The Washington Post
Across the river and over the hill: When quitters win
"The Last Days of Roger Federer” doesn’t begin, or end, with Roger Federer. He shows up now and again, as an example of a talented individual in the last days of his career, facing the decision all tennis players must face, of when to put down the racket for good. (As of this writing, the 40-year-old star says he will be back on the court in the fall.) This is one of the themes of “Last Days”: When do you stop? How do you know when something is over?
Geoff Dyer is interested in a lot of things, many of which make their way into this book. Anyone who picks up “Last Days” expecting a book about Federer, or about sports — and not, say, about Bob Dylan, or the painter J.M.W. Turner, or Beethoven, or the book about Turner and Beethoven that Dyer wanted to write but never will — will be in for a surprise.
Rather, Dyer’s book begins with the end. Or rather, it begins with “The End,” the final track from the 1967 debut album by the Doors. It was, Dyer notes, the last song the band performed live, in 1970, six months before Jim Morrison’s death. This is the first of many endings considered in “The Last Days of Roger Federer.”
Dyer, now in his 60s, has published numerous books, fiction and nonfiction, ranging over a wide variety of topics. This would be the appropriate time, one supposes, for a book taking conclusions and lateness as its themes. Of course, not every writer, regardless of career stage, chooses to confront these subjects. Many prefer to maintain the illusion of eternal youth. “A condition of being able to go on creating late into one’s life,” Dyer notes, “seems often to be an inability to see what, for readers, is the most distinct quality of this later work: its deterioration in quality. At 50, Ernest Hemingway, immersed in writing ‘Across the River and into the Trees,’ told his publisher that he was once again writing as if he were a twenty-five-year-old.” 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 numbered among their most profound; and those like D.H. Lawrence and Nietzsche, whose relations to 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 finest work early on and then mostly disappear; those like Duke Ellington, who seem to disappear and come back; and those like Federer, who seem determined not to disappear and attempt to come back repeatedly. And there are those who peak early but never really disappear, who come back again and again in different, sometimes problematic guises: those about whom we cannot really make up our minds what to think. (I refer, of course, to Bob Dylan.)
But Dyer is also writing largely about his own life and the artworks that have shaped it. Books he tried too early, when he wasn’t ready. Books that would have seemed profound to some younger version of himself, but which can never strike him that way now. And the books, music, films, parties and people he almost missed, yet somehow managed not to. It is here, perhaps, that “Last Days” is at its most affirming and moving, reminding us that, no matter how late the hour, our lives can be touched by art’s unexpected grace:
“So let’s celebrate the fact that I’ve finally seen Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger’s ‘ The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp.’ . . . The extraordinary thing was that I’d been able to go about my business, living a normal life, with this huge ‘Blimp’-shaped hole at its center. For all this time I’d been an incomplete person. What if I hadn’t seen it? Well, nothing, in the same way that nothing happens if you don’t read Jane Austen or listen to ‘A Love Supreme,’ but your life will be defined in some ways by these and other lacks.”
A serious critic, Dyer is rarely solemn, even when speaking of death, depletion, dissolution, disappointment. Indeed, his wit, a distinctive and delicious blend of salty, sweet and snarky, is on frequent display in his wonderful book.
On poetry readings: “At any poetry reading, however enjoyable, the words we most look forward to hearing are always the same: ‘I’ ll read two more poems.’ ( The words we truly long for are ‘I’ ll read one more poem’ but two seems to be the conventionally agreed minimum.)”
On not going to the annual Burning Man festival: “Every Labor Day weekend in the following years, I was happy whatever I was doing, even if it was nothing, secure in the knowledge that if I felt hungry there were places where I could hand over money and, in exchange, be provided with 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. At a certain point, when it finally sets in that you really are at some point going to die, decisions begin to feel different. Choosing to read one book means choosing not to read a great many other books. You are not just postponing them: Many of them you just won’t ever get back around to — just as, if you choose this year not to go to Burning Man, it might mean, whether you intend this or not, that you never go again.
Of course, every book must 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 start and begin again. Which, in this case — and at my age, I don’t very often do this anymore — is precisely what I did.