In the Loop

The Last Days of Roger Federer: And Other Endings BY Geoff Dyer. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux. 304 pages. $28.

The cover of The Last Days of Roger Federer: And Other Endings

ASAD RAZA: Your new book, The Last Days of Roger Federer (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $28), is in part a meditation on the tennis great and his retirement. It’s also about the late careers of other athletes, writers, artists, and musicians—Bob Dylan, Eve Babitz, Beethoven, to name a few. In this sense, you are writing about time, and this is reflected in the book’s unique formal structure. Can you tell me how that came about?

GEOFF DYER: With great pleasure! The book isn’t one of these essay hampers, which I’ve published, where you sort of dump into a big bucket the stuff you’ve written for the last ten years or whatever. It’s actually got a very intricate structure. With Nietzsche occupying a dominant place in the book, I felt it would be nice if it could reflect his idea of the eternal recurrence in some way, so I started thinking of loops, which were in my mind anyway because there’s also a section about William Basinski’s Disintegration Loops. I liked the idea of the number sixty, which tends to suggest either sixty seconds or sixty minutes, going round like that. So the book has three parts, or loops, made up of sixty sections. In the discussion of the eternal recurrence, I mention Christian Marclay’s twenty-four-hour film, The Clock. There’s no climactic moment on the hour, you just keep looping round for 86,400 seconds. The book, at a certain point, was about 90,000 words, so I thought that, with all sorts of adding and subtracting, I’d make the number of words the same as the number of seconds in the day—though I only reveal this right at the end, in the postscript. This became a real nuisance in the copy-editing and proof stages, when every time I took a word out, I had to put another one in. I hope it’s ended up at exactly 86,400 words. Now, this is not some Oulipo-style bollocks—I tend to dislike experimental schools or laboratory styles of writing—but there is something conceptually appropriate about it. Within the book as a whole there’s a narrative, a progression, but it often progresses by looping back, apparently stalling. This also gives rise to some little sensations of déjà vu.

I wanted to ask about one of our mutual interests, tennis. I was thinking about the late period when an artist starts to feel their energy has changed, and how tennis players hit that period so young and have a long existence afterward. 

For a long while athletes tended to retire by the time they were thirty, which is typically the age at which somebody publishes their first novel. So there was this kind of possible or ideal composite life: sport and then literature! That’s all changed—now athletes can keep playing for longer, but retirement, whenever it comes, can be really painful for them. They retire, give up, and then typically come back because they realize that, as Björn Borg discovered, there has to be more to life than judging wet-T-shirt contests. 

And this would also apply to other figures you discuss in the book, like Giorgio de Chirico or Jack Kerouac, who have a long fallow period after they finish their important work.

I feel strongly that the value of a life really can’t be assessed chronologically. You never know when you’re going to run out of steam. For writers, you’re able to keep writing for quite a long time in a way that you’re not physically able to as a soccer player. But often writers are conscious of some diminution. Maybe as a necessary condition of continuing, you have to be unconscious of it. So, all the time I was writing this book and making these points, I was very aware that in the process of itemizing the symptoms of others, I might be providing an accidentally incriminating piece of self-diagnosis.

For us amateurs, I find that I’m playing much worse than I was fifteen years ago, but I enjoy tennis even more. I wonder if you have had that experience, too. 

Oh yes, I’ve had it. I became interested in tennis during the John McEnroe–tantrum era, and I used to get really angry when I played. About ten years ago, it became inconceivable that I could ever get angry while playing. Even though it was a source of frustration when I managed to dump an unmissable shot into the net, it was still just a source of joy to be playing at all. Now I’m entering a phase where I feel so depleted, so wrung out after tennis, that I’m starting to wonder: Is it worth it? The glow that I am feeling now is no longer quite enough to animate me through all the aches and pains and the wiped-out-ness. But I’m very familiar with that wonderful, glowing twilight that you’ve just mentioned. At the same time, and I shouldn’t be blowing my own trumpet like this, but I’m absolutely convinced that, as a writer, I am getting funnier as I get older—screamingly funny.

Roger Federer playing at the 116th French Open, Stade Roland Garros, Paris, 2012. Kate Carine/Flickr
Roger Federer playing at the 116th French Open, Stade Roland Garros, Paris, 2012. Kate Carine/Flickr

In the book, I sense a drive toward incompletion, or a sense of the importance of incompletion, even in the structure. 

Again, it goes back to Nietzsche. He was this relentless adder of postscripts and epilogues to his own work. And of course, I do the same. I take your point about incompleteness, but not in the sense of the fragmentary; instead, it’s feeling there’s something to add that has to be reconciled with an idea of definitiveness or completion. The very last thing there was time to add, in the postscript, in the final round of proofs, was a footnote suggesting that Nietzsche’s mania for adding postscripts was the formal expression of the longing to escape the hermetic loop of his own idea of the eternal recurrence.

Yeah. There’s still more, there’s always more life, it’s not a full stop. This reminds me of how easy it can be to spend six hours watching tennis. I wonder what you think about the difference between playing and watching.

Cricket and tennis are very conducive to extended watching. It’s funny, with a ninety-minute soccer game, I’m pretty happy with the highlights. But weirdly, tennis, I find, doesn’t lend itself that well to highlights.

It’s structurally more like your book—a series of points or moments that add up to something larger. 

I think there’s something else that’s unique to tennis. There can be these turning points in a tennis match, a player can be two sets and a break down, and then something occurs, and from that moment on it becomes evident that it’s winnable. It’s incredible—you get to a certain part of a match, and it’s both right on the brink of coming to an end and infinitely extendable. It’s very lifelike in that way. 

And because you can focus so hard on these two individual players, you feel very strongly their psychological states and lack of confidence and waxing and waning emotions about themselves. 

And their concentration. I enjoy that so much that I watched a bit of the World Chess Championship last year, just so I could watch them concentrate. It was a bit boring actually since I barely understand the moves, but it was remarkable how, at a certain point, Magnus Carlsen broke Ian Nepomniachtchi in every sense. In terms of tennis watching, I just wonder about how much my interest will survive after Roger’s departure. I’m not sure that I will ever be as interested in tennis as I was when he was in his pomp, as they say. 

I think that a lot of people feel that way. How can we account for the fact that so many of us just feel that there’s a beauty to his game that is unequaled? How do we describe that to people who haven’t seen as much tennis? 

Well, there’s the movement and grace, obviously, but I think the definitive pleasure is something very rare. Pragmatism and beauty are so often at odds in sport. This comes up in soccer all the time. But there was this period when Roger was winning, when, it turns out, the most aesthetically pleasing way to play was also the most efficient.

I was also interested in the idea of the late period as being something like a gift—you feel less assaulted by doubt and self-critique and tension. 

Yes, but I should slightly alter the terms. It’s crucial to me that this is not a book about late things. It’s a book about last things. For some people, their last works come in what should be midcareer: Garry Winogrand, Billie Holiday; for others, for various reasons, the last works come very early in their career. We can think of quite a few writers whose first book was also their last.

A lot of other figures come up, but Nietzsche recurs throughout. You discuss the idea of eternal recurrence so much, the idea that last is somehow also the first. 

Nietzsche is the central figure in the book. He enters his last phase, where he’s right on the brink of going nuts, and then lives on, utterly incapacitated, for another decade. We talked about athletes faced with forty years or more of not being athletes. Kerouac became a kind of bloated, drunken buffoon for the last years of his life. But the idea of spending ten years being condemned to a posthumous life while you’re still alive—that’s what happened to Nietzsche. He was looked after by his mom and his sister, who meanwhile manipulated his work and legacy so that it was put at the service of Nazism and the anti-Semitism he abhorred. A truly terrible fate.

Yes. It’s a much happier circumstance to be able to go on. That brings me to my last question: What’s your next project? 

It’s something I’ve had in mind for a while, to write about my childhood. Nothing at all interesting happened. But I’m very conscious of how it represents something about England at that time, which has maybe gone away. I was born in 1958, and there was a certain quality to working-class life in England at the time—well, working-class life as I experienced it. I had no idea that it even was working-class life, until much later. And I’d like to preserve some of it. 

Asad Raza is an artist and tennis enthusiast based in Berlin and New York.