The Last Cigarette

July 31, 2008

What does it take to be a successful diarist? The number-one quality is probably honesty, something Simon Gray has in spades, especially in situations that reflect badly on him. Take, for instance, the occasion when, in his latest volume of diaries, The Last Cigarette, standing outside a New York theatre where one of his plays is in production, he witnesses a number of dissatisfied customers leaving the auditorium: "'Didn't you just hate the lot of them!' she honked, as she pedaled backwards, and voices called out from her followers, 'Hated them, just hated them!' - I kept my eye on the elderly man, but he didn't speak, just made vaguely belligerent gestures - There was something faintly sinister about it, probably because it looked simultaneously spontaneous and organized, like the first stages of a political demo, I suppose, or of a lynch mob ... ".

It is tempting to continue quoting, but this excerpt gives something of the detail with which he records the world about him, especially when what he sees has little solace for him. Or take his account of his flight to Greece, undertaken when he was suffering from irritable bowel syndrome: "I stayed there, by the economy lavatories, too long, when I wanted to return to my seat I found both aisles blocked by stewards with trolleys of beverages, and the only place I could wait was outside the lavatories - I'm beginning to worry that I'll be suspected of having an agenda, a sexual one, that I'm trying to pick up a fellow passenger, perhaps squeeze into the lavatory with him or her."

This is funny because it records the thoughts an overly sensitive or imaginative person would have, most of whom would be too mortified to write it down. In this regard Gray seems fearless. I've been reading his memoirs since they first began to be published in the 1980s, and that truthfulness to the moment is a consistent feature, and explains why they paint such an ambivalent self-portrait. For if in earlier volumes he emerges as paranoid, distrustful, driven and obsessed, it has also to be said that he is often right in his suspicions, highly observant and sensitive to others.

One doesn't have to be a smoker or a drinker, as he is, to find him piquant and painful; one has only to empathise with his willingness to fear the worst and to stare disdainfully at his failings.

Like Gray's other memoirs, The Last Cigarette is of academic interest for its documentation of the process by which plays are transferred from page to stage. In this instance, Gray follows the rehearsals for a New York revival of his early play, Butley. It shows how involved the playwright often becomes, even (as in this case) to the extent of arguing for the sacking of cast members. Gray's relations with the stage manager, producer, director and actors are illuminating - if not always an example for others to follow.

Gray is renowned for the care he takes over his plays. His memoirs, by contrast, are written in leisurely sentences that unravel in a manner that feels unforced, unpremeditated, unguarded. The impression is of someone speaking to you in the moment. This must be an illusion, but that he carries it off is a tribute to his technique.

Most impressively, The Last Cigarette, like its forebears, has its own organic shape. It contains familiar elements - reminiscences of childhood, encounters with Harold Pinter and productions of his plays - but arranged so as to seem part of an elegant design. Life is nothing like that, but it becomes so when filtered through the consciousness of an artist. In his maturity, Gray has become one of the most accomplished such writers of his generation.

The Last Cigarette

By Simon Gray. Granta Books, 312pp, £14.99. ISBN 9781847080387. Published 7 April 2008

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