Thursday, December 13, 2012

New Football (Soccer) Book

Just arrived in the post, Jonathan Wilson's The Outsider: A History of the Goalkeeper. I bought it as part of the research for a story I'm writing in which the central character is a goalkeeper -- an ex-pat American living in a tiny town in westernmost Yorkshire, circa 1978, staving off the Lancashire hordes and their footballs in pre-Thatcherite Eng-er-lund. I thought it serendipitous the book was about to be published as I kicked off this extensive writing project, so I ordered me one. Other serenditpities and happy coincidences have since followed as I've started to piece this story together. I'll share the best ones here from time to time. For now, a little of the joy of discovery upon receiving Wilson's book.

The inside of the book's dust jacket is as far as I've read (hey, c'mon: I said it just arrived), but in it I unearthed nuggets of information, some of which I vaguely recall from the mists of my fading memory, that got me greedily unearthing more details that led to yet more greedy research and so on. So rather than read on, I dove in -- to various tangents presented by what little I (voraciously) absorbed. Few things can energize you when you're working on a creative project the way happy coincidences do and suddenly here were a fistful of them: It's as if the universe has given your endeavor its blessing. Unlike Wilson's "Outsider," you're not alone. Not completely, anyway.

The first thing you read in the jacket is a quote from German writer Peter Handke's character Joseph Bloch (a former keeper) from the author's 1970 novel The Goalie's Anxiety at the Penalty Kick (in its original German: Die Angst des Tormanns beim Elfmeter): 
"The goalie watched as the ball rolled across the line..." 
Handke's book is described as a Camus-esque tale of senseless murder and dark soul searching that recalls the character Meursault from  L'Etranger. Wim Wenders made the story into film a few years later: here's the synopsis. The lead character in my story is an American abroad, and the film captured "the overwhelming cultural influence of America in post-war Germany," which certainly got my attention because I've plopped my American in Europe where he's both admired and reviled as we Yanks generally are and have been. Anything that points to the experience of Yanks abroad tweaks my antennae.*

Another thing that got my attention was the reference to "famous goalkeeper" Albert Camus -- something I vaguely recall about the writer. I reckon he must have something to say about the art form of goal keeping, or at least what it meant to keep goal. And here it is: Camus played goalkeeper while a teenager in Algeria. I dove into his history and discovered he played for Racing Universitaire d'Alger (RUA) until he contracted tuberculosis, at which point his sporting exploits ceased (would he have become the writer/philosopher he was if he'd been able to continue playing footie?). He is said to have told a friend that given the choice between theatre and football, football wins "without hesitation." His reasons had to do with the communality, the team-ness, of playing the game: You are not alone, but part of a team, which demands of you bravery, camaraderie and defending your friends in the face of whatever opposition you face. This sounds a lot like the chivalric code of honor I've read about in the Arthurian legends, but more on that another time.

The next literary figure who'd done time between the sticks (also noted in the dust jacket and which launched a further inquiry) was Vladimir Nabokov, who played goalkeeper while he studied at Trinity College, Cambridge having emigrated to the UK from the Soviet Union after the Revolution of 1917. His description of playing keeper is exultant: For Nabokov, goalkeeping was seen as:
that gallant art .... always surrounded with a halo of singular glamour
At least that was his experience in Russia. Then, after emigrating, he wound up playing in dour, wet, post-war England, when the position is one of loneliness, apartness. I like Nabokov's extended, dreamy description from Speak, Memory of a keeper in the mud, the misery of loneliness when the game is going on at the other end of the pitch so he's able to daydream, leaning against the left goal post (of course it had to be the left goal post). And, of course, I like that there are literary goalkeepers, talismen, touch-points for my own version. I plan to draw on their revelations whenever possible. 

Jonathan Wilson's book promises a look at the "lonely figure...the outsider" who "contemplates the darkness of the soul." That recalls Handke's dark goalkeeper and Nabokov's soggy loner; though I can't help think there's bound to be some joy in Wilson's recounting this history. 

I hope I to negotiate all of it and find ways to stuff it into my tale -- the joy and the angst, the mud and misery, the random successes and failures and the continuous, existential soul searching -- as I pen my main character. And my story. I hope you'll join me from time to time as I put this story to paper. 


*Of course, I was one of those Yanks abroad, coincidentally between 1978 and 1983. Go figure.