'The Mighty Walzer,' Pingpong Wizard (Of Sorts) In Howard Jacobson's 1999 novel The Mighty Walzer, which is now being published in the U.S., 14-year-old Oliver Walzer wins friends and confidence by playing table tennis. That is, he wins as much confidence as one can from playing pingpong.

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

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/135023324/135064805" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript


This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon.

A: Howard Jacobson joins us from our studios in London. Thanks so much for being with us.

HOWARD JACOBSON: It's my pleasure. Thank you for having me.

SIMON: And critics who, as I note, love this novel, called it autobiographical because you're from Manchester. Is it autobiographical?

JACOBSON: But this one more than ever is. I did, indeed, play table tennis. I did indeed dream of being a world champion like my hero, Oliver Walzer. I failed. I shouldn't give the story give away.


JACOBSON: But anybody would 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 Manchester in the '50s.

SIMON: Of course, Oliver's first paddle is a book; a leatherette covered book. Was that true with you?



JACOBSON: I thought if I can play well "Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde," which is the bat Oliver Walzer plays with. I think I probably cheated. I think I played with "Wuthering Heights," probably. Then I thought then I'd be even better when it came to playing with a bat. And for a little while, I was right. I was good. When I was young I was good. For a 14-year-old, I was good; as, indeed, Oliver Walzer is good as a 14-year-old.

SIMON: Yeah, it just occurred to me. I mean if you use a leatherette-bound version of "War and Peace," your stroke might be slow because of the weight.


SIMON: But "Animal Farm," for example, you should zip right through a game.

JACOBSON: Yes. Yes, or a short story by Hemingway could have been good. Yes.

SIMON: What did table tennis do to uplift Oliver Walzer?

JACOBSON: It gave him an activity. It took him out of his shyness. He's a very introspective boy, very shy boy. He, you know, he was the color of beetroot the whole time - right throughout his adolescence. As, indeed, was I. You can play table tennis and not feel anybody is watching because nobody is.


JACOBSON: He has sisters at home and this gave him brothers. So it gave him camaraderie. And also, in the end when he becomes good at the game and starts to win, it gives him a real sense of achievement, victory.

SIMON: Does every young man have a Lorna Peachley?


JACOBSON: Lorna Peachley, the girl with the all-moving body parts.


JACOBSON: Yes, I think you either find one or you imagine one. And, just between ourselves, there was one. And lots of these characters are made up. But Lorna Peachley is - well, look, I think there was one. I think I saw a girl just like that. I even have a feeling her name was Lorna. I had a feeling I couldn't even bear to change her name. and that was how she looked to me, whether she was in fact like that, whether there - I mean I'm beginning to feel like Antony talking about Cleopatra now.


JACOBSON: Was there such a Lorna or did I dream her? Maybe I dreamed her out of God knows what recesses of my sick imagination. But I think there was such a girl. And of course there's immense amount of fun and rude fun at that, about the men playing with Lorna Peachly and playing certain strokes which would get her to run around the table and come charging in so they could watch and enjoy those moving body parts.

SIMON: Yeah. You have a line in there which I wrote down I liked so much, where Oliver says to himself, I feel sorry for lovely girls. They feel they are the cause of their own troubles but are never quite sure why.


SIMON: Help us puzzle it out.

JACOBSON: Let's puzzle it out. Well, I suppose this is someone feeling that he's had a very troubled relationship with this girl. He does end up having a relationship with this girl. There's something of the masochist in Oliver Walzer. I think I argue somewhere in the novel that you have to be a masochist to play a game which has so few rewards. He's a loser. I write about losers. I think most novelists write about losers. We love losers. We're not interested in winners. This would not have been a touching or funny novel had Oliver Walzer become the world's greatest table tennis player and become a millionaire. He is a loser and he's interested in loss, and romantically and erotically that transfers into sort of feelings for Lorna that she just doesn't know what to do with.

SIMON: You studied at Cambridge under the very famous professor and literary critic F. R. Leavis.


SIMON: What was that like?

JACOBSON: I think he would not like what I write. I think I am - I don't think he liked funny books, and I like to write funny as well as touching books. But I still feel whether he would of like them or not that, you know, I am writing something that he ought to have liked.

SIMON: Thanks so much for being with us.

JACOBSON: It's my pleasure. Thank you for talking to me. Really enjoyed it.

Copyright © 2011 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.