Tuesday, November 15, 2005

The Smoking Diaries

Simon Gray's The Smoking Diaries is a melancholy farce inspired by the author's life, a memoir darkly tinged with folly recalled in abrasive detail under the shadow of advancing years.

Gray is an English playwright and author of several other books, although he writes as though he has outlived himself. My only previous encounter with his output was the film Butley, which starred Alan Bates and which he adapted from his own stage comedy. Both play and film were popular in the 1970s, but their writer is possibly correct that they have been occluded in recent years. He implies that his other plays, produced for the English stage, have been less than roaring successes; I don't know if that's true or just part of the self-critical mood he adopted, or which adopted him, for The Smoking Diaries.

As this journal of consciousness and (in Malcolm Muggeridge's phrase) "chronicle of wasted time" opens, Gray has just turned 65. Having given over drinking because its pleasures had lured him into alcoholism, he clings lovingly to his remaining vice, smoking. His physical condition is not likely to be an inspiration to others. At the time of writing, his close friend the playwright Harold Pinter has just been diagnosed with cancer. (Pinter is still with us, and received a Nobel this year.) The restaurant, Chez Moi, where Gray and his wife Victoria and Pinter and his wife, Antonia Fraser, have enjoyed one another's company for ages, is about to close down. Gray is starting to have trouble remembering useful things and finding it easy to remember painful events.

No wonder his mood resembles an English weather report.

The Smoking Diaries is written in a kind of diary format, so seemingly casual that some entries stop in the middle of a sentence. Thoughts break off from his intended subjects and he follows them as they drift away. His stream of consciousness repeatedly overflows its banks, sending rivulets into hidden sinkholes.

From many writers, this format could be pretentious, but decades of playwriting craft have taught Gray to bring the audience along through every byway. Minor events in his present dredge up flashbacks, some half a century old, and they become progressively more haunting as the pages are turned. But Gray asks no indulgence; as he muddles along, he makes sure that the language stays tuned up. He's a master at self-mockery delivered with panache, and he can turn a phrase that goes straight to your funnybone … on its way to your heart.

How much of The Smoking Diaries is revelation and how much is an assumed attitude is impossible for an outsider to say — maybe he doesn't know himself as he unfolds his tale of comic decline. But it's the nature of art to pull apart the raw material of life, reshaping actual experiences through imagination, fashioning them into a higher untruth. Gray has given us a work of eloquent despair that wears the masks of both comedy and tragedy — no small accomplishment for a writer of plays to remember, as the curtain slowly descends.

UPDATE 1/16/09: Harold Pinter, of course, passed on a few weeks ago. I haven't heard anything further about Simon Gray.

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