Despite its title, “The Last Days of Roger Federer” isn’t about Roger Federer, who receives scant mention in its pages. “One of the questions that had got me interested in this subject—things coming to an end, artists’ last works, time running out—was the long-running one of Roger Federer’s eventual retirement,” Geoff Dyer writes. “It seemed important that a book underwritten by my own experience of the changes wrought by aging should be completed before Roger’s retirement, in the long twilight of his career.” Apart from a cameo appearance here and there, there is precious little about Roger Federer in Mr. Dyer’s pages. Yo, Rog, catch you later, or make that elsewhere!
Geoff Dyer is English by birth, upbringing, and education, the author of some 20 previous books, fiction and nonfiction, and long resident in the United States. Works of travel (“The Missing of the Somme,” “White Sands”) and criticism (“See/Saw: Looking at Photographs,” “Broadsword Calling Danny Boy: Watching ‘Where Eagles Dare’”) have been well-received. I know him only from his occasional essays, which are generally sprightly, never less than interesting, and usually fairly short. “The Last Days of Roger Federer” is a great ragbag of a book, containing 180 sections of varying length on everything but that most useful of all appliances found in the modern kitchen.
In Mr. Dyer’s book we are treated to rather dullish disquisitions on Bob Dylan and Jack Kerouac, both of whom Mr. Dyer much admires. He provides some abstract pages on the painters De Chirico and J.M.W. Turner, and several abstruse ones on Nietzsche. A number of passages on Beethoven’s late quartets come neither to trenchant insights nor useful conclusions; he tells us he has no musical training, only a love of music. Others are on some of the jazz musicians he admires: Coltrane, Art Pepper, Keith Jarrett, et al. The tennis careers of Björn Borg, Andy Murray and John McEnroe are touched upon, but not gone into at any depth.
We learn that among Mr. Dyer’s favorite novelists are Jean Rhys, Robert Stone, Mavis Gallant, Elizabeth Bowen, Eve Babitz, Larry McMurtry, Shirley Hazzard and James Jones. He thinks Annie Dillard a great writer and prefers Joy Williams to P.G. Wodehouse. His poet of choice is Louise Glück. He cites David Thomson’s “Biographical Dictionary of Film” as “the great literary achievement of our time.” Mr. Dyer is also high on D.H. Lawrence, whom Bertrand Russell once described as “a writer of a certain descriptive power whose ideas cannot be too soon forgot.”
What is not in the book is as notable as what is. Early in his book, for example, Mr. Dyer informs us that he was unable to get through Anthony Powell’s 12-volume roman fleuve “Dance to the Music of Time.” “My only regret, when I gave up on it” he writes, “was that I had not abandoned it sooner, ideally before I’d even started.” On the following page he tells us that he has had no better luck with Robert Musil’s “The Man Without Qualities,” Marcel Proust’s “In Search of Lost Time,” and Henry James’s “The Ambassadors”; that in more than one attempt he had not got beyond page 81 of Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s “The Brothers Karamazov” and found nothing “quite as boring as [Joseph Conrad’s] Nos-friggin’-tromo.” He makes no mention of Montaigne’s essays, or the late poems of W.B. Yeats—both, like the novels he couldn’t read, great works on the subject of his announced theme: the toll that age takes on talent. His, he tells us, is a book “about last things, [and] also about things one comes round to at last, late in the day, things one was in danger of going to one’s grave without having read or experienced.”
As for those experiences, “The Last Days of Roger Federer” provides an account of Mr. Dyer’s adventures on pot and his dallying with the hallucinogenic drug dimethyltryptamine. “. . . As far as I can discover,” he writes, “DMT, unlike LSD, carries no risk of permanent mental damage or derangement (once you re-emerge from the ultimate permanence of eternity) aside from becoming a bit of a DMT bore.” A pity that Mr. Dyer’s wife, his editor, his friends have left it to me to tell him that in these pages he is more than a “bit” but a serious, a genuinely heavyweight DMT bore.
“But I Digress” might have been an apt title for this book, in whose pages digressions abound, some more interesting than others. In the realm of uninteresting extended digressions, Mr. Dyer recalls stealing shampoo from hotels and his ambition never to have to buy shampoo again. He speculates about whether tennis pros, similarly, steal towels from the tournaments in which they play. He rattles on about English railway stations. He provides an account of his attendance at Burning Man festivals, events celebrating creativity, self-expression and cultural difference. He argues that the best things about poetry readings is their coming to an end: “Which raises a question: Why did we come if, while being here, we would end up being so preoccupied by no longer being there?”
What “The Last Days of Roger Federer” seems really to be about is Geoff Dyer’s fear, at age 63, of growing old and out of it. Throughout the book, he regales the reader with his medical problems. “Over the years assorted lower back troubles have left me feeling as if I were either as brittle as glass or locked in concrete, sometimes both at the same time. But it’s my neck that has been the Achilles’ heel.” Block that metaphor! Mr. Dyer recounts his treatment by acupuncture. We learn that he continues to play tennis but, owing to a shoulder problem, is unable any longer to serve.
The author finds himself crying more as he grows older: at certain movies, at speeches by Martin Luther King Jr., at newsreel footage of the Hindenburg aflame. He fears becoming a “creepy” old man, “permanently excluded from re-entry” into the sexual realm. “The only thing worse is if this is a result of self-expulsion whereby you have retired from that market-place on the self-fulfilling grounds that, since no one in their right mind could ever be attracted to you, it’s in the best interest of everyone concerned if you stop having any sexual take on the world—any sexual identity—at all.” Sixty, according to the current cant, is the new 40. Sixty-three, however, Geoff Dyer’s age, seems to be the new 112.
Mr. Dyer was apparently aware that this muddle, this hodgepodge, this huggermugger of a book may not be coming off, for well into the last half of it he writes: “I am so much happier writing this book, each day adding to—while simultaneously trying to resolve—the complicating difficulties of its structure, than I would have been if I had not been working on it.” Two pages on he adds: “For a long while I wasn’t sure if I was having such trouble getting on with this book because I’d started it prematurely (too far from the end of my writing life) or because I’d left it too late (and had already come to the end).” He later remarks on those “unwritten and unwriteable books [that] become part of—get folded into a book one can write. This one.”
Too bad Mr. Dyer couldn’t stick to his announced subject, for the toll age takes on talent, is a rich one. Think of athletes, almost of all whose careers are done before they are 40, and who are condemned to live out their days no longer able to do the thing they did best and in a condition of ever diminishing fame. (Some years ago, I was introduced to the 1938 All-American running back and pro football player Marshall Goldberg, who all but hugged and kissed me when I knew who he was.) Or think of movie directors, who, such are the financial and organizational complexities of putting together a movie, are fortunate if they can do what they do best, work on a new movie, only at six- or seven-year intervals. For a film director who just made a flop, the wait can be a long one. An aged, or even an aging, rock singer is a pitiful spectacle.
The toll of time on writers is perhaps most interesting of all. Geoff Dyer writes that retirement for a writer is different than retirement for others. For one thing, for a writer “the difference between work and retirement is imperceptible.” For another: “If you have retired—are no longer able to write or are finding it impossible to publish what you have written—you keep it to yourself; you keep the manuscript to yourself because nobody wants it.” The hope for every writer, as he grows older, is that the call for his work will not cease, that editors, readers, he himself will look forward to his next poem, essay, story, novel, play. The fear of being forgotten while still alive, for a writer, is likely to bring on heavy depression.
Several are the traps that await writers in old age. To begin with a tender trap, think of the writers rendered in effect posthumous by winning the Nobel Prize—that is, those writers who after winning the Nobel Prize never write another good book. Or of Leo Tolstoy, the greatest of all novelists, who, caught up in a reforming Christianity later in his life, ceased to write powerful fiction. Or of Charles Dickens, one of literature’s comic geniuses, who in his late novels turned dark. Or consider Proust, on the night before his death, dictating changes in the manuscript of “In Search of Lost Time,” suggesting he was still not satisfied with the finished work. Or Balzac, that most productive of novelists, a human factory of fiction, having finally achieved financial stability, at last married to the woman who after long years yielded to his wooing, about to move into the perfect home with her, and “when,” in the words of his biographer Stefan Zweig,
all was ready, he moved in—only to die. He had designed for himself the perfect study in which to complete La Comedie humaine, 50 further volumes of which were already planned, but he never wrote a line in it. His eyesight failed completely, and the only letter we possess from the rue Fortunée, addressed to Théophile Gautier, is in the handwriting of his wife, with a single line scrawled laboriously by Balzac himself: “I can no longer read or write.”
James Joyce, after “Ulysses,” retreated into that verbal Tower of Babel known as “Finnegan’s Wake.” Yet W.B. Yeats in his last decades wrote his best poems. If you see a pattern here, do let me know, for I don’t.
Meanwhile, I hope that Geoff Dyer’s shoulder heals, that he is able to return to the tennis court without handicap and that all his first serves go in, and that a decade or two from now he returns to the subject of the toll of age on the artist and, this second time round, nails it.