The Magazine

Falling to Pieces

The playwright Simon Gray watches as the curtain starts to come down.

Jun 21, 2004, Vol. 9, No. 39 • By HENRIK BERING
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The Smoking Diaries

by Simon Gray

Granta, 240 pp., £12.99

UNLESS YOU ARE A DOCTOR or a dentist, there are certain things you would rather not know about your fellow man: the exact, clinical condition of his feet, his ears, or his teeth, for instance. Yet a few years back, in the memoir Experience, one found oneself reading with horrified fascination about British novelist Martin Amis and his decades-long battle with his rotting gums, told in great and gory detail, thus keeping up the family tradition of misanthropy, set by his father Kingsley.

While Americans tend to be uncomfortable with the topic of aging--the highly sanitized movie Grumpy Old Men (1993) being typical, concentrating on the comic aspects of growing old and skipping the tragic part--the British seem to have a curious fascination with death and decay as a source of black comedy.

The current master of British misanthropy is the playwright Simon Gray. For a while, in the mid-1970s, Gray was hailed as one of the golden boys of British theater with plays like Otherwise Engaged and Butley to his credit. In those days, when he traveled, he traveled Concorde. Since then, life has been less smooth. His plays are somehow considered unfashionably middle class, and today, Gray is more known for his theatrical memoirs, which are gems of their kind. The 1995 Fat Chance tells the hilarious misfortune of his play Cell Mates, where one of its stars, the actor Stephen Fry, fled in a fit of panic to Belgium, leaving Gray and the cast holding the bag. Equally amusing is the 2001 Enter a Fox, which recounts how his play The Late Middle Classes was humiliatingly dropped in favor of a musical called Boyband, "this perfectly simple story of deceit, double-dealing, treachery, murder, and so forth," as he puts it.

Gray's latest book, The Smoking Diaries, is not yet published in America, but it has been hailed in Britain as a masterpiece of savage, tragicomic writing and has earned him the sobriquet "the poet laureate of dyspepsia." In a loose and casual form, it tells his life story--"the acid leaking out of the withered bladder of my spirit," in his own words. As a proponent of an unhealthy lifestyle, Gray has been compared to rock musician Keith Richards, another magnificently preserved ruin who somehow still keeps standing.

IN GRAY'S WORLD, everything that can go wrong does go wrong and has done so for a long time. When the book starts, on his sixty-fifth birthday, his money is long gone, part of the great Lloyds insurance debacle of the early 1990s. His literary friends are either dead or dying. His own health is shot: After having a large part of his intestines removed, he has managed to quit his alcohol consumption, which used to be four bottles of champagne a day. But he still suffers occasional hallucinations of bees and maggots crawling over him.

And as a paranoid insomniac, he still smokes just over three packs of cigarettes a day, to which he has been addicted since the age of seven, and which now leaves him coughing and wheezing, making even tying his shoelaces a challenge. To top it off, in the middle of the book, he is diagnosed with prostate cancer and sees himself as participating in some ghastly competition with his friends where the cancer is handed off "like a poisoned baton in a relay race."

This may not strike the reader as immediately promising comic material. But Gray is the kind of writer whose talent feeds on adversity and who with wide-eyed incredulity embraces every new indignity that life throws at him. Even when he is on holiday, things go wrong. In Italy, the gentleman at the table next to his keels over and dies, and on Barbados, other tourists keep stealing his sunspot on the beach.

From a maze of casual digressions and musings, pet likes and dislikes, fears and phobias, the story of his life emerges. The son of a doctor, he spent his early childhood in Canada to where he was evacuated during the war and he delivers fine portraits of his grandma, smelling of peppermint to mask the sherry fumes, and of his repressed and jealous Scots granddad, who belts him for stealing her affection. He gives a splendid account of his teenage years at Westminster School, the posh London private school, where he and his friends were plundering the ticket machines of the Underground to finance his stash of Hank Janson detective novels with titles such as Hotsy, You'll Be Chilled, and Lola Brought Her Wreath--all with lurid covers of bound and trussed beauties.

He dissects the complex relationship of his parents: his easygoing, chain-smoking, slap-happy mother and his quiet father who turns out to be a serial adulterer. And he details the harrowing death of his brilliant younger brother Piers from alcoholism and liver failure.