Coda, By Simon Gray

The moving and comic final memoir of a writer at the fag-end of his life
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The Independent Culture

The last word of the first paragraph of this memoir is "dying". The playwright Simon Gray had just been told that this was the first day of the last year of his life. While this, of course, had its downside for him as a patient, it presented enviable advantages to a writer. He writes Coda as the cancer clock ticks and the shadow of the grim reaper's scythe falls powerfully over his already potent prose. In this comic and moving memoir, he is not just penning a description of a holiday in Crete, he is writing about his last holiday in Crete. Or anywhere.

Coda contains the wonderful final chords from the author who has left us, among many other works, the plays Butley and Otherwise Engaged, and The Last Cigarette (part of the "Smoking Diaries" trilogy). It is a literary bequest: he may have died this year, but we have inherited his non-smoking diary. Nearly non-smoking. He cut down to 15 a day, an improvement on his previous 60, which, over 50 years, is more than a million fags.

His chronicle of a death foretold begins with a brisk walk around, appositely enough, his local cemetery. To show himself there's life in the old dog yet, he attempts to break into a trot but fails. He begins writing this memoir but gets a nasty bout of writer's block. Fortunately, this – unlike his cancer – is not terminal, and the sentences about his life sentence come pouring out, spontaneous yet crafted. Many are written in Crete, where, swimming in his enfeebled state, he narrowly escapes drowning.

He mocks his doctors. One of them looks like a chipmunk. He catches another specialist having a shifty smoke. As for the doctor who was over-keen to tell him he had only 12 months to live, "I wanted to kill him and say, just as I pulled the trigger, 'That's a year longer than you have, matey'." Writing his non-misery memoir must have been therapeutic, but he is not after the sympathy vote. Dylan Thomas would be highly pleased that Gray does not go gentle into that good night.

With hindsight, he might not have devoted so much space to his late discovery of an obscure Austrian novelist. Also, an author's dialogue with himself can become rather tiresome (Bill Oddie's autobiography falls into the same trap). He might well have cut this brief section, if he'd had his time over again; but, of course, he didn't.