Vladimir Nabokov

NABOKV-L post 0025429, Mon, 2 Jun 2014 02:58:05 -0300

Soccer metaphors and Nabokov
Probably because I know almost nothing about soccer the article below,
describing Nabokov and "football" in connection to his writings, proved to
be almost impossible for me to summarize or to highlight only a few
paragraphs from it. The article fascinated me in a particular way since
soccer has been all over Brazil this year, with the Fifa world cup
competition taking place in this country during June-July.
Jansy Mello

June 25, 2013 · by <http://putnielsingoal.com/author/liquidjolt-2/>
afhstewart · in <http://putnielsingoal.com/category/football/> Football

Vladimir Nabokov was a goalkeeper. We know this from his memoirs and his
other writing, notably his 1920 poem ‘Football’, which he enlarged upon in
his longer effort from 1927, A University Poem. He first got between the
sticks at the Tenishev or Tenishevsky School in St. Petersburg, from where
another poet who wrote about football, Osip Mandelstam, also graduated [ ]
In an early recollection from his memoirs Speak, Memory, Nabokov writes[ ]:
“The headmaster who knew little about games, though greatly approving of
their consociative virtues, was suspicious of my always keeping goal in
soccer ‘instead of running about with the other players’.”/ According to
Nabokov, to paraphrase, his PE school report would have criticised him for
being a show-off, a non-conformist, and, worst of all in a ‘democratic’
school, an individualist./ Natural, then, we suppose, that he would have
chosen to play in goal. After all, Jonathan Wilson, in his superlative
history of goalkeeping The Outsider, describes one ‘keeper as “true to
type…an outsider, a loner with a shadow across his soul”. Wilson’s book
posits a number of interesting theories about why this is, and also
references Nabokov a few times, once as part of a fertile list of
intellectuals who played in goal, and also because of NabokovÂ’s glorious
description of the Russian goalkeeper as mythic hero, also taken from Speak,
Memory: “In Russia and the Latin countries, that gallant art has always
been surrounded with a halo of singular glamour. Aloof, solitary, impassive,
the crack goalie is followed in the streets by entranced small boys. He vies
with the matador and the flying ace as an object of thrilled adulation. His
sweater, his peaked cap, his kneeguards, the gloves protruding from the hip
pocket of his shorts, set him apart from the rest of the team. He is the
lone eagle, the man of mystery, the last defender.” [ ] But to examine
Nabokov the ‘keeper’ in a little more detail, it is worth looking at Nabokov
the writer and how he presents Nabokov ‘the character’. For as Dean Flower
writes in his article ‘Nabokov’s Personae’: “Every Nabokovian “self”
encountered in his writing, whether it be memoir or interview, novel or
letter, preface or lecture, is a fiction. While that may be true of many
writers, it is peculiarly so in NabokovÂ’s case, partly because he draws so
heavily and directly on his own history, but also because he demands that
the reader look for him in his own productions (as Hitchcock did), and
because he always ended these impersonations with a disappearing act”. [ ]
NabokovÂ’s recollection of how his some of matches saw the actuality of his
goalkeeping becoming subordinate to his artistic urges. He writes at length
in Speak, Memory of playing in goal for the Trinity College team at
Cambridge: “Mercifully the game would swing to the opposite end of the
sodden field. A weak, weary drizzle would start, hesitate, and go on
againÂ…The far, blurred sounds, a cry, a whistle, the thud of a kick, all
that was perfectly unimportant and had no connexion with me. I was less the
keeper of a soccer goal than the keeper of a secret. As with folded arms I
lent my back against the left goalpost, I enjoyed the luxury of closing my
eyes, and thus I would listen to my heart knocking and feel the blind
drizzle on my face and hear, in the distance, the broken sounds of the game,
and think of myself as of a fabulous exotic being in an English footballerÂ’s
disguise, composing verse in a tongue nobody understood about a remote
country nobody knew. Small wonder I was not very popular with my
team-mates.” / This passage is pregnant with Nabokov as imagined hero in his
own narrative. As a match, the game described seems unlikely, even
fictitious, unless the Trinity team of 1919-1921 was extraordinarily good
and could keep the opposition pinned in their half for long periods. Wilson
also notes that at this point, ‘keepers were generally expected to remain
fixed to their goal-line, and so NabokovÂ’s lack of attention would only
become apparent when the opposition threatened; he had no need to prowl his
box and could, in fact, lean against a post. The match is, thus, mythic in
the same way that Nabokov’s heroic ‘keeper is: based in reality, but
employed on the page to mean or allow more than the real version could./
More interesting, though, is the image of Nabokov the young poet, allowed by
the vagaries of the match time to compose verse. Thomas Karshan illustrates
how Nabokov uses a similar idea in his poem ‘Football’, where he writes of
himself in goal being described by a spectator as “by birth/ From that wild
country, where blood drops on the snow”. The Nabokovs of poetry and memoir
overlap and merge, united by their position on a football pitch and the
otherness that position inherently suggests. From a dramatic perspective,
playing in goal allows Nabokov time to compose and the chance to overhear
spectators’ conversations. Nabokov continues in ‘Football’, addressing a
spectator: “You could not know,/ That one of the carefree players,/ In
silence, at night, is – patiently – creating/ Harmonies for other ages.” The
act of poetic creation is removed, in part at least, from the pitch, and
into a more private space, but the match is recalled, perhaps to juxtapose
the seriousness of poetry with the ‘carefree’ nature of sport. It is worth
noting that Nabokov writes in Speak, Memory that “the literary set…frowned
upon various other things I went in for, such as entomology, practical
jokes, girls, and, especially, athletics”.
And yet all these things (Nabokov studied and wrote about butterflies and
moths in academic journals – indeed, in an echo of goalkeeping, Roger Deakin
writes that Nabokov was fascinated by them because of the “’immemorial link’
between overcoming gravity and transcending death”) are crucial elements of
NabokovÂ’s personae. Nabokov is indulging in a personal joke about how the
supposedly flippant activity of playing in goal in fact affords both the
opportunity to write verse and the basis for dramatic action in the product
of that writing. Crucial to these facets is the position of goalkeeper,
whose literal and metaphorical separateness allows both. [ ] Nabokov
presents himself as an outsider in the team, but his innate artist makes
that ‘outsideness’ even more pronounced. Nabokov saw himself as an
individual first and foremost, both as an artist, and as a person, and the
goalkeeper is the position to which he would naturally have gravitated./
We have seen, therefore, that Nabokov deliberately creates personae in his
writing and that, for him, the mythic ideal of the goalkeeper was a fertile
archetype. Was Nabokov a goalkeeper in reality? [ ] Niels Bohr, who won the
Nobel Prize for physics in 1922, played as a goalkeeper for the Danish team
Akademisk Boldklub in 1906 but let in a long-range shot (or not – accounts
differ) because he was so distracted by a mathematical equation he was
writing on a goalpost. Bohr attended Trinity College in 1911. It is
tantalising to think of the young ‘keeper Nabokov hearing this anecdote at
some point and filing it away./
Lastly, it is worth noting, that Nabokov could use the football itself as a
metaphor. Nabokov wrote to the Marxist critic Edmund Wilson that he wanted
their arguments to be “du choc des opinions jaillit la vérité like a
football which provokes a wild scramble all over again”. In using football
as a simile here, he is perhaps invoking the chaotic nature of the games he
saw on the muddy, water-sodden pitches of Cambridge that were, despite their
messy nature, capable of producing moments of great beauty. Though whether
these matches were quite as Nabokov described them, we will never really

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