When Artists and Athletes Age, What Happens to Their Work?
Geoff Dyer on Beyond the Page: The Best of the Sun Valley Writers‘ Conference
Welcome to Beyond the Page: The Best of the Sun Valley Writers’ Conference. Over the past 25 years, SVWC has become the gold standard of American literary festivals, bringing together contemporary writing’s brightest stars for their view of the world through a literary lens. Every month, Beyond the Page curates and distills the best talks from the past quarter century at the Writers’ Conference, giving you a front row seat on the kind of knowledge, inspiration, laughter, and meaning that Sun Valley is known for.
When artists and athletes age, what happens to their work? Does it ripen or rot? As our bodies decay, how—and why—do we keep going? In this episode, John Burnham Schwartz sits down with the ever-original and wittily ironic Geoff Dyer to discuss the author’s own encounter with late middle age against the backdrop of the last days and last works of writers, painters, footballers, musicians, and tennis stars who’ve mattered to him throughout his life, with his latest book The Last Days of Roger Federer: And Other Endings.
From the interview:
John Burnham Schwartz: You write, “After a stage in a man’s life, especially if a degree of eminence has been achieved, it is essential that he retains some residue of how he saw the world as a fourteen-year-old.” What’s that residue for you, do you think? And can you talk a little about how you remember seeing the world at fourteen?
Geoff Dyer: Yes. That’s a key part of the book for me. And I guess I could weirdly illustrate more in time in terms of my absolute horror of its opposite, which is that people, when they get into middle age and of people becoming grand or pompous or self-regarding, and that just fills me with such horror when I encounter it in other people. I feel I don’t want to boast, but I feel pretty confident saying, I know I don’t have any tendencies that way myself, thankfully.
In the case of Larkin and Kingsley Amis, I mean, they’re two real unreconstructed old reactionaries. But it’s funny. This manifests itself, especially in the letters, in this kind of real fourteen-year-old kind of smutty talk, which I must say I absolutely enjoy. And yes, it seems to be infinitely preferable to the opposite.
So I think I contrast something that Kingsley Amis says to Larkin. I love Camus so much, but that awful moment when he’s being interviewed for a French TV show and I think the engineer happens to be called Albert, so when the director says rather curtly, “Oy, Albert, can you move that light over there?” and Camus says, “No, no, say Monsieur Camus.” That’s a devastating moment for me, the way that Camus seems to have become intoxicated by his own eminence, which is particularly terrible given his background with a mother who’s illiterate
John Burnham Schwartz: So in a way, I wonder, by having such a strong notion from early on of what you want to avoid in a way the sort of the end point that you absolutely do not want to arrive at. It then in a way, it recalibrates your beginning a little bit and I would imagine sort of gets under a lot of the choices you do end up making both in life personally and then as a writer and how you want to write. And I wonder if some of that bubbled up as you were working on this book, which is such a stew of all these things.
Geoff Dyer: It’s not so much that it bubbles up, it’s more that it’s just there in my sort of DNA. It manifests itself, I like to think, most obviously in this question, which is so important, the voice or tone. I mean, every every writer has his or her own tone. But I think at this point in my writing life, I’m much more in touch with my own tone than I was, for example, in my late twenties when I was so under the influence of, say, John Berger.
And I feel that the things that constitute my tone. I think it would be that maybe it’s a very English thing, that combination of being both serious and funny at the same time, of being both very sincere and highly ironic. That kind of mixture I feel so sort of at home with. It’s not requiring any effort on my part, and it’s a source of great, great pleasure to me. And crucially, it’s enabling me to say exactly what I want to say in my own voice, as it were.
Geoff Dyer is the award-winning author of many books, including Out of Sheer Rage, Yoga for People Who Can’t Be Bothered to Do It, Zona, See/Saw, and the essay collection Otherwise Known as the Human Condition (winner of a National Book Critics Circle Award for criticism). A fellow of the Royal Society of Literature and a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, Dyer lives in Los Angeles, where he is a writer in residence at the University of Southern California. His books have been translated into twenty-four languages.