The Last Days of Roger Federer: And Other Endings
“Even amid all his late-life venting in The Last Days, Geoff Dyer manages to please once again with his artful sentences and close observations.”
Geoff Dyer’s diverting, meandering prose in essay collections like Otherwise Known as the Human Condition, and in longer works such as Yoga for People Who Can’t Be Bothered to Do It and The Missing of the Somme, have won him wide praise as a stylist. He has written about warfare, photography, jazz, and innumerable other topics that catch his fancy, always with intelligence and humor.
British-born and a longtime U.S. resident, Dyer is undoubtedly one of our finest, most wide-ranging critics.
In The Last Days of Roger Federer, a meditation on ageing and last things (his own and those of many writers, musicians, sports stars, and painters), he focuses on endings in the broadest sense.
There’s not much on the Swiss tennis player Federer (referenced in the title), but plenty on the final days of Jack Kerouac, Bob Dylan, and jazz greats like Coltrane and Art Pepper.
As always, Dyer has an unusual vantage.
Kerouac, for example, is seen in a photograph taken two years after publication of On the Road (1957), listening to himself on the radio. “He’s listening to . . . a record of his own achievement, but you also feel he’s trying to locate what has been lost, partly by success, partly by age,” writes Dyer. “The hard-won struggle to master ‘spontaneous prose’ both enabled Kerouac to write a great book and condemned him, for the rest of his creative life, to banging out pretty terrible ones. Condemned to living out his life in the wake of his legend, he is trying to find again the voice that is fading even as it is remembered, as it echoes in memory.” He died in “a swamp of paranoia and buffoonish alcoholism.”
Dyer writes at length about his personal experiences with his book’s “larger theme of quitting: giving up on reading books.” He has never finished reading The Man Without Qualities or The Brothers Karamazov, and managed to get through just three pages of The Sound and the Fury, which, he says, presumably “becomes great when you get to the second part or, ideally, when you read the whole thing for the second time; what you rarely hear is how to get through the first part for the first time.”
At poetry readings, he is always greatly relieved to hear the poet will read only one more poem. “Could it be that our deepest desire is for everything to be over with?” he asks.
“We want encores—value for money, bang for our buck—but however vigorously we’ve been clapping and clamouring for more there is invariably a sense of relief when it becomes clear that the band, despite our collective imploring, are not coming back, that the house lights have flicked on (bringing the last residue of applause to an immediate, slightly impolite halt), and that we can apply ourselves single-mindedly to getting a good place in the stampede for the exits.”
Dyer captures feelings we have all had. But in his insistence on pursuing otherwise pleasing digressions, he sometimes loses his thread. (He acknowledges the “complicating difficulties” of his book’s structure.)
“How we love the idea of the last,” he declares. “The last stand (Custer’s), the last flight (of the Memphis Belle or Concorde), the last four songs by Richard Strauss. The last . . . anything really: of the Mohicans (Fenimore Cooper), of the Just (Andre Schwartz-Bart), September (Elizabeth Bowen), Tycoon (Fitzgerald), Letters from Hav (Jan Morris), Picture Show (Larry McMurtry),” and so on.
Here and elsewhere, the author’s words rush forth obsessively, whether chronicling the “awfulness” of the poet Philip Larkin’s later life, or the difficulties of absorbing knowledge as you get older. At times, we are reminded that Dyer, at age 63, has entered late middle age, and is increasingly concerned about “things one was in danger of going to one’s grave without have read or experienced.”
His melancholy is evident in his lengthy treatment of artists, composers, and writers who “decide to call it a day,” recognizing that they lack “the inspiration, motivation, ambition, or stubbornness to carry on. Surprisingly, his account of quitters fails to mention the recently deceased novelist Philip Roth (1933–2018), who stopped writing fiction toward the end (“I knew I wasn’t going to get another good idea,” he told The New York Times.)
Perhaps Dyer did not need yet another bad ending.
Even amid all his late-life venting in The Last Days, Geoff Dyer manages to please once again with his artful sentences and close observations.