Gray's anatomy

<strong>The Last Cigarette</strong>

Simon Gray <em>Granta Books, 320pp, £14.99</em>

There is, in this final volume of the playwright Simon Gray's Smoking Diaries, an anecdote that beautifully sums up man's helplessness before nature, mortality and his own ineptitude. Having taken up arms against the flies and wasps at his country cottage with an electric killing machine, Gray is then troubled only by the mechanics of incineration, as hordes of insects are frizzled to something resembling toast crumbs. But one night a huge, pale-grey moth enters, and "the elderly playwright", as Gray calls himself (or sometimes just "the old guy"), desperately tries to shoo it back out again, but it heads for the lethal cage. He tries to get it out, but sends it further in. "There was a small flash, more like a spark, and I turned my head away from the noise that went on and on and on."

Only then does he realise he could have saved it by switching off the current. So the next time a moth wanders in, he turns the machine off and opens the door wide. In comes his cat, which heads straight for the moth and gobbles it up.

Gray's diaries in the past have been wild with rage, much of it hugely comic, and much of it inspired by the ostensibly collaborative nature of the theatrical profession. There is an amusing section here about the recent revival of Butley in New York, with an actor who seems unsackable despite making a complete balls-up of his part. ("The new lines," Gray writes silkily, ". . . seemed to threaten and confuse Eric.") The keynote of this latest instalment, however, is melancholy. Gray broods at the tombstone of a brother, his remaining brother dies, and he discovers yet another reason to contemplate his own end. Beds are the scene of terror, shame and humiliation. He recalls his first, lowering experience of sex and the time he made his excuses and left his dying mother - he still does not know why. The ceiling over his present bed caves in - fortunately not while he and his wife are in it, but Gray concentrates on the disaster, rather than the deliverance.

Yet, despite the suffering it chronicles, The Last Cigarette is full of pleasures for the reader, and not only the simple one of chuckling as someone else makes an ass of himself. Gray does more than worry or complain; he gives free rein to his paranoia - a mood that, as we all know, used to be an indication of mental trouble and is now a sign of common prudence - and it winds itself into strange and illuminating metaphors. A brutish man roasting on a Greek beach, basted by his topless blonde girlfriend ("or his probation officer"), is "already half prepared, for an enterprising cannibal who could take him off . . . to one of those old-fashioned butchers who specialise in human flesh; there's always one in an out-of-the-way quarter, you'll find him if you look". Ah, those old-fashioned butchers - you didn't really think boucheries chevalines sold horse meat, did you? - who turned humanity into hamburger before society began doing so on an industrial scale.

There is also the cosy sharing of regretful insights - that penises "resemble C S Lewis's dog, who never obeyed him, but sometimes agreed with him", and that the past is no tutor to the present. Berating himself for having given in to a misguided director, he promises to remember the episode when "a similar situation arises - but then a similar situation never arises, there's always an element in it that makes all the difference and - in other words, you can learn nothing from experience, at least in my experience". Yes, or else an identical-seeming situation arises but, telling ourselves that circumstances and man are infinitely various, we take the path of least resistance and then, of course, the new situation becomes even more identical than the first.

Smoking his last magic sticks which can turn bad experiences into good ones, running for the past ten years on soft drinks and water, Gray still has the energy for a withering caricature of a bossily PC policeman ("I suppose if our cop has any idea of God, it's as a mush-headed, compassionate, sexually open cop, just like himself, if marginally outranking him") or a neat characterisation of his choleric friend Harold Pinter's plays, one of which "might come down from the stage and beat you up". One hopes this artful old guy will long keep on writing as he does - as if his life depended on it.

This article first appeared in the 14 April 2008 issue of the New Statesman, Belief is back