Review: What Roger Federer tells us about mortality, according to Geoff Dyer

Roger Federer during his quarter final round match at the 2021 Wimbledon Championships
Eight-time Wimbledon champion Roger Federer after losing in straight sets during the quarterfinals at Wimbledon last year. Geoff Dyer’s new book uses Federer’s decline as an occasion to consider art and aging.
(Corinne Dubreuil / Sipa USA via AP)

On the Shelf

The Last Days of Roger Federer: And Other Endings

By Geoff Dyer
FSG: 304 pages, $28

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“Wait, Roger Federer’s not dead, is he?” a woman asked me at a coffee shop recently. I was reading Geoff Dyer’s new book, “The Last Days of Roger Federer,” and she had spotted the title. No, no, I said quickly. It’s a book about — but then I stopped. About what?

“Things coming to an end, artists’ last works, time running out.” That is Dyer’s own brief accounting of his subjects; in other words, everything up to the edge of death, that sheer cliff toward which all of us are ambling. In fact, 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: And Other Endings" by Guy Drayton
(Farrar, Straus and Giroux)

This is a form Dyer has largely devised for himself, a mutable hybrid of criticism, fiction, autobiography and what’s come to be called, regrettably, the “personal essay.” Within this style, he has written about film (“Zona”), photography (“The Ongoing Moment”), jazz (the sublime “But Beautiful”) and his global wanderings (“Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi,” one of this new century’s finest novels in English). Now 63, he has matured into prestige — widely translated, a National Book Critics Circle prizewinner, writer in residence at USC, an influence to younger writers — while remaining impish and unpredictable in his writing.

“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.

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Dyer begins with riffs on Bob Dylan and Jack Kerouac. Of Kerouac’s sad, sodden later years, he writes: “From the time that Kerouac completed ‘On the Road,’ he was indemnified against ever making — or having made — a serious mistake in his life. The value of a life cannot be assessed chronologically. … Nothing can offset the achievement and the victory of ‘On the Road.’ ”

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.

Author Geoff Dyer
(Guy Drayton)

But “The Last Days of Roger Federer” weds this erudite treatment of “lateness” with the author’s own personal, far less theoretical approach to it. (“This book must not be allowed to become an injury diary or sprain journal,” he admonishes himself at one point.) The obverse of art for Dyer is tennis. “Playing tennis is such a big part of my happiness,” he writes. “Let’s say I play twice a week for a maximum of two hours per session. That’s only 4 out of 112 waking hours but as a percentage of my weekly allotment of well-being it’s way in excess of that figure, even when offset by the number of hours— 16? 20? — spent feeling wrung out and utterly depleted afterwards. The glow of those four hours suffuses the whole week.”

In his wry way, 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. An irony of his taste for tortured artists is that he seems, if anything, happy. In long, funny passages, he describes his glee at a trip to Burning Man, at hoarding hotel shampoo with his wife (his stated goal being never to buy shampoo again), at bingeing early rounds of the French Open. He even likes writing, which no one likes.

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A lot of comparisons came to mind as I read this book — the criticism of Dave Hickey, Fred Moten and Joan Acocella, the autofiction of Jenny Offill and Rachel Cusk. But really, he poses the question: What if David Foster Wallace had been a melancholy but relatively contented Englishman? Dyer lives in Venice Beach, fittingly somehow: a Brit stationed at the last, least reverent remnant of the ever-dissolving empire.


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. (The reflections on Martin Amis are a bit — I permit myself this only because Dyer himself loves puns — Martin Aimless.) But those moments are far fewer and less ongoing than the good ones.

“Milan Kundera in ‘Testaments Betrayed’ evokes the period of modern musical invention as a ‘sky ablaze at the end of the day,’ ” Dyer writes. 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.

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Charles Finch is the author of What Just Happened, a chronicle of 2020, available from Knopf. He lives in Los Angeles.