Football: a piece of flash fiction

‘Football and the Reading Classes’ is a collection (now out of print) of essays by Greg ‘Stan’ Bowles composed over a number of years and originally published in various peer-reviewed journals on his subject of study: football as an index of connectedness, the term he famously coined to signify those members of the intelligentsia who were truly in tune with both popular culture, typified by media reporting on Premier League football (where, for example ‘Match of the Day’ producers have started using lurid tabloid-style punning headlines superimposed on images of players, and crude caricatures, with pop music accompaniment, when introducing the next match on the programme), but who were also at the cutting edge (a cliché he shunned in his own work) of high culture, unashamedly elitist, highbrow and academically rigorous.

You could not, in Stan’s view, be properly considered sage if you were not well-versed in critical theory as well as possessed of an encyclopaedic knowledge of the assist rates and goal averages of the Premier League strikers, or did not hold strong opinions on the (de)merits of the foreign oligarchs who now ran, to his dismay, all the top clubs.

Stan kept a database of all the written texts by mass-media football reporters, and updated every week his corpus of transcripts of all the broadcast media commentators.  These he subjected to sociolinguistic analysis, the synthesis of which he published in his blog; the cream of these became his published academic articles.

One of his most successful essays (judging by Google hits) he’d developed from an undergraduate dissertation years earlier, in which he assessed the linguistic characteristics of five successive football commentaries on the Liverpool-Man Utd game broadcast on Radio 5 Live and ‘Match of the Day’ over five seasons, with particular attention to metapragmatic markers and metaphors from the lexical field of warfare.

His tone in such pieces was academically lofty and objective; he never condescended to the football fan, player or reporter, and was therefore flattered when he was quoted by Gaby Logan on the Saturday early-evening football results programme on BBC 1.  As she introduced a full-time report on a top match, she made reference to his paper ‘Moneyball: statistics and the decline of the Premier League’s football empire’; it was a theme he’d revisited several times since, paying particular attention to the transfer policies of Liverpool FC.

He had been an indifferent player himself.  Stan’s proudest moment came during a five-a-side match when he’d received the ball directly from his goalie, his back to the opposition goal, spun as he allowed the ball to bounce off the side wall, and hit a looping, rasping shot with his wrong foot – the left – that flew into the net unseen by the custodian.

This feat was never repeated in any subsequent game.  But he liked to tell anyone who’d listen that he had invented the now fashionable practice of playing right-footed players on the left wing, and vice versa.

Stan did not have many friends; he was unmarried, and sometimes wondered if he might be missing something in life.  He was considering acquiring a cat, which he would call Rooney…

Javier Marías, Your Face Tomorrow trilogy

Javier  Marías , Your Face Tomorrow (YFT)

This is the first instalment of a blog post that will extend in several parts over the next few days or weeks; I’ll continue with the second instalment over the weekend.   I hope it will encourage you to take up this exciting trilogy and read it, if you haven’t already.  (Click on the coloured links, if you wish, for background detail/information.)  I was given a copy many years ago of Marias’s novel  A Heart So White by an old friend of impeccable literary tastes, founder of the small publishing house Polar Books; I found it hard going.  Recently, having read positive reviews of YFT, one of which referred to it as a ‘metaphysical epic’, I thought it time, as my summer break was imminent, to give him another go.  Having finished vol. 1 I had to order the next two, and devoured them in two hectic, fevered, often painful but always exhilarating weeks of reading.  A long train journey to London and back gave me the opportunity to struggle through some of the slower, more labyrinthine sections of vol. 3.

Javier Marías was born in Madrid in 1951.  Parts of his childhood were spent in the United States, where his father taught philosophy at various universities.  His mother died when he was 26. [I am indebted to articles in the Guardian by Nicholas Wroe and Aida Edemariam for the comments Marías made to them in their interviews, and for some of the information they provide.]

His books have sold in their millions and have been translated into more than forty languages.   It was A Heart So White in 1992 that propelled him to the bestseller lists.  The novel later won the Impac prize.  His twelfth novel, The Infatuations, was published in English in March this year.  He has the unlikely title of King of Redonda, which is a real but tiny uninhabited Caribbean island, the monarchy of which has been passed down through a line of writers.  He founded a publishing company named after it.

Marías lives in Madrid.   He has been criticised for not dealing directly in his writing with the troubled political history of Spain, but the civil war and Franco’s fascist regime are dominant themes in YFT and many of his other novels.  For nearly two decades he has written a regular column in a Spanish newspaper– he has published a whole book consisting of just his football articles.  In a recent Guardian profile he said:  “If a book or film takes a good subject from the everyday press – say domestic murders in Spain, which are a historic disgrace – everyone will applaud, but it is easy applause.  Who will say it is bad?  People say the novel is a way of imparting knowledge… But for me it is more a way of imparting recognition of things that you didn’t know you knew.  You say ‘yes’.  It feels true even though it might be uncomfortable.  You find this in Proust, who is one of the cruellest authors in the history of literature.  He says terrible things, but in such a way that you know that you have experienced those thoughts too.”

Early in his writing career he turned to translating works of English literature; his 1979 version of Tristram Shandy won a national prize.   Between 1983 and 1985 he lectured in Spanish literature and translation at the University of Oxford.  He describes a translator as both a “privileged reader and a privileged writer. If you’re capable of rewriting in a different language something by Conrad or Sterne then you learn a lot.  I’ve not got involved with the creative writing industry, but if I ever had my own creative writing school I would only admit people who could translate, and I would make them do it over and over again …There is a pace and a rhythm of prose that, if the translator catches it, you can surf the wave of cadence.  I certainly felt it with Conrad and in a way with Sir Thomas Browne.  But it is not essential to good writing.  It was not there with Yeats’s prose, or Isak Dinesen’s or Thomas Hardy’s.  I like to think that my prose has some cadence that can contaminate, in the good sense, and help a translator.”

Other writers whose work he has translated into Spanish include Nabokov, Faulkner, Updike, Salinger and there are many others.  The influence of these writers on Marías as a novelist is notable, and the themes and tones of Shakespeare and Sterne, as well as Cervantes and Proust, are unmistakeable in his work.

Perhaps YFT is most influenced in its labyrinthine structure and arcane, echoed details by Sterne;  Marías admires his digressive, anecdotal playfulness, archaisms (in Vol. 3, for example, Deza becomes obsessed with the Anglo-Saxon word ge-bryd-guma, which signifies a person with whom one has shared, knowingly or not, a sexual partner) and refusal to be restricted by conventional linear narrative.

As in many previous novels, YFT has a protagonist/narrator who is an interpreter – an interpreter of people and of their faces, their lives, but there are numerous points where the narrator ponders the nature of the language speakers are using, and how their words resonate when translated; one example, to which he returns frequently, is the Spanish word ‘patria’, for which there is, he says, no direct English equivalent.  In YFT vol. 3 Deza is intrigued by young Perez Nuix’s ‘decidedly bookish’ Spanish (they usually talk in that language: she is half Spanish herself, but English is her primary language; we are also given a lesson on how to pronounce her Catalan surname), and his thoughts become a miniature lesson in translation:

She didn’t manage ‘vigas’, but she did use ‘escarmentar’ – to teach someone a lesson – ‘entablar negocios’ – to strike a deal – and ‘enjundia’ – substance.

Such meditations become part of the philosophical, epistemological fabric of the text: how far is a human being capable of expressing in words what he or she really means?  Even the slipperiness of the narrator’s name is indicative of this semantic problem: his English friends tend to call him Jack; elsewhere he’s addressed as Jacques, Jacopo or Iago (which gives rise to numerous Shakespearean allusions).

That’s the end of the first instalment of this piece on YFT; I hope you enjoyed it, and will visit again soon for the next instalment, which should be up over the next few days.  Meanwhile I’ll post something completely different tomorrow, probably something of my own creative work.  See you again soon!

btw, I think there might be a problem with the hyperlink function in this piece; hope the hot links work.  I’ll post this now anyway and check it out.  Hope it doesn’t spoil your reading if they’re not working.

Gatsby, Boswell & Johnson, Hemingway

We’re going to see the new Baz Luhrman film ‘The Great Gatsby’ tonight (there’s a Guardian review of its opening screening at Cannes here, so finding myself in Waterstone’s this morning (I believe they’ve dropped the apostrophe, but never mind) I thought I’d buy another copy of the Fitzgerald novel, having lost, lent or mislaid my own some years ago; must be fifteen years or more since I read it, so it’s time for a revisit.  On display was a range of editions: the Penguin Modern Classics edition looked good, with fairly useful notes and a pleasant cover; then I noticed a bright paperback by Alma Classics (who have the uplifting motto on their website ‘clari in tenebris’; they announced on Tues. I think that they’d won the Booksellers Independent Publishers of the year award); they publish some out-of-the-way and non-mainstream literary work and I thought deserved preference, especially as the store had put one of those ‘buy one get one half-price’ stickers on the front – which also has an attractive design and nice old-fashioned folded-in covers (there must be a technical trade name for this: sort of like the dust jacket tuck of a hardback).  This posed a new selection problem: what to buy as a second book?  The contenders narrowed down to three: Paula McClain’s The Paris Wife (a fictional account of Hemingway’s life in 20s Paris with his then wife, Hadley Richardson, and of their crumbling marriage) – there’s an interview with her by Random House here; David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas, which we saw a couple of weeks ago at the cinema, and quite enjoyed (but too ambitiously long, perhaps); and Ned Beauman’s The Teleportation Accident – review of the hardback edition in the Guardian last year here.  I ruled out the last one because I’m just finishing Javier Marias’s Dance and Dream, vol. 2 of his ‘Your Face Tomorrow’ trilogy, which although compelling and beautifully written is quite a challenge stylistically, structurally and in terms of content, and it moves at a glacial pace; will post more on him another time.  I thought one novel-film hookup was enough, so opted for the McClain, also on the basis that it looks to be a fairly light, not too demanding read – ideal for the long train journey I undertake next week to travel up-country to visit friends and go to see Colm Toibin talk about opera at a King’s College, London symposium on 22 May in their The Joy of Influence symposium (curated by Andrew O’Hagan), one of three such events on the theme of writers discussing other media of artistic inspiration – they all look intriguing: Sarah Hall on painting and Alan Warner on pop; apart from the Johnson-Boswell event noted below, there are others on Marx and one on ‘Literary Identities’.  Pity I shan’t be able to make it to them all.

Finally for today, I’m going to crave your indulgence as I experiment with something new: I’m attempting to embed a tweet about the 250th anniversary of the first meeting (in London) of Dr Johnson and the young Scotsman who became his close friend and biographer, James Boswell.  The TLS article from which it derives (ie the tweet; sorry about the tortuous syntax here – been reading too much Marias) points out, with an illustrative photo of John Sessions in period dress, that those literary heroes at King’s College, London are also behind an event today in their ‘Telling Lives’ series about this literary pair.  So here goes: let’s try to embed this tweet.  Apologies if goes pear-shaped…

http://t.co/renqCTY8rA

Hmm.  Don’t think that’s worked out as I anticipated.  Must try again, perhaps; fail better…But maybe it’ll be ok

Sebald, Rings of Saturn and humour

My copy of WG Sebald’s recently translated book of essays on German-language writers, A Place in the Country, arrived the other day; can’t wait to read it.  Robert McCrum wrote about WGS’s ‘quietly potent legacy’ in the Guardian yesterday.  Meanwhile I’d recommend taking a look at this piece by Claire Preston in The Public Domain Review, the online journal cited here yesterday, about Sebald’s references to other texts in The Rings of Saturn, a typically enigmatic work in  which he recounts his wandering along the ghost-haunted coast of East Anglia, musing on mutability, the holocaust, fishing, silkworms, skulls, and so on.  The thing is, much of the time he’s being funny; the erudition is often playful.  Just as Borges amuses himself and us with his witty Book of Imaginary Beings, so Max (as he preferred to be known) reflects that the Argentinian’s mention of the mythical Baldanders was borrowed from an equally strange work by Hans J.C. von Grimmelshausen, Simplicius Simplicissimus (1669; English tr. 1912: ‘the life of a strange vagabond named Melchior Sternfels von Fechshaim’; unfortunately this translation by Goodrick omits Bk VI, in which the imaginary creature is found, but it can be read about in the original German version which does include all six books, a link to which is given in the article by Preston).  It has to be said that Sebald wasn’t always a happy bunny, though, and there are passages in which the ‘shadow of annihilation’ darkens the narrative, and past figures and events leach into the present with melancholy power; this explains the reference to Sir Thomas Browne’s (1605-1682) remarkable Hydrotaphia, Urne-Buriall or a discourse of the Sepulchrall Urnes lately found in Norfolk (1658).  Browne spent his last 50 years in Norfolk, hence Sebald’s interest in him (WGS taught at the Univ. of E. Anglia until his death aged just 57 in 2001).  Like Sebald, however, Browne was also capable of frivolity and playfulness, hence the citation in The Rings of Saturn to Browne’s Borgesian catalogue of (possibly) imaginary books, pictures, ‘sundry singular items’ and antiquities, the Musaeum Clausum (published in Certain Miscellany Tracts, 1684); a typical entry reads: ‘3.  An Ancient British Herbal, or description of divers Plants of this Island, observed by the famous Physician Scribonius Largus, when he attended the Emperour Claudius in his Expedition into Britany’.  Scribonius was indeed the court physician to the Roman Emperor Claudius, and in AD 47 he drew up a list of nearly 300 ‘compositiones’ or prescriptions.  Not everyone cares for this bookish mix of humour and darkness (or the complex authenticity of the orthography), but I find it fascinating and fun.

Other texts cited in Preston’s article (via Sebald) include Diderot’s Voyage en Hollande (1798), Chateaubriand’s Memoirs (Eng trans 1848), Flaubert, Swinburne, etc.

There’s a lively review of A Place in the Country by Tim Adams in The Observer, 27 April. I liked this bit: ‘He was, after all, in his writing, always in the company of ghosts, both of place and person, in anxious search, as he said, for “how everything is connected across space and time”; the books that have emerged since his absence from the realm of living writers only heighten this unsettling sense of willed limbo.’

Good stuff, but I’m not so sure about ‘willed limbo’…

One of the figures Sebald writes about in this posthumous book is Robert Walser (1878-1956), a Swiss writer of feuilletons, stories and novels, who was much admired by the likes of Kafka and Musil, and about whom I intend posting some time in the future; might even finish the story I’m drafting about him under the working title ‘The Walker’.  If you cared to explore him further, there’s an informative 1998 essay by Sebald, originally published as ‘le promeneur solitiaire’, and which can now be read in English translation as the introduction to the 2009 New Directions translation of Walser’s novel The Tanners; if you click on that last link you’ll find one of many informative pieces on Sebald (and the influence of Walser, in the linked piece), in an excellent online lit. journal: A Piece of Monologue.   More on Sebald, no doubt, in future posts.