When artists and athletes age, what happens to their work? Does it ripen or rot? Achieve a new serenity or succumb to an escalating torment? As our bodies decay, how do we keep on? In this beguiling meditation, Geoff Dyer sets his own encounter with late middle age against the last days and last works of writers, painters, footballers, musicians, and tennis stars who've mattered to him throughout his life. With a playful charm and penetrating intelligence, he recounts Friedrich Nietzsche's breakdown in Turin, Bob Dylan's reinventions of old songs, J. M. W. Turner's paintings of abstracted light, John Coltrane's cosmic melodies, Bjorn Borg's defeats, and Beethoven's final quartets—and considers the intensifications and modifications of experience that come when an ending is within sight. Throughout, he stresses the accomplishments of uncouth geniuses who defied convention, and went on doing so even when their beautiful youths were over.
As is typical of Dyer, the book has little to do with Federer at all, alighting on him just a few times. Like nearly all of the author’s work, under whatever genre it may nominally arrive in our hands, it’s about him — a memoir in camouflage ... The Last Days of Roger Federer is of a piece with this previous work, but because of its subject, a little more somber, a little more urgent. It’s a masterful, beautiful, reluctantly moving book — that is, moving despite its subject being naturally moving, courting no pathos, shrewd and frank — and Dyer’s best in some time. Indeed, one of his best, period ... If you like this kind of quick counterpunch against a received idea — I do — then Dyer is for you. Most of the rest of the book is taken up with comparable meditations on the great white male depressives he reveres, among them Philip Larkin and D.H. Lawrence, Beethoven and Nietzsche ... Dyer seems to be consciously pushing these two kinds of experiences against each other, testing his brain to see what it can tell him about aging, his body to see how much it has left in it ... The risk of these writers’ style, with their short chapters and darting insights, is randomness, and sometimes this book, whatever its thematic claims, seems to consist of what has come under the author’s eye, an arbitrary collocation ... His own book, if it heralds a late style, promises the same kind of show: a powerful and funny mind, ranging across the canons of both art and experience, cutting closer toward deep truths, telling us what things are like when time is shortening. Thank goodness he has time left, I finished the book thinking, leaving the coffee shop in a mood tinged, perhaps inevitably, with a little sorrow. In the words of his hero, Dylan, it wasn’t dark yet, but it was getting there.
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 ... affirming and moving, reminding us that, no matter how late the hour, our lives can be touched by art’s unexpected grace ... 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 ... 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.
Like all Dyer’s books, The Last Days of Roger Federer feels like what Martin Amis called 'a transfusion from above', but one from your smartest and funniest friend. Dyer hates the idea of sounding “grand” and frets over how to write about Beethoven without sounding like “a bit of a ponce”. He needn’t worry: he writes movingly and effectively about Federer’s ever-postponed retirement ... But tennis is just a sliver of this wide-ranging, eye-opening book ... It’s at these moments, when he brings himself into the book, that he’s most entertaining ... There’s something in this book for everyone. Well, almost everyone, but even Sally Rooney will have a late style eventually ... His desire to keep going is probably hastening the end, but as long as he keeps his eye sharp and his sense of humour, we’ll be laughing, and thinking, all the way.