The Last Cigarette, the third volume of Simon Gray's The Smoking Diaries, is good holiday reading - funny, poignant, always engaging. Throughout the book, Gray is resolved to give up smoking, but when he comes to 'the last cigarette' in the final section of the book, it's darkened by double tragedy.
Over the previous volumes, The Smoking Diaries and The Year of the Jouncer, Gray developed one of the most brilliantly original prose styles in contemporary writing. His discursive, faux-naif rambling discourses have been among the funniest things in recent literature. This may well be the best volume of all (a final one, Coda, was published in 2008). It's full of superb set pieces, such as the description of a flight to Athens and an hilarious stay in a Barbados hotel. It's also full of tenderness, since few writers have written as well in recent times about male friendship - in earlier volumes about Alan Bates, and more recently about Gray's other great friend, Harold Pinter.
So this books gains even greater poignancy by his concern for the long-ill Pinter, who died last week on Christmas Eve, and thus, against all expectations, outlasted Gray:-
He's over there in London, in a hospital, quite possibly dying, and I'm here in Spetses, swimming, eating, reading, writing, and though I'm also dying, it's only in the sub specie aeternitatis kind of way, as people are, everywhere. I feel abundantly, boisterously, healthy.
Sadly, Simon Gray was wrong, and died in August 2008 of lung cancer. But at the end of his career, this playwright produced a most surprising and special masterpiece series of diaries.