In the summer of 2006, I spent six weeks in Germany on assignment to write about the World Cup for a British Sunday newspaper. Those were long, settled days of warmth and sunshine and I had very little work to do–perhaps one essay to write each week.
I rented a small flat in central Berlin that overlooked Peter Eisenman’s austere Holocaust Memorial and was situated opposite the Adlon Hotel, from a high, open window of which the disturbed pop icon Michael Jackson once dangled one of his babies in a moment of manic exuberance. Accredited journalists were given a complimentary first-class rail pass for the duration of the tournament and I spent my days travelling on trains and reading or rereading novels and stories with sporting themes, just to get in the mood.
It seems strange now to recall that all of these books were by American men: Philip Roth, John Updike, Don DeLillo, Richard Ford, David Foster Wallace ... I also read Thom Jones’s stories about luckless boxers; Tom Coyne’s 2001 novel about a golf caddy, A Gentlemen’s Game; and, as I do every year, The Great Gatsby, which uses golf to expose the dishonesty of the narrator Nick Carraway’s girlfriend. In most of what I read, sport was portrayed as being central rather than marginal to American life, as well as being a way to test and explore moral character: resilience, courage, toughness, loyalty.
There was an implicit understanding in these books that most of us live, as Ford puts it in his 1986 novel The Sportswriter, “applauseless” lives, none more so than Harry “Rabbit” Angstrom, the everyman “hero” of Updike’s great tetralogy, written between 1960 and 1990, that comprises Rabbit Run; Rabbit Redux; Rabbit Is Rich; and Rabbit At Rest.
Rabbit is a sportsman of sorts – he was once a “first-rate” basketball player. But as a mature adult, he is restlessly second-rate. We first encounter him as a young man on the basketball court, where he is nimble and commanding. Then, at the end of Rabbit at Rest, we look on as he dies in bloated and complacent late middle-age – on a basketball court, completing the circle of his life. Rabbit’s is an emblematically American death. He has joined in with a group of kids who are playing in a park, and he collapses, “bursts from within”, as he rises to shoot a basket, the ball hitting the ground just after he does. “Harry,” wrote Updike in an introduction to the collected Rabbit novels in 1995, “was for me a way in – a ticket to the America all around me.”
The narrator of Ford’s The Sportswriter is, like Rabbit, a would-be man of action and sportsman who has lost his way in life but who never stops believing in the redemptive capacity of sport. The novel begins with a resounding declaration: “My name is Frank Bascombe. I am a sportswriter.” Written with terse lyricism in a flat, confessional style, it’s essentially about ennui and drift, and the failure of a certain kind of American man to become emotionally literate.
Bascombe’s young son has died, his marriage is over and, though he once wrote an acclaimed book of stories, he no longer has the ambition to write anything more demanding than sports features. But he is good company: cynical, laconic, yet capable of moments of wonder.
I first read The Sportswriter not long after it was published – it was a gift from my father – and it seemed entirely new and fresh, so unlike the English novels I’d read. I couldn’t imagine that the English writers I was being encouraged to read at that time – William Golding, Graham Greene, John Fowles – would begin a novel as Ford did or write with the same idiomatic freedom and confidence about the centrality of sport in our lives. I used to think that a choice had to be made between sport and literature; that you couldn’t be both a sportsman and a book man. They represented two separate and distinct cultures, the life of the mind and the life of action, and there was no connecting bridge between them.
I was wrong, of course, but it took me many years and the emergence of the new memoir-writing about sport, inspired by Nick Hornby’s Fever Pitch and Pete Davies’s All Played Out in the early 1990s, to understand why. I realise now that my misunderstanding was bound up with class anxieties about what was an appropriate subject for serious and considered study and reflection, the failures of English education (mine, at least) and, above all, with the absence of a literary tradition.
Even today, there’s still scarcely any tradition of British fiction about sport, as there is about war, class, politics or crime. Nor is there much fiction that moves in and around the subject of sport as David Foster Wallace does in Infinite Jest (1996), which is set partly in a tennis academy. There are good English novels in which sportsmen have a walk-on part or in which sport features tangentially (such as the comedies of PG Wodehouse or LP Hartley’s The Go-Between (1953), with its portrayal of a village cricket match) or pejoratively and sarcastically, as in the work of Martin Amis. London Fields (1989), perhaps Amis’s best novel, has a low-life character named Keith Talent. He’s a wife-beater, small-time crook and darts player, and the object of much hilarity and scorn (Keith – he has no talent at all, get it?).