Something For The Weekend: The Smoking Diaries by Simon Gray
As the Olympics draw to a close this weekend it seems fitting to recommend something thoroughly un-Olympian. Not that the Olympics haven't been great, you'll get no complaints here, it's just that you can have too much of a good thing and I'm beginning to feel a little sported-out. So, The Smoking Diaries by Simon Gray.
Olympian is not a word you would immediately associate with Gray (though he was a cricket lover all his life and talented athlete in his youth) and it would be fair to say that The Smoking Diaries is a sedantary book. For the most part Gray is sitting at his desk late into the night thinking about his life. Sometimes he is on holiday sitting at a table overlooking the sea late into the night thinking about his life. At all times he is smoking or about to light another cigarette.
It is not, however, the smoking that makes this book anti-Olympian. For the record neither I, nor Blackwell's recommend smoking. Simon Gray doesn't recommend smoking. The book isn't about smoking, it just happens to be what Simon Gray is doing while he writes his diary each night. What makes the book anti-Olympian is that it's about the whole of a life not just a crowning moment, and it's success is no less spectacular than Usain Bolt's.
Gray looks clearly and unsentimentally at the things he has done. There are the long years of alcoholism, the affairs, the hurt he has brought upon others and himself. Then there are the good things: the plays, the successful second marriage, the friendships. How all of it fits together now that he is on his way out is what concerns him. The ways in which his increasing, and increasingly terrifying sense of mortality colours everything that has happened in his life obsesses Gray. He sits up late into the night thinking about it all, trying to puzzle it out, distracting himself with memories of family, lost friends, personal and professional successes and catastrophes.
It calls itself a diary, but while we never doubt that Gray keeps a diary, we know we are not reading it. There is a rough chronology of events taking place in his life on which the book depends for momentum, but the glory of it comes in the places he drifts off to from these events. What we are reading are the things that go through Gray's mind while he is writing his diary. They are the things that he couldn't put in a normal diary because the diary would end up as a book: The Smoking Diaries.
In tone and pace it reads like a mind talking to itself about death. It is admittedly an unusually wise, hyper-articulate, funny and honest mind, but it is recognisably human, unlike, say, running 10 metres in less than a second, then doing it again another 19 times in a row.