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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)

It’s late June, Wimbledon’s upon us, and Geoff Dyer is talking about his tennis injuries.

Geoff Dyer is always talking about his tennis injuries. It’s one of his endearing features. 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 60-something flâneur on fine (not to say ‘sprightly’) form.

He begins, with typically Dyerish mischief, at ‘The End’ – ‘the last track on the Doors’ first album’ (you can almost hear him wondering whether he’d prefer ‘The End’ wasn’t indeed the Doors’ last live song ever) – and the next 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 Geoff Dyer has established Views about his books being ‘about’ something (he was supposed to write a book ‘about’ tennis about ten years ago…). Likewise on subtitles/straplines. So Dyer afficionados won’t be at all surprised to find that while he gets to Federer eventually (kind of; not really), notionally abetted by the constraints of lockdown, mainly this is 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); fans leaving the stadium early and so missing a late reversal; Tennyson seemingly always late in his – or someone else’s – day.

And unfinisheds: Turner’s paintings (in the view of some of his contemporaries); Bjorn Borg’s failed comebacks; giving up on Anthony PJohn Berger, owell’s A Dance to the Music of Time (e.g.) 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, but ‘I deliberately left late [Henry] James – let alone what one scholar calls “late late James” – for later, and now it’s too late.’ He ‘worries’ – of course – he might have left this book too late. John Coltrane, he notes, died so fast that he had no time for ‘late’. (Now that I think of it, we never do get to the ‘late’-ness of dead people being ‘late’.)

So this is classic (late) Dyer, a writer whose ranging (‘rangy’?) 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 Raymond Williams. All his more-enthusiastically-ridden hobby horses are present as per – John Berger, WWII, DH Lawrence, jazz, drugs, Tarkovsky, Burning Man, Rebecca West – and as Dyer goes from Al Pacino to Gerard Manley Hopkins to Chuck Yeager in as many, or fewer, sentences (Mike Tyson is directly compared to Philip Larkin), you’re never entirely sure if this is brilliant exegesis or 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 is half the fun, of course – and more so for the author, one suspects. No doubt he isn’t kidding when he says he believes David Thomson’s Biographical Dictionary of Film to be ‘the great literary achievement of our time.’ But for all the gems of bona fine criticism, either 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), 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,’ he ends his first section, ‘if it were possible to be a serious writer without taking oneself at all seriously.’ There is no question mark, NB.

With all the contrivances and call-backs and shameless segues – whether conveniently reading Peter Akroyd’s biography of Turner on a train, or embarking on a ‘quasi-Pharaonic’ scheme of pilfering shampoo from hotels – it would be difficult, it occurs to me, to spoof Geoff Dyer at much less than a full book’s length. And there’s always a moment – often a couple – where even the keenest Dyerist must fear that he’s begun to get high on the smell of his own farts (here it’s William Basinkski’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 (I didn’t – couldn’t – count them), which happens to be the number of seconds in a (Groundhog) day. And given quite how many nods there are to things Dyer’s written whole other volumes about – or ‘about’ – previously (he openly names at least two of them), one can hardly be blamed for seeing Dyer’s books themselves – from sentence-structure to the Gesamtwerk level – as a cheerful, ironist’s homage to Nietzsche’s concept of ‘Eternal Recurrence’. The ‘Eternal Reference’, perhaps.

On which… References, attributions, and the like pose obvious production difficulties in the audiosphere (George Saunders’ Lincoln in the Bardo was completely unlistenable); but epigraphs and footnotes are key Dyer accoutrements, and for these to be respectively unadvertised (essentially ‘inaudible’) and out of place a) sounds most odd, and b) restricts the sheer divagatory Dyerishness of the whole project.

Worse, Richard Burnip appears to have no idea what Geoff Dyer sounds like. Granted, narrators are not here to do impersonations; but this one hasn’t caught the author’s calm, sardonic voice at all. There is no grin. My guess is that he’s never read a Dyer book before, or even seen The Great JM Coetzee Joke. The result is all-too sincere, loud, and urgent – like Jorah Mormont doing Health & Safety ads.

But such is life – and while it lasts, both on and off the court, Geoff 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…’

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