Review: Coda by Simon Gray

This adjunct to the beautifully crafted and funny Smoking Diaries is almost unbearably poignant - because there could only ever be one ending

For all the masterful ease with which Simon Gray has told of us of his life in The Smoking Diaries, this last book, a kind of adjunct to the trilogy that was begun after his diagnosis with lung cancer, is strangely hard to read. Not because of the writing, which is as fluid and beguiling as ever - more so, in fact: the effortless, rambling style he's accidentally found himself cultivating here reaches its zenith. No, it's simply that you know that, since 7 August, Simon has been dead.

And so we, the readers, have the advantage of him as he battles to bring us the pathology of his last year. When he finds himself wondering whether this will be the last time he'll eat at such-and-such a restaurant, or smell a certain smell in Crete, or call a certain friend (or undergo the hell that is Heraklion airport), you know that, yes, actually, it was. Simon Gray was, in the end, jumped from behind by his all-but-forgotten abdominal aortic aneurysm, which gets scarcely a mention. There is thus a hard-to-stand pathos to the closing pages, which tell of his return from the cancer doctor full of hope, having been granted a stay of execution. And then a turned page, and another sentence, and we are suddenly, joltingly, into acknowledgments. Thoughtfully, of course, written early.

There's no mawkishness here: if there is self-pity, it comes stamped honestly as such. He freely admits his own cowardice, his reluctance to sit down before his yellow notepad and address, even to himself, what was going on. That he has done so gives the reader sharp insight into life lived under a death sentence.

Take his anguishing over the shoes in his cupboard, which he desperately doesn't want his wife Victoria to have to stare at when he's gone. As so often, from this tiny premise he builds and builds, agonising at length over whether sneaking them out, pair by pair, to charity shops would be a kindness or, conversely, would cause undue distress should he bump into her while carrying them. The passage is deeply thoughtful, appallingly funny and, as in much of Coda, expresses inestimable grateful tenderness towards his wife.

He's particularly wise on the musings that so many must have on suicide: what pills would do it, how he'd be found and how much pain it may cause. 'I wish there was a way of just dissolving in the sea, without having to go through the business of drowning first,' he writes. While this is almost by default a more forgiving volume than its predecessors, there is still much steel, and yelp-out-loud laughter, particularly when it comes to doctors. One, investigating the tumour on Gray's neck, insists that finding no cancer in his throat is 'good news'. Gray shakes his hand, is perfectly courteous, but doesn't stint from pointing out that, surely, this is bad news. Had there been a new little cancer in his throat or nose that was causing the lump on his neck, that would surely have meant it wasn't a secondary from the main lung tumour and that both could thus be separately operable.

There are the usual grand pen-portraits of fellow-travellers, fellow-diners and their ability to confound his prejudices. Simple truths are thrown in mid-sentence almost by accident (why hadn't we realised, say, that any doctor who was any good as a doctor wouldn't be working as a government adviser but would still be a doctor, or how the point of defining someone as 'old' is never really to denote how far they are from the beginning, but how close they are to the end?). There is much, as ever, to delight. But it's hard to finish this book without pausing often to gaze into space and think how happy Gray must have been enjoying his last few swims.

Towards the end of the book, which he didn't know was the end of the book, Gray has none the less, with his uncanny mastery of structure, begun preparing us. He begins to wonder what happens when someone just stops being there. The cat. The tramp. The odd stooped figure who bustles past the window of his favourite Kensington restaurant table at the same time every evening: what happens when they're just... not there. Unhappily for us, we are thinking the same about Simon Gray; and we can see how few pages remain, and know he will never swim or, more importantly for us, write again.

He finishes not in ugly mid-sentence but clearly, cleanly, perfectly. A casually perfect but unexpectedly painful early full stop to a life and a mind for which we are immeasurably richer.


Euan Ferguson

The GuardianTramp

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