thesimplestgame: Ian Plenderleith said good writing about sport avoids action on the field of play as much as possible. Nick Hornby said there's enough drama in football as it is without people needing to make up stories about it. Would you agree with either of them?
John Turbull: It is true that little content in The Global Game: Writers on Soccer describes match action. Orhan Pamuk’s comment is suggestive: football is faster than words.
Matches tend best to be described in the recollection, when the action can be parsed and account made of the writer’s perspective as supporter or participant. Ian Plenderleith himself, in “Save of the Day,” describes his protagonist making a series of stops in goal, but the narrative keeps its distance. “My life at that time,” the narrator says, “was in fact a series of mental football games.” Other writers have made use of the unique existential position of the goalkeeper to help get around this conundrum – the need to describe action at a pace faster than that possible on a page. A notable example is Peter Handke in The Goalkeeper’s Anxiety at the Penalty Kick. Albert Camus and Vladimir Nabokov have drawn on their time as young players – both goalkeepers – with Nabokov famously saying that, at Cambridge, he served less as the keeper of goal than “keeper of a secret.” The goalkeeper, to Nabokov, is “lone eagle, the man of mystery, the last defender.” He continues, writing in Conclusive Evidence:
I was crazy about goal keeping. In Russia and the Latin countries, that gallant art had been always surrounded with an aura of singular glamour. Aloof, solitary, impassive, the crack goalie is followed in the streets by entranced small boys. He vies with the matador and the flying ace as an object of thrilled adulation. His sweater, his peaked cap, his knee-guards, the gloves protruding from the hip-pocket of his shorts, set him apart from the rest of the team.
One of the most sustained descriptions of match action I have encountered, in English, is that by Barry Hines in A Kestrel for a Knave (1968). Again the young hero, Billy Casper, is a goalkeeper – and not a very committed one. At one point he climbs onto the crossbar “to scratch his arm pits, kicking his legs and imitating chimp sounds.”
One criterion for composing credible match action might be that the matches do not replicate fixtures in the real world. Were one to insert 10 pages of Arsenal v. West Ham in a novel – unless something were happening in the stands (as in Yury Olesha’s Envy), or the account were written from a fractured, Joycean perspective (like the match description in Antonio Skármeta’s I Dreamt the Snow Was Burning) – it is hard to imagine how this would serve exposition. (Chris Cleave’s Incendiary is based on an attack at Emirates Stadium during Arsenal-Chelsea, but I have not read the book.) But given that the authors above have integrated their own memories and imaginings into a world they have created, with their own characters and narrative logic, the football matches they describe take on meaning. Consider that the football scene in Hines’s Kes consumes 20 pages (the match itself is roughly eight pages) of a fairly short novel – Hines must have felt that the football evoked important qualities in Casper’s character.
I should also mention that as I write about “match action” and descriptions of such, I think of a male-centered world. This is a bias that is hard to discard. It might be interesting to analyze how Nalinaksha Bhattacharya, in Hem and Football and Hem and Maxine, integrates football action within novels involving a principally female cast.
Regarding Nick Hornby’s comment, I would be interested to learn more about the context. I suppose, if you think about Zidane’s head-butt near the conclusion of the 2006 World Cup final, it would be hard to create a more dramatic football scenario on the page. Yet if one were to construct a story that integrates Zidane’s upbringing in stretched circumstances in Marseilles, his conflicted heritage as a Berber and Frenchman, his talismanic role on a timeless green zone of fantasy, liberated for 90-minute intervals from all inhibition ... the climax might appear still more thunderous.
Hornby himself has written a lovely fable, Small Country of a boy press-ganged into playing for the national XI of the mythical Champina. (He read the story, part of a McSweeney’s collection published in New York, on an American radio program in 2005.) So, it’s likely that Hornby would wish to nuance this statement, if he has not done so already.
Part 3 of this interview will follow next week. In the meantime I've set about tracking down some of the books he mentions. At least the ones I haven't got yet.
thesimplestgame are extremely grateful for John's time and generosity in providing us with so much material for the site and for the PhD. Thank you John.
You can have a look at excerts from John, Thom and Alon's book or even buy it at The Global Game