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Friday, 3 June 2016

Football - Jean-Philippe Toussaint (translated by Shaun Whiteside)

If you follow me on Twitter or if you read between the lines of my review of “Mend The Living” by Maylis De Kerangal (translated by Jessica Moore) and her fictionalised account of a football France vs Italy you would probably know that I am a bit of a football crazy. I watch leagues from around the world (basically the only television I watch), I attend Australian League and local Victorian Premier League matches, however my only “involvement” is watching my two young boys play each week and taking up volunteer linesman duties. So when Fitzcarraldo Editions announced a release in mid-May of Jean-Philippe Toussaint’s “essay” titled “Football” I was straight in the pre-order queue.

It is perfect timing for such a release, with the Copa America kicking off this weekend I can sit down and watch such teams as Brazil, Ecuador, USA, and Columbia, over my weekend (secretly I will be watching all of the matches, just don’t let my wife know that!) before grabbing a few hours shut eye and mulling over the Euro opening weekend with France, England, Croatia, Germany, and a host of others in action in the opening days. Whilst an exciting time my home nation of Australia is, of course, not involved, they already won the Asian Cup in 2015 and if I want to watch my adopted nation play “the world game” then my viewing pleasure is restricted to friendlies or the BIG one, qualification for the FIFA World Cup.

Belgian Jean-Philippe Toussaint has nine works translated into English and published by Dalkey Archive Press (and the short essay “Zidane’s Melancholy” translated by Thangam Ravindranathan and Timothy Bewes in their “Best European Fiction” collection of 2009, the same essay appears in this Fitzcarraldo release as a “bonus” but translated by Shaun Whiteside). There is also the book “Making Love”, the first in the ‘Cycle of Marie’ collection, translated by Linda Coverdale and published by The New Press in 2004. He has also directed four films, and been the screenwriter for three of those and one other, as well as having a number of major photographic exhibitions.

His latest book translated into English is “Football” published by Fitzcarraldo Editions, a plain white cover, as all the non-fiction publications have, as opposed to the plain blue cover for the fiction publications.

This book is a short read, I managed to get through the 85 pages during a single airplane journey, and being a fan of football I was intrigued by the opening page:

This is a book that no one will like, not intellectuals, who aren’t interested in football, or football-lovers, who will find it too intellectual. But I had to write it, I didn’t want to break the fine thread that still connects me to the world.

I have to apologise to Jean-Philippe Toussaint, I did like this book, am I a football-lover who is a little short of being an intellectual? It is a strange way to market a book – “no one will like” it!

I like that moment, going to the stadium, when, climbing the concrete stairs of the stands inside among the crowd of spectators to get to my seat, I emerge into the open air of the terraces and down below I see the absolute green of the pitch beneath the powerful floodlights of the stadium. I no longer have the eyes of a child, but I still see the magic of colours at football with the naïve innocence of childhood, the age-old green of the turf and the jerseys of the players, the timeless colours of the national teams, the blue of France or Italy, the red of Spain, the orange of the Netherlands, not to mention the striped sky-blue and white of Argentina. Everything returns to a state of order, nature becomes immutable and reassuring again when I see, as I did at the final in Yokohama in 2002, the Germans playing in black shorts and white jerseys against the Brazilians in yellow and green, but it is with a little twinge of annoyance in my heart, of aesthetic dissatisfaction and metaphysical unease, that I see Brazil playing in dark blue or, even worse, the German players afflicted with that laterally striped red and black rugby jersey (is it Toulouse, is it Toulon?) that they wore for the semi-final of the 2014 World Cup in Brazil. I feel wronged, not myself (I’ve seen worse), but the child I used to be, who is deprived of the simple and reassuring happiness of seeing for all eternity the Germans moving in black shorts and white jerseys on football grounds.

A book that moves through Jean-Philippe Toussaint’s childhood associations, his recollections and experiences of World Cups (lucky man has attended them!), his moments of angst and anguish. Simple everyday activities that take place during a game, and let’s face it football is a game (heresy?), become artful and exquisite recollections and personal experiences come bubbling to the surface when explained by Toussaint’s pen.

A book that I believe the intellectuals will actually like as it can be read as one man’s obsession, a journey through his childhood, his rejection, addictions, or as a football lover you can simply relish in the memories of past World Cups (the addition of “Zidane’s Melancholy”, a musing on his actions in the World Cup Final is worth the purchase price alone, even if it is only four and a half pages long) or find a little piece of yourself in Toussaint’s actions at the matches, or his frantic rearranging of speaking engagements to watch or listen to a match. An enjoyable read as my Man Booker International Prize and Best Translated Book Award reading came to a conclusion (there are still reviews pending for those – I am miles behind).

This coming weekend I will be watching the yellow and green of Brazil when they play Ecuador, next week the black and white of Germany as they take on Ukraine and in a small part of my mind the detailed expression of Toussaint’s love affair with the wonderful game will be watching with me.

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Unknown said...

I've just finished this, and I'd have to say that I didn't enjoy it as much as you appear to have (and I'm a big football fan too). It's too disjointed, and he's a little too keen to disparage his own liking for the game at times. As soon as he says 'like everyone, I have a soft spot for Brazil', I had him instantly marked down as one of those soul-of-the-game people. Despite some excellent writing, this could (and should) have been much better

Messy_Tony said...

Thanks Tony, your comments do have a lot of merit, and personally I don't really have a soft spot for Brazil, I'm more your "underdog" type man. For me the joy in reading this was it was short enough to keep my occupied on a tedious flight and with the Euro coming up, it reignited my desire to not sleep and watch three matches a day (and somehow work in between!!)