by Geoff Dyer, 2022
I finished it! It’s not what I expected. He has never met Roger and Roger is barely mentioned in this book. He loves tennis and he loves Roger, but this book is mostly about dead, or nearly dead, poets, artists, writers, and musicians, and their last works. I have not read most of the books he wrote about, nor listened to most of the music he wrote about. This book is beautifully written but the only parts I liked were when he talked about himself, his tennis injuries, and tennis in general. He is a critic and I am not into the things he is critiquing, except for himself and tennis.
Here are some quotes from the book:
“It seemed important that a book underwritten by my own experience of the changes wrought by ageing should be completed before Roger’s retirement, in the long twilight of his career.*…*Yes, ‘Roger,’ not ‘Federer’; even though I’ve never met him it’s Roger, always and only Roger.”
“On nights after I’ve played tennis I often have trouble sleeping. Partly this is because I always collapse into a long nap or a brief coma after getting home so that by bedtime, although I’m exhausted and achey (lower back, both knees, left shoulder and elbow), I’m not sleepy. Plus it’s fun lying there, replaying crucial sequences and points–up to a point. But then I become powerless to select or stop which bits are replayed and am stranded in a tormenting swirl of yellow balls that gradually becomes a Slazenger-sponsored meteor shower in the tramlines of space.”
He talks about Bob Dylan and how his music never grows old. There’s a movie by Martin Scorsese that he talks about and so I’ve requested it from the library – Rolling Thunder Revue. We have never really gotten into Bob Dylan. He writes, “London Calling is a great album; seeing the Clash in Lewisham in February 1980 was one of the best gig-going experiences I’ve ever had, but these days, even when driving, I scarcely have the patience to get to the end of one of their songs.* There’s nothing left to hear. But I’ll be listening to Dylan, to new and old versions of songs I’ve been listening to for more than forty years, with undiminished wonder, till the end of my days, hopefully after Dylan himself is no longer around, when the incredible fact that he exists, that we could probably go to see him play somewhere tonight, no longer holds true.”
He writes about Kerouac and how he had one great book, On the Road, and that success ruined him for life. He could never duplicate it and couldn’t write spontaneously ever again. He lived with his mother in Florida and became an alcoholic blob. Really depressing. He writes, “Everything else–not just everything that had come before but everything in the sloshy aftermath that was still to come–is insignificant in the face of that moment, when the long wait for vindication came to an end. Even if his ‘kindness valve’ did become clogged, the vivid generosity of spirit embodied in his conception of Dean Moriarty courses through every line of his masterpiece.”
He talked about literature that he had a really hard time getting into, but kept at it and was glad he did. One book is Robert Stone’s A Flag for Sunrise. He writes, “When I re-read it in 2013 the literary merit of A Flag for Sunrise was evident early on–its apparent shortcomings had been mine–but it stands for the possibility of any book becoming unexpectedly excellent after the point at which one might have expected to jump ship.”
Here are some good lines about poetry readings: “At any poetry reading, however enjoyable, the words we most look forward to hearing are always the same: ‘I’ll read two more poems.’ (The words we truly long for are ‘I’ll read one more poem’ but two seems to be the conventionally agreed mnimum.”…”Which raises a question: why did we come if, while being here, we would end up being so preoccupied by no longer being there? Could it be that our deepest desire is for everything to be over with?…’Beneath it all,’ writes the minor poet, ‘desire of oblivion runs.'”
He writes about the end of the buffalo and the Plains Indians in America: “The demise of the Plains Indians was intimately connected with the fate of the buffalo. As late as 1871 a herd of four million was seen in present-day Kansas. ‘The main body was fifty miles deep and twenty-five miles wide,’ writes S.C. Gwynne in Empire of the Summer Moon. ‘But the slaughter had already begun. It would soon become the greatest mass destruction of warm-blooded animals in human history.’ Whereas the Indians had used every part of the animal for nutrition, clothing, or some other practical function–bladders, logically enough, were used as water containers–white hunters were interested only in the skins. To that end thirty-one million were killed between 1868 and 1881, and by the late 1880s the buffalo was on the brink of extinction.”
He talks about his life lacking direction or purpose once he finished his formal education, until he came up with the idea of never buying shampoo again. He decided to “filch” shampoo from all the hotels he and his wife stayed in, and even when they didn’t have little bottles, he would fill up an empty glucosamine container with the shampoo from the dispenser in the shower. “We were held in check by the hundred-mill limit imposed by airlines on liquids in hand luggage but on one occasion, we drove back from the Skyview Hotel in Los Alamos (the town in California, not the home of the Manhattan Project) with two water bottles of shampoo and conditioner. That’s when things really took off. We soon had enough shampoo to open a salon. It was a good feeling, knowing we had this product reservoir–I liked opening the under-sink cupboard in the bathroom and looking at the mix of original sample bottles from Bigelow and the confusing array of vitamin containers we’d decanted the shampoo into, but what I really liked was the ongoing project of constantly accumulating more and more shampoo.” Hilarious!
He writes about professional tennis players and the towels: “Take tennis players and towels. Or, to rephrase that slightly, watch them take towels at the end of a match. For the low-ranked or qualifiers getting into a Slam represents a rare and much-needed towel bonanza but even the top players make sure, after strapping on their sponsored watches in full view of the TV cameras, to scoop up as many towels as possible–the Australian Open ones are particularly desirable–before trudging off court….They’re multimillionaires, many of them, but they’ve still got their eye on the main towel chance. Especially if they lose and are in need of all the tear-absorbent consolation they can get their hands on. … Any successful player has a trophy cabinet; Roger and Serena probably have designated towel rooms, maybe even separate towel houses. Like the great aristocratic families who take pains to ensure that generations of offspring will continue to enjoy the unearned benefits of inherited land, the titans of the tennis meritocracy bequeath to their children and grandchildren lives freed forever from the realm of towelling necessity.” HILARIOUS!!!
He critiques a movie called, “The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp.” Sounds interesting so I’ve requested that from the library. “This great film does not need me to sing its praises but, without doubt, I needed it. The extraordinary thing was that I’d been able to go about my business, living a normal life, with this huge Blimp-shaped hole at its centre. For all this time I’d been an incomplete person.” He writes that he wasn’t crying at the end, he was sobbing.
He writes about Burning Man and knowing when it would be his last time going. Thinking the last time was in 2005, but it ended up being 2018. The night the Man is burned, “The power and beauty of that gesture, those arms stretched out to include everyone in the city! It contains all the religion I will ever need in this life, or any other–and of course, there is no other.” Oh, Geoff, don’t trade that mock, farce, second-rate model for the purity and loveliness of the real, True Man, who loves you forever and ever into eternity. This life isn’t all there is. Please surrender, Geoff! Don’t let Satan win your soul.
When he writes about tennis, he helps me to understand Wayne and his love of playing tennis. “Playing tennis is such a big part of my happiness. 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 4 hours suffuses the whole week, but for the last month a shoulder problem meant that I was unable to play or do the press-ups I was doing mainly to strengthen my shoulders.”
He writes about losing his sexual attractiveness after reaching age 60 and maybe becoming creepy. “There you are in the morning being charming and funny–not even flirting–with the attractive woman in her early thirties serving bread at the bakery and by the afternoon you’re a creep. Why? Because of that slight hesitation, that I-wasn’t-being-creepy-was-I? worry you felt on the way home, clutching your still-warm baguette. Concern about avoiding potential creepiness can render you creepy. How does this happen? Like everything else, it just creeps up on you.”
Books and authors he mentions that I should read (maybe):
Norman Mailer, The Naked and the Dead
Zadie Smith, White Teeth
He writes about his Dad being anti-Christian: “My dad, who never read a book in his life, was a vehement hater of Christianity for broadly the same reason that he was anti-royalist, or anti anything else for that matter: i.e., financial. For him the most powerfully symbolic moment in any church service was not the blood of my blood nonsense (my knowledge of what goes on in these places is a little vague) but the taking of the collection.”
His dad also hated smoking and drinking. Dyer writes that during the COVID lockdowns, he didn’t drink at all. He was always only a social drinker. It is easy for him to stop drinking. “But I’ve always been surprised by the way that, even if I’ve been drinking a lot, it’s a very easy habit to break. After a couple of days the craving for booze goes away (except when eating or, more precisely, after eating, as a way of getting the taste of food out of my mouth). This is one of the things I’m looking forward to in the last however-many years of life: drinking less so that I never have to give up drinking.”
He writes about getting stoned which he loved except for the having to smoke part: “Every experience could be enhanced by being stoned (except the ones that were diminished by it): listening to music (almost a 100 percent success rate), sometimes reading (poetry mainly), having sex (if one could remain focused), eating certain foods (as long as they had no potential to become revolting), walking in nature, visiting art galleries, sacred sites, or war memorials. Even getting stoned could be enhanced–by getting more stoned.” He talks about getting a medical marijuana card from a doctor – “This process was frankly farcical but, having told the ‘doctor’–whom one would not have wanted to consult for something as life-threatening as a mouth ulcer or stitch–that one was having trouble getting to sleep or staying awake or that one’s slippers were the wrong size, …”
Now, he can go into a pot shop and describe the kind of high he wants: “‘Clarity accompanied by laughter,’ I clarified the first time I stepped inside this new frontier of narco-retail. ‘Free-flow of ideas. All-round enhancement of the senses. Ability to inhabit even the most demanding passages of Beethoven’s late quartets. Laughter. No tiredness or dopey feeling, no heaviness, and no next-day fogginess either. That, young man, is the kind of high I am in the market for.'” Now, getting high is always a disappointment for him and he can’t stand the smell of marijuana everywhere he goes in Southern California. He still loves tennis though.
During Covid lockdowns, he didn’t mind staying home – “…watching the latest compilations of Roger’s best dropshots or ultra-slo-mo footage of his backhand on YouTube, feeling clear-headed, not getting stoned and not drinking (we’re back on it, back on the wagon, that is).”
Another book to read: Wide Sargasso Sea, by Jean Rhys. Also, Black Lamb and Grey Falcon by Rebecca West.
He writes about watching tennis: “I fear I wasn’t being completely honest or, more accurately, accurate when I wrote about enjoying Wimbledon less when there were no obligations (exams) to ration my watching. It may have been true then but in the last five years I have watched more tennis–more tournaments, for bigger chunks of the day–with more enjoyment than ever. Part of the reason for this is because a writer-tennis friend shared his password for the Tennis Channel, an act of ostensible generosity that, I suspect, might also have been a subtly poisoned chalice, designed to undermine and gradually destroy my writing life…The only way I could watch more tennis is if I retired completely, which I have not done–because I define retirement as the phase of life in which I will do nothing but watch tennis (a transition marked by an upgrade to Tennis Channel Plus).” Sorry, Geoff, Tennis Channel Plus is a downgrade from Tennis Channel – stick with Tennis Channel only. The Plus is false-advertising, it’s the poor person’s Tennis Channel – those of us without cable TV and the only slam they give you is the French Open and then not the whole thing. And there are no announcers in the ATP matches.
In a lengthy essay on Roger and possible retirement, he writes, “Pundits have been speculating about when Roger might retire for more years than Borg spent on the Tour, from the moment his aura of invincibility was dented.” The years from 2013 to 2016 were particularly brutal for Roger, but, “During these years he batted away all questions of retirement as if doing a drill on the practice court, with variations but no apparent lack of conviction. It wasn’t just the tennis, he said. He also liked being on the Tour…So even when it looked as if he would never win another Slam we were glad he kept playing, glad he didn’t subscribe to Borg’s zero-sum ideal of number one or bust, because it gave us a chance to see him…And then came the annus mirabilis of 2017 when he bounced straight back from knee surgery to win the Australian Open, Indian Wells, Miami, and Wimbledon…The backhand had long been vulnerable, constantly battered by Nadal’s top-spin forehanad. Now he was hitting shoulder-height backhand winners in rally after rally…He had again demonstrated that the most efficient way to play tennis was also the most beautiful–and vice versa…Plenty of top male players have gorgeous one-handed backhands (all but extinct in the women’s game since the abdication of the majestic Justine Henin) but with Roger’s fading the reign of beauty is coming to an end.” BEAUTIFUL WRITING!
Here, he is writing about Roger’s timing – he takes away opponent’s time by standing close to the baseline, taking the ball early, serving quickly. “Nadal, meanwhile, wants to take away Roger’s ability to take away his time, barging right up against the allowed limit and almost always going over it at some stage and incurring a warning. While Roger reduces the amount of time his opponents have to prepare before his next serve comes spinning their way, the long seconds spent waiting for Rafa to twitch his way through his interminable pre-serve ritual gradually gnaw away at his opponents’ reserves of concentration. (Djokovic might be even more infuriating; while Rafa’s routine is unchanging you never quite know when Novak will stop bouncing the ball and deign to hit it.) Several times in their matches, Roger has compained to the umpire about how long Rafa was taking to serve. And whereas the server is supposed to be able to dictate the pace of play, Rafa is always trying to force Roger or anyone else (especially the volatile Nick Kyrgios) to wait till he’s ready to receive.” (Yesterday, Nadal withdrew from Wimbledon so Nick does not have to play him in the semi-final. Nick goes straight to the finals of Wimbledon!)
He talks about how close Roger was to winning Wimbledon in 2019 against Djokovic. “Will there ever be a more agonising example [of failing to convert match point] than Roger serving in the 2019 Wimbledon final against Djokovic at 8-7 in the fifth? Two aces have taken him to 40-15. On the next point he hits a loose forehand into the right tramline. At 40-30 he comes to the net behind a so-so approach and is passed easily. Deuce. Djoko wins the next two points and it’s 8-8. The match rolls on to a final-set tie-break–the first ever at Wimbledon–but from that point on one sensed that Roger’s chance had gone. … It was an especially hard or heavy loss to bear because that one point–one from a total of thousands won and lost at that tournament alone–had, within an hour, been transformed into two more significant figures: Twenty and sixteen, rather than twenty-one and fifteen–the number of Slams, that is, won by Roger and Djokovic respectively. That one point might have made the difference between his record remaining intact for all time and his being overtaken by both Djokovic and Nadal (who drew level at the French).* *As I fiddled around, making last-minute changes to this manuscript, Roger, Nadal, and Djokovic were tied at twenty Slams apiece: a symmetrical triangle of shared and almost inconceivable greatness–until Nadal won his twenty-first in the 2022 Australian Open.” (And now Nadal is at 22 having won the French Open in 2022. Let’s hope Djokovic does not win Wimbledon this year. Oh well, he did.)
More interesting insights into the game of tennis here: “There can come a time in a tennis match when, although you continue to chase after every ball and fight for every point–and sometimes, as a result, go on to win not just points but games too–you know that you don’t have it in you to win the match. After that point it’s impossible to win (unless something even more catastrophic afflicts your opponent). It’s different to running out of energy or gradually becoming weak or tired or deciding to give up (no longer running down balls, sulking). You are resigned to losing though this resignation is only felt internally, is not manifested externally. On the surface nothing has changed except some slight alteration in that overused indicator, body language. So it’s possible that Thiem gave way internally before his eventual physical undoing. [He’s writing about Dominic Thiem vs. Diego Schwartzman in the 2020 French Open quarter-finals.] ‘Something in me wilted,’ McEnroe said of the fifth set against Borg in the Wimbledon final of 1980. But perhaps even this is too corporeal, too suggestive of a physical failing or falling off. I’m thinking of something subtler and altogether less tangible even than wilting: almost like succumbing to a prophecy that is powerless to assert itself until one assents to its fulfillment.”
This makes me think of how in Strokes of Genius, Severin Luthi says Mirka always believes Roger can win and that helps him so much.
Writing about the changes age has brought to his tennis game: “In my mid-thirties I remember playing ninety minutes of football, three sets of tennis, and a game of ping-pong before going out to the pub.” Now, “I came home from tennis today as I always do: absolutely shattered. I just about had the strength, after carrying my bike up the stairs, to shower (if I’d got in the bath I might still be in it), put ice packs on my arm and shoulder, rinse out my stinky shirt, boil some pasta, and scoff it down before falling into a deep sleep. The tennis involved seventy minutes of continuous hitting without scoring, with quick gulps of Gatorade every fifteen minutes or so when we changed ends. After chasing down a lob and successfully belting the ball back the rotation left me feeling giddy; it was almost as if the blood or some kind of brain fluid were sloshing around in my skull. That sensation was new and troubling since my game has always been about running–that’s why I hate doubles, because I love running. The essence of my character–my idea of myself–is that I am a dog. If you keep throwing the ball for me I’ll chase after it and while I am chasing my tail will be wagging and I’ll be happy….Back home I emerged from my death-nap fully revived in the sense that I could get out of bed, slump down on the sofa, put my feet up, and watch TV for the rest of the evening before crawling into bed. There was no question of doing any work.”
He bought knee supports after having to take a month off of tennis because of knee problems. After playing with them, “I don’t think I have ever been happier on a tennis court. The sky turned pink as the sun began to sag over the ocean but I showed no sign of sagging…I was so delighted with these supports that I spent the following morning doing further research. There are loads of braces and supports, for every part of the body–even the hip flexor…These knee supports are part of a larger project. It’s not just that I hope to keep playing tennis; I invest in it by stockpiling equipment and accessories: balls, overgrip, shoes (Asics), socks (Falke), racquets.”
He writes a lot about Nietzsche in this book. “Famous for proclaiming the death of God, the self-appointed anti-Christ recommends that instead of the religious practice of praying in the morning, we ‘think on awakening whether one cannot this day give pleasure to at any rate one person.” “Nietsche extolled what would later become the easily mocked virtues of the Californian culture of habitual niceness: ‘Amongst the small, but countlessly frequent and therefore very effective, things to which science should pay more attention than to the great, rare things, is to be reckoned goodwill; I mean that exhibition of a friendly disposition in intercourse, that smiling eye, that clasp of the hand, that cheerfulness with which almost all human actions are usually accompanied … Thus one finds much more happiness in the world than sad eyes see, if one only reckons rightly, and does not forget all those moments of comfort in which every day is rich, even in the most harried of human lives.”
So, both Dyer and Nietzsche love the ways of God and abhor the things of man. The god that is dead is the god man has created. There is a God and He is Almighty, All-loving, All-good, All-powerful, All-knowing, but mostly He is everything Dyer and Nietzsche are looking for, everything they need. Forget the things of man – away with them.
More on his aging body and tennis: “I had to stop serving years ago to preserve (maybe post-serve?) my shoulder.”
A good line about Roger in the ‘Postscript:’ “(Among Roger’s many records might he also claim the unwanted crown of having lost more matches, from match point up, than any other player?)”
Writing about ‘Emmania:’ “Two months later, at the U.S. Open, it lit up the world. And something utterly unexpected happened, more unexpected, even, than Raducanu’s taking the title: I was starting to forget about Roger.”
I love when he writes about himself and tennis. This book was very good in those parts. When he analyzes works by authors, painters, musicians I don’t know, I get lost. I still read every word because he’s a beautiful writer, I just don’t register them.