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.
The prospect of Federer’s retirement from tennis is just a fraction of what Dyer contemplates in this tour through various endings — last days, last games, last performances, last works. Dyer’s thoughts are so restless that instead of corralling them in essays he scatters them among numbered sections ... Coltrane, Dylan, Nietzsche, yes, but also Dyer, always Dyer, the point around which this book (like all of his books) invariably turns ... It turns out that Dyer, having set out to write a book about endings, is drawn to endlessness, to the way that one thing leads to another ... Dyer is in his 60s now, and even though this book details the various ways that his body has slowed down, he has maintained a youthful buoyancy, an implacable easygoingness ... Might all this strenuous anti-grandness come across as, well, a touch grand? ... There are some gorgeous passages in The Last Days, some marvelous bits of criticism, some enthralling descriptions of psychedelics, some funny jokes. Still, there is a lot of detritus in a book that often reads like an assemblage of notes, as if every thought that came to mind was so endearing that it deserved to be recorded in full ... This idea of writing sounds appealing and pure; it expresses a kind of youthful idealism. But The Last Days of Roger Federer made me realize something else, too. After a while, even our 14-year-old selves get old.