This book’s title may be tantalizing but it is also slightly misleading: the works of Roger Federer as he turns middle aged and slides down the ATP rankings form only an undercurrent in what Geoff Dyer describes as “a congeries of experience, things and cultural artefacts that , for various reasons, have come to group themselves around me in a rough constellation during a phase in my life ”.
That phase is the beginning of his final trimester. Hitting his 60s, Dyer makes an inexorable reckoning with his mortality, and as tennis elbow and a cricked neck give him grief – not to mention the sense of diminishing mental faculties – he contemplates what his heroes have made of the fading of their earthly glory.
Within this broad parameter, his kaleidoscopic reflections are shaped into three parts, each divided into 60 short sections, few of them more than a couple of pages long. There’s no obvious logic to the structure: Dyer’s method is a ricochet from subject to subject, and following his trail can become a little bewildering, even exhausting – no sooner is he swooping down on Anthony Powell than he’s hopping off to Giorgio de Chirico. But what a capacious sensibility this cultural magpie has, chatting to the reader in warmly companionable fashion, his prose peppered with self-deprecatory humor and footnoted asides, his erudition never pompous or platitudinous
‘How we love the idea of the last,’ Dyer claims. The endgames of two literary philosophers haunt him with particular intensity: Nietzsche, going mad as he breaks down in Turin and tearfully embraces a flogged horse; DH Lawrence, refusing to acknowledge the terminal nature of his tuberculosis and yet writing “The Ship of Death”, a poem that brings the reader eerily close “to the extinction of consciousness”.
Musicians loom large too. Dyer starts his journey with The Doors, and the irony that “The End” should be the concluding track on their first album as well as the final song that they ever performed live; he reviews the demise of several modern jazz legends, including Albert Ayler and John Coltrane; and he meditates on the slow movement of Beethoven’s late string quartet Op.132, that sublime hymn that seems to transcend ordinary human tragedy. (Back on Planet Earth, one would like to know Dyer’s thoughts on the remarkable documentary – released last year, too late for his deadline – about the creation of the Beatles’ last album Let it Be.)
Cousin to the concept of the end is that of retirement – to our fathers “a form of promotion, practically an ambition”, now something “unheard of, or at least seldom admitted to”. Bob Dylan just goes on and on, even though he gives no sign of enjoying himself and for the last two decades his concerts have often been “really dreadful”. There’s a peculiar agony in seeing what Dyer calls Federer’s “reign of beauty” passing into history. And nothing could be more poignantly excruciating than seeing a once great performer or sportsman fail an attempted comeback. But how many of us volunteer to be dethroned?
There are consolations. “Jeez, but I’m glad I’m old, old enough not to mind staying in,” Dyer sighs in celebration of his mature ability to bring wisely measured skepticism to experiences that might have overwhelmed him in his stoner youth. Two of the book’s finest passages take him back to that realm of temptation, in an encounter with the magic mushroom derivative DMT and a nostalgic visit to the hippie mecca Burning Man in the Nevada desert.
One can’t but notice that apart from passing mentions of the poet Louise Glück, novelist Jean Rhys and folk singer Gillian Welch, women barely get a look in, and although Dyer makes several references to “my wife”, he refuses to allow her a name or any independent human status. The frame of reference is altogether blokeish.
Withdrawing, Dyer knows, isn’t the same as ending, “My theme is giving up. That’s what keeps me going. ” It’s a sentence that echoes Beckett’s epigram, “I can’t go on. I’ll go on. ” These may be last days for Dyer as they are for Federer, but there’s always somewhere else to go, even if it’s only inwards.
The Last Days of Roger Federer and Other Endings is published by Canongate at £ 20. To order your copy call 0844 871 1514 or visit Telegraph Books