More about Giles Harvey, Nabokov and The New Yorker Online at the Book Bench, another late sighting from October 20, 2011.
Posted by Giles Harvey
Clichés crowd the mind whenever we try to speak meaningfully about the things we love, but the congestion is especially thick around discussions of soccer. The beautiful game seems to mock our best efforts to describe its beauty. In-game commentators, who have the unfortunate task of trying to capture the sport’s nuances in real time, resort to formulas, bleated and bawled with gusto (“It’s a game of two halves,” “End-to-end stuff,” “What a goal!”), that are hopelessly incommensurate to the action they are supposedly describing [...] Martin Amis has some fun with soccer punditry’s verbal torpor in “London Fields,” [...] The job of the soccer writer is thornier. Unlike a literary critic, say, who can quote from the text under discussion, the soccer writer is profoundly alienated from his subject matter. His prose must do double-duty, at once vividly describing the game and analyzing its subtleties, the strata of activity that hovers just beneath the surface of our perception. Few writers rise to this challenge as admirably as Simon Kuper[...] In his essay “How Tracy Austin Broke My Heart,” David Foster Wallace wonders if “those who receive and act out the gift of athletic genius must, perforce, be blind and dumb about it—and not because blindness and dumbness are the price of the gift, but because they are its essence.” Most of the players with whom Kuper speaks would seem to bear out Wallace’s theory.[...] Style, in soccer as in prose, is less the product of “personal expression” than of poise, discipline, patience, and infinite care.[...]The more one masters the impersonal demands of technique, however, the more a personal style begins to emerge. Beckenbauer, Cruijff, Pele, Zidane: these figures are as unmistakable on the pitch as are Joyce, Woolf, Nabokov, and Updike on the page. Just as it’s difficult to imagine a writer before Joyce who would think to describe the night sky as “The heaventree of stars hung with humid nightblue fruit,” it’s difficult to imagine a player before Cruijff who would think to pass the ball with the outside of his foot, or a player before Pele who would attempt a dummy as audacious as this.
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