'The Mighty Walzer,' Pingpong Wizard (Of Sorts)

The Mighty Walzer by Howard Jacobson
 
The Mighty Walzer
By Howard Jacobson
Paperback, 400 pages
Bloomsbury USA
List Price: $16
Read An Excerpt

Howard Jacobson's novel The Mighty Walzer was acclaimed when it was published in Great Britain more than 10 years ago. It tells the story of Oliver Walzer, an anxious adolescent in Manchester, England, in the 1950s, who doesn't quite know how he fits into the world around him. His family immigrated from a part of Eastern Europe he calls "bug country ... all we've been doing since the Middle Ages has been growing beet root and running away from Cossacks." Oliver is especially shy around girls, but at least he has pingpong. That's right — pingpong.

Jacobson won the Man Booker Prize last year for his novel The Finkler Question; as a result, his 1999 novel The Mighty Walzer is now being published in the United States.

The novel has been called autobiographical, which Jacobson agrees with in a sense — like Oliver, Jacobson grew up in Manchester in the '50s, played table tennis, dreamed of being a world champion and mostly failed.

"I shouldn't give the story away," Jacobson tells Scott Simon on Weekend Edition Saturday. "But anybody should know pretty soon that he's not going to succeed. It is pretty much the story of my life in table tennis, if you like, in the '50s."

Like Jacobson, Oliver plays his first games with a leatherette-covered book as a paddle. Jacobson recalls a collection of classics like Jane Eyre, Wuthering Heights and The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde published with green leather covers, and that was what he used to practice pingpong.

"I decided this would make me really good, because the book had an uneven surface, so the ball would come off at all sorts of strange angles," Jacobson says. "I think I played with Wuthering Heights, probably, and then I thought I'd be even better when it came to playing with a bat."

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Using a nontraditional item as a practice paddle wasn't the worst idea: Jacobson was fairly decent at table tennis as a 14-year-old, but only, he qualifies, "as a 14-year-old."

But being good at something as a 14-year-old can be incredibly significant. For Oliver, Jacobson says, "it gave him an activity; it took him out of his shyness." Oliver tends to be introspective, but playing table tennis gives him the feeling that nobody's watching and you can be just as you are — because generally, nobody is watching.

"It doesn't liberate you from your shyness, but it puts no pressure on your shyness," Jacobson explains.

One of the best aspects of playing the game meant that it put Oliver on a team, where every Thursday night in a cold Manchester winter, a group of five or so friends would pick him up in a car, drive around, tease him and give him a little more confidence as he learned the game, Jacobson says.

Howard Jacobson won the Man Booker Prize in 2010 for The Finkler Question. He also writes a weekly op-ed column in The Independent.

hide captionHoward Jacobson won the Man Booker Prize in 2010 for The Finkler Question. He also writes a weekly op-ed column in The Independent.

Jenny Jacobson

"It gave him camaraderie, and also ... a real sense of achievement, [of] victory."

At heart, though, Jacobson says there's something of a masochist in Oliver Walzer, to play a game with so few rewards. Oliver's still kind of a loser, even if he wins a few pingpong matches.

"I think most novelists write about losers," he explains, "We love losers, we're not interested in winners. This would not have been a funny or touching novel had Oliver Walzer become the world's greatest table tennis player."

Oliver's feelings of loss transfer into a romantic attachment toward Lorna Peachly, another pingpong player and a seemingly untouchable romantic interest. Lorna comes from somewhere in Jacobson's own life — he can't quite remember if she was real or if he dreamed her; he says that you either find someone like Lorna or you make her up. Oliver remarks of Lorna at one point, "I feel sorry for lovely girls; they feel they are the cause of their own troubles, but are never quite sure why," and Lorna's troubles eventually get mixed in with Oliver's own.

Jacobson learned to read literature with great closeness from a professor at Cambridge, the literary critic F. R. Leavis. He felt poetry and novels with great force, Jacobson says, and taught his students that all you needed to know about a poem was within the poem itself.

"And if you need to know about the world behind the poem, this poem is the introduction to that world ... he taught you to really love a work of literature, and to take it seriously, and I carried that around with me forever, really."

Excerpt: 'The Mighty Walzer'

The Mighty Walzer by Howard Jacobson
 
The Mighty Walzer
By Howard Jacobson
Paperback, 400 pages
Bloomsbury USA
List Price: $16

Chapter Two

Before using a racket for the first time in a match a player shall, if so requested, show both sides of the blade to his opponent.

4.8 The Rules

I was a natural. Ping-pong just came to me.

One day, when I was eleven, I brought home a little white celluloid ping-pong ball I'd found bobbing on the boating lake in Heaton Park and began hitting it against the living-room wall with a book. I still remember the make of the ball. It was a Halex «««. A competition ball. Don't ask me what a competition ball was doing in a lake in Heaton Park. Perhaps God had put it there. For what it's worth I can still remember the title of the book as well—Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde by Robert Louis Stevenson, in the soft green pitted-leatherette Collins Classics series which my mother's side was helping me collect. I already had about thirty of them lined up alphabetically according to author on a shelf over my bed—Austens, Jane; Brontë, Anne; Brontë, Charlotte; Brontë, Emily; Burneys, Fanny; Eliots, George; Gaskells, Mrs; Mitfords, Miss. You don't need a degree in English Literature to work out that I must have chosen to hit the ball with Stevenson, Robert Louis, not because he came last in the line but because he was the only man I had.

What with the flexi-dimpling on the book and the glossy whorls of plaster on the living-room wall there was no knowing what even a Halex ««« was going to do. Hit the eye of the same whorl as many times as you like, the ball will not come back to you at the same speed or with the same spin twice. I don't care how good your opponent is, he won't surprise you the way a plaster whorl will. In my own manual to ping-pong—long out of date now, and long out of print—I recommend a Collins Classic and an Artexed wall as the ideal surfaces for familiarizing a young player with the caprices of the game. As for the table you push up against the wall—there again, the more grooves and scratches in it the better.

Where my feel for the game came from, how I knew from my very first hit how to angle the book, how to chop, how to flick, how to half-volley, how to move—because, yes, I had suddenly become a mover too—was a mystery to me. I'd never been a ball-player. I dropped catches. I mis-kicked. I allowed balls to be dribbled through my legs. Like an old man snoozing by an open fire, I dreamed in front of a gaping goal. Like a young girl counting the hairs on her first love's chest, I lay on my back making daisy-chains on the long-leg boundary. You know the story—if you're a reader you are the story: when the teams came to be picked I was the booby prize, the one you had to have because there was no one left. Sometimes I wasn't picked at all; simply ignored, turned tail on, left smarting in the mud while the chosen ones ran off riotously to play. Hurtful, but at least safe. If the truth is told, I was frightened of balls and philosophically dismayed by them. Sphericality—was that it? Not knowing where a ball ended and where it began, not being able to tell the front from the back? I'm not looking for fancy excuses; it's possible that my fear of balls proceeded from nothing more complex than the good relations other boys enjoyed with them. I don't know where I was at the time or why I hadn't been invited, but somewhere along the line, some time between my seventh and eighth birthdays, boys and balls had met at a party, hit it off, and been going steady ever since, leaving me to stay home on my own or play gooseberry. Ping-pong didn't change that. Not all at once, anyway. But it met me half-way. It made concessions to my solitary nature. Ping-pong is airless and cramped and repetitive and self-absorbed, and so was I.

But we sniffed greatness in each other.

I'd always been short of people to play with. I had two sisters, both older than me. My father had been away in the army when I was born and now worked long hours. My mother and her sisters and their mother were my company but they were sedentary and introspective and no less frightened of balls than I was. We listened to the Morning Story and later in the day to Woman's Hour on the radio together, did crosswords and jigsaws together, pored over old family photographs together, played hangman and snap! and noughts and crosses together, and on special occasions snakes and ladders or hoop-la on a board nailed to my bedroom door. I also seem to recall that they bathed me a lot. Otherwise, when it came to the rough-and-tumble necessary to summon up the blood and stiffen the spirit of a growing boy, they weren't much use. We had moved from Cheetham Hill to Heaton Park a couple of years before, far enough to lose contact with my old friends, and I was slow at making new ones. The other catch with our new address was that there were prefabs in the park just opposite us—built by German prisoners of war—and every time I went out a gang of prefab boys threw stones at me. For the time being, until I was able to enjoy the protection of a gang of my own, or until the prefabs were pulled down, my mother much preferred it that when I wasn't at school I stayed in the house.

The only person not happy with this arrangement, apart from the prefab boys, was my father. 'A stone's going to kill him?'

In protection of my skin, my mother was as fierce as a tigress. 'Does it have to kill him? Isn't it enough he loses an eye?'

'They're little kids. They can't throw that hard.'

'Joel, these are not Yiddisher boys. When did you hear of a shaygets who couldn't throw hard?'

'So let him learn to throw hard back. I'll take him out in the park and teach him.'

'You'll find time to take him out in the park? And you'll be here to put his eye back?'

Most arguments came quickly to an end the moment my mother postulated my father finding time or being in.

They were still young—my mother was still glamorous in that slightly orientalized, simultaneously petite and fleshy Polish style (with little round white fish-ball cheeks) that drove Russian men wild—and I'd like to think they were still in love, but without doubt my father suffered from what his side—dodging all questions of morality—called ants in his pants. He was driving a coach at the time, working for a firm that hired out buses to schools for field trips, and to social clubs for boozy nights out. So he necessarily went to far-flung destinations and worked long hours. Even allowing for that, though, his bus was frequently seen in some odd places at some odd times.

The markets came later, following calls my mother made to the bus company. But it wasn't long before his market lorry was seen in some odd places too.

That men were by nature grandiose and unreliable, that they had ants in their pants, that they made you promises which they immediately broke, that they forgot you and half the time forgot their own children, was an assumption that no woman on my mother's side so much as thought about questioning. That was just the way of it. It barely merited remark. And yet both my sisters were religiously educated to believe that no greater good awaited them than a man. Figure that out. And while you're at it, figure out how come not a woman on my mother's side—not my highly strung mother herself, not my palpitating aunties, not my small-boned fatalistic Polish grandmother—ever taught me to think of their sex with anything but suspicion. They chased me down the snakes and up the ladders, they floated me in my little bath, and they whispered to me of all the Jezebels who were already out there, growing their nails, waiting for the hour when I would offer them my heart and they would pluck it out.

All in all, given the threat from the prefab boys and the cruel intentions of women, ping-pong for one was my safest option by a mile. The noise drove my sisters crazy, but my mother shushed them into leaving me alone. As long as I was hitting a ball against a wall I was out of their hair, wasn't I?

Plock, plock. Kerplock, plock, if you want to be onomatopoeically pedantic about it, these being the days before sponge or sandwich. It began early. I had just started grammar school, a forty-minute walk and train ride away, so if I was going to get my regular hour's practice in I had to begin at seven at least. And then, as soon as I was back from school, plock, plock, plock. Another hour on the balls of my feet. I loved it. The sound, the self-absorption, the growing mastery. And the nursing of a secret dream—to be impregnable, plock, to be the greatest, plock, and to win, thereby, plock, plock, the respect of men and the love of beautiful women with little white fish-ball cheeks.

Excerpt from The Mighty Walzer by Howard Jacobson, courtesy Bloomsbury Publishers. Copyright 2011.

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