -- but Dyer stokes the fires of the myths. Perhaps this is what writers are meant to do. Were it merely presented as fiction we would mind less (though the difference would be merely semantic), but Dyer goes out of his way to claim this as a work of criticism. A dangerous step, a further blurring of already indistinct lines ? At least something to keep in mind.
       But Beautiful is an exceptionally good read, an enjoyable book even for those who do not appreciate jazz. It is also an interesting book -- as a book about jazz, and for what it tries to do with the fictional form (an aspect that great attention should be paid to). Highly recommended.

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But Beautiful: Reviews: Geoff Dyer: Other books by Geoff Dyer under review:

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About the Author:

       British author Geoff Dyer was born in 1958. He attended Corpus Christi College, Oxford. He has written several novels, a study of John Berger, and several books that his publishers describe as "genre-defying".

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