Amis, as was Foster Wallace, is a tennis fan, and even plays recreationally. But when he writes about the game in a novel such as The Information (1995) or in his journalism, it’s always with an eye on the next gag; it’s always as a vehicle for grotesque humour or satire. It’s as if, in common with so many English novelists of his generation, he’s incapable of taking such a non-intellectual pursuit seriously as a worthy subject of fiction: far better to go head to head with nuclear war, Islamism and the Holocaust. Or could it be that as a subject for fiction sport is simply too tricky to represent – the on-field action sequences, I mean? Also, how to represent the consciousness of those who excel at sports when they themselves are mostly incapable of describing how and why they do what they do so well?
Amis once said perceptively of Updike that “his fascination with the observable world is utterly promiscuous”. The same could be said of most of the major male American novelists of the postwar period, for whom no subject, however superficially trivial or banal, seems to escape their notice. American reality, Roth wrote in a 1960 essay, “stupefies, it sickens, it infuriates, and finally it is even a kind of embarrassment to one’s own meagre imagination. The actuality is continually outdoing our talents, and culture tosses up figures almost daily that are the envy of any novelist.”
As well as writing a novel about baseball, The Great American Novel (1973), Roth creates, again and again, characters whose youthful sporting brilliance and athleticism is rapturously described, so as to make their subsequent struggles and decline seem all the more poignant. And always the bookish, cerebral Roth delights in humbling his sportsmen, as if to punish them for being so physically strong and naturally gifted. I’m thinking here of Swede Levov in American Pastoral (1997), of Coleman Silk in The Human Stain (2000) and, most recently, of Bucky Cantor in Nemesis (2010).
In June last year, Roth was awarded the Man Booker International Prize. He did not attend the dinner in London, but those of us who were there watched a recording of him reading from Nemesis , set during a polio epidemic in Newark during the hot summer of 1944. The central character is a physical education teacher at a boys’ playground. Because of poor eyesight, Bucky has been exempted from the draft but he is immensely strong and throws a javelin prodigious distances. He’s something of a hero to the boys he teaches.
The novel is narrated in a long retrospective by one of Bucky’s former pupils and the story he tells has the terrible inexorability of Greek tragedy. Late on, we learn what became of the proud and stubborn Bucky, of how he was an unwitting carrier of the polio virus that was killing and maiming the boys in his care and of how he himself was eventually struck down and crippled by the disease.
Yet the book ends not on a single note of despair but rather in ironic glory as we encounter Bucky once more as a young man. It’s a summer afternoon and he’s out with the boys in a big dirt field, demonstrating how to throw the javelin. “It’s not magic,” he tells them. But for the boys, what they witness is a kind of magic – the magic of high sporting dedication and accomplishment, of the mysterious naturalness and grace of it all. To the boys, Bucky seemed “invincible”.
It was this radiant passage, when he had the pick of all of his work, that Roth chose to read for guests at the dinner. As he described Bucky’s exploits with the javelin, sitting at his desk at home in north-west Connecticut, Roth lifted and then stretched back his throwing arm, fully inhabiting the moment now, as if he was engaged in the act of becoming Bucky, or had become him. It was a lovely thing to behold.
Perhaps the most acclaimed American novel of recent months is Chad Harbach’s debut, The Art of Fielding, just published in Britain. Written from many different points of view, it is broadly the story of a young college baseball prodigy who suffers a catastrophic loss of nerve – the “yips”, in the vernacular – after a fielding accident. Harbach is a cultural critic and one of the founding editors of the smart, Brooklyn-based literary magazine N+1. He worked on the novel for more than a decade and says he was influenced by Don DeLillo, especially by his early work about American football, End Zone (1972), and by Foster Wallace, whom he describes as “one of the few novelists who have really thought about the relationship of sport to larger society”.
It’s this willingness to think about sport and its role in, and relationship to, larger society that separates American writers from their British counterparts. There has been no equivalent in British fiction of the long, opening set piece of DeLillo’s epic 1997 novel Underworld, in which he thrillingly recreates a famous 1951 baseball match between the New York Giants and the Brooklyn Dodgers and sets it in the turbulent context of the early stirrings of the cold war and of American paranoia about the communist threat. The best sporting set piece in a British novel I can think of, by contrast, is the golf match between James Bond and Goldfinger at Royal St George’s, Kent – it’s entertaining and well written but scarcely serves as a statement about English society, in the grand DeLillo and American style.
The publication of Fever Pitch in 1992, which borrowed from the American writer Frederick Exley’s “fictional memoir” A Fan’s Notes (1968), inspired a whole series of British sports memoirs from the early 1990s onwards. These were less about the sport itself than about the psychological condition of fandom. For a new generation of writers, after Hornby, sport became the means through which to write about the particularities of their own lives, their loves and losses, aspirations and failures.