Late stylishness

The Last Days of Roger Federer: And Other Endings

By Geoff Dyer (Audiobook read by Richard Burnip, 11h 29m, Canongate Books, £21.87)

Wimbledon is upon us, and Geoff Dyer is talking about his tennis injuries.

Dyer is always talking about his tennis injuries. But when I saw he had a book forthcoming with “last days” and “endings” in the title – and blurbed, what’s more, as “a summation of [his] passions” – I feared perhaps he might be on his way out.

His publisher assured me this was not so: at least, no more than the rest of us. In fact, The Last Days finds the sixty-something flâneur on fine, not to say sprightly, form.

He begins, with Dyerish mischief, at The End – “the last track on the Doors’ first album”. The subsequent ten micro-chapters take in Bob Dylan, Venice Beach, the Duke of Edinburgh’s Award, George Best, retirement, Gillian Slovo, the Olympics, TC Boyle, football, and Martin Scorsese. Even Andy bloody Murray (the “mumble-core Hamlet”) gets a look in before poor Roger Federer.

But Dyer books are famously, and through authorial intent, “about” something. He was, for instance, supposed to write a book “about” tennis some ten years ago. Likewise another book, on subtitles and straplines. So Dyer aficionados won’t be surprised to find that while he gets to Federer eventually (well, kind of – but not really), this is largely a book about, or from the viewpoint of, “my own experience of the changes wrought by ageing”.

There are all the lates: the late fame of Jean Rhys; first encountering the music of Gillian Welch – “embarrassingly late – after David Cameron, even”; De Chirico’s late phase (most of his life); sport fans leaving a stadium early, missing a late reversal; Tennyson seemingly always late in his – or someone else’s – day.

And unfinisheds: Turner’s paintings. At least in the view of some of his contemporaries; Björn Borg’s failed comebacks; giving up on Powell’s 12-volume A Dance to the Music of Time – that is, before you waste too much of your own time on it.

And then the lasts: Nietzsche’s horrendous final years; Custer’s “stand”; Mohicans, tangos in Paris, songs; James Last (only kidding); the psycho-social trauma of the last train on London nights out; one-final-heist films; and the last set in a tennis match, a sport in which, famously, the last point is the only one that really matters.

And in his own line of work? Dyer has lately got into late Beethoven. Further, “I deliberately left late [Henry] James – let alone what one scholar calls ‘late late James’ – for later, and now it’s too late.” Dyer “worries”, of course, that he might have left this book too late. John Coltrane, he notes, died so fast that he had no time for “late”.

So this is classic, late, Dyer, a writer whose ranging intellect was, mercifully, prevented from “progressing” beyond the stage of voracious undergrad, and who is, as a result, as likely to quote the script of Heat as he is Raymond Williams. All his hobby horses are ridden again – John Berger, the Second World War, DH Lawrence, jazz, drugs, Tarkovsky, Burning Man, Rebecca West. Mike Tyson is compared to Philip Larkin. Yet as Dyer discourses from Al Pacino to Gerard Manley Hopkins to Chuck Yeager, you’re never entirely sure if this book is a brilliant exegesis or the product of a bored and over-clever grammar school boy taking the piss. Who else but Dyer would call the too-heavy impact of skunk “the Gesamtkunstwerk effect”?

This ambiguity is half the fun. Especially for the author, one suspects. No doubt Dyer isn’t kidding when he says he believes David Thomson’s Biographical Dictionary of Film to be “the great literary achievement of our time”. There are gems of criticism, be they artistic (the “idyllic quality” of the post-apocalyptic movie; third-rate statuary as “one of the rewards of achieving nationhood”), or social (the contrary grandiosity of asking an American lady to “call me Geoff”; the frantic desire of even the most artsy crowd to hit the bar). Yet Dyer’s business is always scrupulously conducted with one eye on “the trusty old ponce-ometer”, from the unabashed dad-puns (“it’s my neck that’s been the Achilles heel”) to the faux-chippy digs (that Pete Sampras shared with the grass on which he played an “incapacity for epistemological enquiry”). “Wouldn’t it be marvellous,” Dyer concludes the first section of The Last Days, “if it were possible to be a serious writer without taking oneself at all seriously.” There is no question mark.

With all the contrivances and call-backs and shameless segues – whether conveniently reading Peter Ackroyd’s biography of Turner on a train, or embarking on a “quasi-Pharaonic” scheme of pilfering shampoo from hotels – it would be difficult to spoof Geoff Dyer at much less than a full book’s length. And there’s always a moment where even the most devout Dyerist must fear that he’s begun to get high on the smell of his own farts (here it’s William Basinski’s avant-garde music, loo roll, and 9/11)… but then he pulls it back, with a delighted grin, and you’re almost-grudgingly impressed.

Still, if you’re not a fan of the perambulatory style and what, elsewhere, were termed his “Anglo-English attitudes”, then The Last Days of Roger Federer is probably not for you. It’s been suggested that the book is 84,600 words long, which happens to be the number of seconds in a (Groundhog) day. And given quite how many nods there are to things that Dyer has already written entire volumes about (he cites at least two of them), one can see his books as a cheerful, ironist’s homage to Nietzsche’s concept of eternal recurrence.

On which theme: references, attributions and suchlike pose obvious production difficulties for audiobooks, but epigraphs and footnotes are key Dyer accoutrements, and for these to be essentially inaudible and out of place sounds most odd, and constrains the sheer Dyerishness of the whole project. Worse, Richard Burnip, our audiobook reader, barely emulates what Dyer actually sounds like. Granted, narrators are not here to do impersonations; but this one hasn’t caught the author’s calm, sardonic voice. There is no grin.

But such is life – and while it lasts, both on and off the court, Dyer “still love[s] everything about tennis”. And if “ultimately, tennis, like life itself, is just a wet T-shirt contest in the pouring rain, signifying nothing”, then “I’m glad I’m old, old enough to not mind staying in, sitting round here revising this book, remembering all this old poetry, watching the latest compilations of Roger’s best dropshots on YouTube.”

ASH Smyth is a freelance writer and radio presenter. Geoff Dyer once complimented him on his green jumper.

Arts & Culture

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