Let sleeping tumours lie." If only one could. Simon Gray's previous memoir, The Last Cigarette, ended with the grim news that he had been diagnosed with lung cancer. The posthumously published Coda begins where that work left off. He may have been ailing as he wrote it, but this is as accomplished, witty and joyous a volume as any of its predecessors.
Gray's observation of the world around him was never sharper or more appreciative of its quirks, oddities and coincidences. He is appropriately tart about the underlying inhumanity of his doctors, and appalled when depicting himself - the various bars of chocolate he wolfs down at Heraklion airport, his fascination with obituaries and his continuing addiction to nicotine: "I've never needed cigarettes more than when getting the news that I'm dying from them."
Aphorism, paradox and understatement - always Gray's principal rhetorical manner - never served him better than here. The hospital room in which he is placed "has a history of death", he notes. Later on, he remarks that "hope, as we all know at bitter times in our lives, is an eager ally of foolishness". And, more painfully, "a doctor who tells you that you have a year to live has taken the year away from you".
There is no escaping the fact that this is a book written by a man who knows he is in the grip of a terminal illness - and, therefore, one by a man who suspects it may be his last. The fact that indeed it was (although he actually died of an aneurysm) would make for poignant reading were it not for the irrepressible love of life by which it is suffused.
How else could he take such pleasure in his descriptions of Crete during the late summer of 2007, as when he describes a couple of fellow tourists dancing: "They made an eccentric-looking couple, though they danced well, he particularly; he was properly dominating, swinging her about and making her crouch to run under his arm and then he twirled her. I'd like to have seen them do something racy and dangerous, one of those homicidal Spanish or South American numbers."
Or, elsewhere, when he provides an insightful and concentrated account of Shakespearean tragedy, passing in a paragraph from Hamlet (in which the protagonist "forces himself to believe that he can kill, and then kills the wrong man, and then decides the wrong man will do for starters") to King Lear, noting that the focus of the plays is their protagonists' "moments of understanding".
It is, perhaps, significant that throughout much of this valedictory memoir Gray is reading Stefan Zweig's Beware of Pity. It's not that there is no self-pity in Gray's musings, but that he backs away from it when it rears its head. Nonetheless, his comments and observations are coloured by the awareness (sometimes acknowledged, sometimes not) that everything he sees and does may be experienced for the last time. Hence Gray's reluctance to leave Crete: "If only we could spend another week or two, or some months, or years, or for ever, being here, being as we've been over the last ten days."
This is as exhilarating a read as any of Gray's previous memoirs, made so partly by its dandyish style - a rambling, unravelling, unbuttoned manner that provides the ideal vehicle for the cogitating, anxious, self-critical self behind it. The tragedy of this book is that it could have been written only by someone who was as vital, curious and engaged with the business of living as ever - by someone, in short, blessed with scant conviction in the grim fate spelt out for him by his doctors.
By Simon Gray
Published 6 November 2008