Thursday 19 October 2017

Novel approach to sport from modern masters

Eamonn Sweeney

A few years back a friend of mine told me he'd met JM Coetzee at the Cúirt Literary Festival in Galway. Now Coetzee, winner of the Nobel Prize in 2003 and the Booker Prize in 1983 and 1999, might be one of the finest novelists alive but by God those novels are bleak and cheerless creations. They make the average Samuel Beckett play seem like an episode of Friends.

I asked your man what he and this austere anatomist of existential gloom had talked about. "Compromise rules. He watched it on television in Australia and got really into it. He thought the rows were great crack."

Any doubts about my informant's veracity were dispelled last week when I read a fascinating exchange on sport between Coetzee and another great modern novelist, Paul Auster, on the New Yorker's website.

The conversation which is part of Here and Now, a collection of letters between the two writers, begins with Coetzee's confession that he'd spent the day watching a cricket Test match between his native South Africa and his adopted home of Australia. "I was absorbed, I was emotionally involved, I tore myself away reluctantly. In order to watch the game I put aside two or three books I am in the middle of reading."

Then, being Coetzee, he starts to worry. "It is a waste of time. I have an experience (a second-hand experience) but it does me no good that I can detect. I learn nothing. I come away with nothing. Is sport simply like sin: one disapproves of it but I yield because the flesh is weak."

Auster consoles him: "You talk about sin (jokingly) but perhaps the real term is 'guilty pleasure,' or perhaps just 'pleasure,'" before going on to write perceptively about how it's the sports we played as kids that we later follow most assiduously and how the great appeal of sporting contests is their variety. "Of the many hundreds of baseball games I have watched – perhaps even thousands – nearly every one has had some detail or event I have never seen in any other game."

There's a lot of good stuff in this tete-a-tete. Coetzee strikes an atypically rapturous note when he puts his love of sport down to moments which "seem to come down as a kind of blessing from on high upon the mortal players, moments when everything goes right, everything clicks into place, when the lookers on don't even want to applaud, just to give silent thanks that they were there as witnesses," before ruefully noting about post-match interviews, "The man who for an hour or two threatened to leave us behind, to ascend into that realm – only one step short of the divine – where heroes have their being, is concealed to resume his mere earthly station, that is to say, ritually humiliated. 'Yeah,' he is compelled to say, 'We worked hard for this and it paid off. It was a team effort'."

He also captures perfectly an essential component of sporting pleasure when, writing of the joys of watching a great performance by the likes of Roger Federer, "I can see how it was done, but I could never have done it myself, it is beyond me; yet it was done by a man (now and again a woman) like me; what an honour to belong to the species that he (occasionally she) exemplifies."

The entire article is well worth seeking out if you're a fan of sports and of good writing. There is also, for example, a terrific meditation by Auster on the superiority of competitive sport over exercise performed merely to keep fit. And next time someone pulls that "30 men chasing a bag of wind around a field," number you can smile condescendingly and say, "You know your problem? Sport is too intellectual for you."

At the end of the day like, the boys done great. I wonder if they got to that Offaly-Carlow match in Tullamore last night?

Irish Independent

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