Geoff Dyer is interested in many things, many of which are found in this book. Anyone who reads “Last Days” expects a book about Federer or about sports – and not, say, about Bob Dylan, or the painter JMW Turner, or Beethoven, or the book about Turner and Beethoven that Dyer wanted to write but never will be – will be in for a surprise.
On the contrary, Dyer’s book begins at the end. Or rather, it begins with “The End”, the final track from the Doors’ 1967 debut album. It was, Dyer notes, the last song the band performed live, in 1970, six months before Jim Morrison died. This is the first of many endings contemplated in ‘The Last Days of Roger Federer’.
Geoff Dyer’s ‘Otherwise Known as the Human Condition’: witty essays on life
Dyer, now in his 60s, has published numerous books, both fiction and non-fiction, covering a wide variety of topics. This would be the appropriate time, one supposes, for a book taking conclusions and delay as its themes. Of course, not all writers, regardless of their career stage, choose to confront these topics. Many prefer to maintain the illusion of eternal youth. “A condition of continuing to create late in life,” Dyer notes, “often seems to be an inability to see what, to readers, is the most distinct quality of this later work: its deterioration in quality. At 50, Ernest Hemingway, engrossed in writing “Across the River and in the Trees,” told his publisher that he was writing again as if he were twenty-five. The book’s reception told a different story.
The writers, painters, composers and athletes considered here include those like Jean Rhys, who were not discovered until late in their lives or careers; those like Beethoven, whose late creations were among the most profound; and those like DH Lawrence and Friedrich Nietzsche, whose relationships with their final stages were complicated by the fact that their careers were cut short by death or madness. There are those like Jack Kerouac, who do their best work early on and then mostly fade away; those like Duke Ellington, who seem to disappear and return; and those like Federer, who seem determined not to fade away and repeatedly try to come back. And there are those that peak early but never really go away, that come back again and again in different, sometimes problematic forms: those that you don’t really know what to think about. (I’m referring, of course, to Bob Dylan.)
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But Dyer also writes largely about his own life and the artworks that shaped it. Books he tried too soon, when he wasn’t ready. Books that would have felt deep to a younger version of himself, but can never hit him that way now. And the books, music, movies, parties and people he almost missed, but somehow managed not to. It is perhaps here that “Last Days” is most affirming and moving, reminding us that, no matter how late the hour, our lives can be touched by the unexpected grace of art:
“So let’s celebrate that I’ve finally seen ‘The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp’ by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger..’ … The amazing thing was that I was able to go about my business, live a normal life, with this huge ‘Blimp’ shaped hole in the middle. All this time, I had been an incomplete person. What if I hadn’t seen it? Well, nothing, the same way as nothing arrived if you don’t read Jane Austen or listen to “A Love Supreme,” but your life will be defined in some way by these and other lacks.”
A serious critic, Dyer is rarely solemn, even when he speaks of death, exhaustion, dissolution, disappointment. Indeed, his wit, a distinctive and delicious blend of salty, sweet and sarcastic, is frequently on display in his wonderful book.
On poetry readings: “At any poetry reading, no matter how enjoyable, the words we most look forward to hearing are always the same: ‘I will read two more poems. (The words we really yearn for are “I’ll read one more poem,” but two seems like the conventionally agreed upon minimum.)”
On not going to the annual Burning Man festival: “Every Labor Day weekend for the next few years I was happy whatever I did, even if it was nothing, safe in the knowledge that if I was hungry, there were places where I could give more money and, in exchange, receive food. These places are called restaurants and frequenting them was a source of deep satisfaction. Knowing I wasn’t at Burning Man was enough.
Such passages made me laugh, but like the book as a whole, they have a serious side to them. At some point, when it finally settles that you’re really going to die at some point, the decisions start to feel different. Choosing to read a book is choosing do not read many other books. You’re not just postponing them: you’ll never come back to most of them – just like, if you choose not to go to Burning Man this year, that could mean whether you intend to or not. , that you will never go there again.
Of course, every book has to end, and I will say, without spoiling the ending, that I loved how this one ended. But that’s the nice thing about books: you can always go back to the beginning and start over. Which, in this case — and at my age, I don’t do it very often anymore — is precisely what I did.
Troy Jollimore’s fourth book of poetry, “Earthly Delights”, was published in 2021.
The last days of Roger Federer
Farrar, Straus & Giroux. 283 pages. $28
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