There are thinkers for whom lateness is less a bad habit than a cultural concept. Theodor Adorno produced an absorbing study of the late Beethoven, while Edward Said wrote a book on what he called late style. The work was published posthumously, which is about as late as you can get. For the critic Harold Bloom, all poets are belated, haunted by some mighty predecessor whose influence they need to cast off. In fact, Bloom thought that this was what poetry was actually about. It is a fascinating theory, flawed only by the fact that it is not true.
Is there really a distinctively “late” way of writing, painting or composing? Do last works tend to be starker, more elemental than earlier ones? Or are they marked, as Said believes, by irresolvable contradictions and unfathomable complexities? Perhaps the closeness of an artist’s death lends his or her works a metaphysical resonance that wasn’t so evident before. A remarkable number of writers (Shakespeare, Dickens, Ibsen, Tolstoy, Yeats, TS Eliot) mediated on death and resurrection in their final years.
Geoff Dyer is worried about lateness, not least his own. This isn’t surprising, since growing old (he is in his early sixties) is a particular problem for those who are youthful in spirit, and Dyer is certainly that. He plays an impressive amount of tennis, hangs out at jazz festivals, used to dance and maybe still does, consumes an enormous number of films and writes cool postmodern prose expertly pitched between lovers of Czesław Miłosz and fans of John Coltrane. It is easier to imagine him in a mosh pit than in the British Library. If he doesn’t smoke dope, it is only because he no longer has a taste for it. (“The main part of my brain that marijuana has damaged”, he glumly reports, “is the part that responds favorably to marijuana.”) He can rave like a teeny-bopper, not least when his thoughts turn to Bob Dylan (“ how can someone be so great?”, he asks with untypical artlessness). The author photograph shows a man still in possession of most of his hair who looks younger than his age, though it’s true that a spot of cheating in these matters is not unknown.
Simon Armitage describes Dyer on the dust jacket of this book as “a clever clogs but one of us at the same time”, which is exactly right. He is keenly intelligent but not quite an intellectual, struggling dutifully with Proust but relaxing with Jack Kerouac’s On the Road. He doesn’t seem to have any political views that might alarm Keir Starmer; In fact, he seems to live almost entirely in a world of culture and sport, which rarely opens on what us pre-postmodern types would call reality. His judgements can be implacably dismissive (he is rightly unenthused by Wodehouse), but never glib or malicious. He overrates Tennyson and underrates Conrad’s Nostromo (or Nos-frigging-tromo, as he calls it), though “frigging” is a reminder that he rarely swears, which means his readers could well include Carthusian monks as well as devotees of Wordsworth and disciples of John McEnroe. He can make you laugh out loud and is rarely caught out trying too hard to do so, as in “my eyes think I’m peeling onions at the funeral of a much-loved pet”.
The Last Days of Roger Federer presents no grand narrative or coherent argument. Instead, it hooks one brief segment of prose on to another, mostly on the subject of lateness or lastness, but sometimes in a what’s-just-crossed-my-mind way. Its form, in short, is as laid-back as most of its content, which means that it can pull in a motley wealth of material while retaining the ghost of an overall structure. Since lastness is a capacious concept, it can stretch from DH Lawrence’s final tubercular days to the author’s decision never to buy shampoo again, since you can always nick it from hotel rooms. (Dyer draws the line, however, at taking an empty aspirin bottle to a dinner party so he can siphon off some of his host’s shampoo. He may not be a choirboy, but he has his principles.) There are times when we are provided with rather more information than we need: we learn that the author feels giddy when he gets out of a bath, and (bizarrely) tends to blub when he hears words like “nurse.” Nobody wants to know this except Dyer’s doctor, or perhaps the odd nurse who is particularly avid for applause.
The idea of the late or last covers comebacks, posthumous celebrity, premature endings, double endings, being your own tribute act, leaving before the end (as in walking out of cinemas), abandoning a project before even attempting it, reminiscing about your earlier career or reminiscing about your reminiscences. There is late in the sense of near the end and late in the sense of after it, more commonly known as being dead. An artist may never get round to producing his or her last work, in the sense of the poem, canvas or quartet that would consummate what has gone before.
Dyer writes about all this with his customary wit and verbal panache, noting, for example, how stylistically speaking Martin Amis “can’t pass up a chance to indulge in a bit of low-level stunt flying”. The sentence practises what it rebukes. He also points out that Amis’s work is an editor’s dream, since it’s so easy to see what ought to be cut. The style of Christopher Hitchens’s Hitch-22 is “over-the-waistband-flabby”. Anthony Powell, of whose A Dance to the Music of Time Dyer has a properly low opinion,” writes prose “on some low-wattage, upper-crust, energy-saving setting, capable of being maintained, with expenditure of effort, over the minimum distance of the twelve-volume haul”. In the film All Is Lost, Robert Redford mends his boat at night “with only the undimmed whiteness of his teeth to see by”.
Boris Becker ends up with “knee trouble and hip trouble to go alongside hair trouble, bankruptcy trouble, and what, for a German, was the highly unusual loss-of-diplomatic-immunity-as-attaché-to-the-Central African Republic trouble”. He also looks as though “he has a tennis ball implanted in each sagging elbow: a hitherto unseen condition called testicular elbow.” This is unusually abrasive stuff for the mostly genial Dyer, so he makes amends at the last moment: a man who wins Wimbledon three times by the age of twenty-one has already had a magnificent life, whatever disasters may follow in its wake.
Dyer is indifferent to distinctions among artist genres, which is fashionable enough, but willing to pass rigorous judgements, which isn’t so popular. He can’t get past fifty pages of Henry Miller, but writes lyrically about JMW Turner’s painting “Regulus”, in which the sun bleaches and vaporizes the landscape to leave nothing but a featureless blaze. He is a superb cultural commentator, but rather short on large or even medium-sized ideas. His work is more wide than deep. If he had read more Nietzsche, for example, he might have found his admiration for him tempered by the fact that he probably believed in the mass extermination of the weak. There are also times when Dyer lapses into the English vice of attending more to artists’ lives than to their work.
“Could it be that our deepest desire is for everything to be over with?”, he asks himself, quoting Philip Larkin’s line “Beneath it all desire for oblivion runs.” However sorrowful endings may be, the idea of them never ceases to seduce us. The only place where you are guaranteed absolute immunity from harm is the grave. Sigmund Freud sees human life as a breathless dash to arrive at this blessed state of invulnerability, trampling over others in pursuit of a piece of marble to shelter beneath. What he calls the death drive, with its clamoring for things to be done and dusted, its urge to be rid of the world’s importunity, is intolerant of incompleteness and is thus hostile to the human. It has no feel for the makeshift and provisional. It is as though, for Freud, life is hurtling ahead in order to wrap itself up, fearful as we are of a temporality that brings with it affliction as well as happiness. We want to be done with the state of emergency known as being alive. Now there’s a big idea for you.
Terry Eagleton’slatest book isCritical Revolutionaries2022
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