Wednesday, 22 September 2010

Howard Jacobson: The Mighty Walzer

Probably my last review for a while - I had this stashed away and thought I might as well post it since I have something on seeing Jacobson at the Guardian book club to put up later.


This is a comedy, in the sense that sometimes it makes you laugh. If you want to get all genre-theory about it, though, there’s nothing comic here at all. This is a melancholy maturation tale, a gentle, sad trip through the narrator’s adolescence and where it took him. This is humour as humanity, as a defence against the dark.

Oliver Walzer is a quiet, withdrawn child with a streak of grandeur. He quivers through childhood in a series of worries and disappointments until he discovers ping-pong, and, more importantly, realises that he’s rather good at it. He finds confidence and friendship in sport, but also a new cast for his worries and disappointments. Oliver is good, but not brilliant, at a sport that no one who does not play it cares about. This is no heroic Hollywood sporting epic with a villain to be defeated and a medal to be won, as Oliver’s dreams ironically recognise, as his reveries about defeating the Japanese world champion slip into erotic fantasies of running off with the geisha mistress he imagines for his imagined nemesis.

Instead of victory, this is about the terror of mediocrity. Sport is a way for Oliver to unleash his grandeur – to try to define himself, to feel that he and his talents are distinct from the common mass of humanity. And of course he fails. Anyone who’s been mildly decent at a minority non-team sport will recognise the psychology of Oliver’s victories and defeats: thrill and despair, peculiar certainties of success, the need for an alibi, the way games can be thrown away so easily and so foolishly, ack, the whole joy and bloody frustration of it all. This side of the book is wonderful: it’s about coming to terms with that inevitable failure, that knowledge that we aren’t the best, and realising that the things that matter, our families, friends and minds, aren’t grand at all.

This is where the jokes come in. Delivered in a colloquial, naturalistic prose style that sounds almost like it’s being told aloud, but which remains witty and eloquent, The Mighty Walzer rips through tales of Oliver’s father’s shonky business, the clumsy operations of his ping-pong team, his sexual awakening in all its grubby detail, his friendships and infatuations. These comic set-pieces become resevoirs of emotion for Oliver. It is the laughter that he remembers and which matters when things drift, as they must, towards death.

Much of the joy comes from the feeble yet lovingly created characters, whether the infinite shyness of Oliver’s mother’s family, the booming desperation of his father’s, or the impressive array of flaws that define his fellow ping-pongers. The cast and their acitivities are larger-than-life, but only slightly: enough to make them memorable, but never enough to make them cartoons. Their burdens help to make them human. This way of writing makes things like heroes and villains look childish.

As far as weaknesses go, I think the problem here is the structure. The novel has set itself a difficult task: it wants to show us Oliver looking back on his formative years. This leads, perhaps inevitably, to glossing over adulthood in a flurry of brief vignettes that lack the psychological conviction of the rest of the novel. Once Oliver leaves for university, he suddenly picks out a path in life, suddenly marries, divorces, leaves the country and grows old. This is all necessary to fill in the gaps before the essential scenes of later life, but it’s slightly unsatisfying. Some scenes, such as the sudden choice of career and years of life based on a single evening’s guilt at the start of university, seem hurried: more of a collection of jokes (and the university pages are among the funniest in the book) than a part of Oliver’s real life. But maybe that’s the point: childhood and adolesence are what’s real to Oliver, and they, in the end, are what makes him who he is.

There’s a glib way of describing this book, which seems almost legally obliged to pop up in every review: Philip Roth for Mancunians. Keep the Jewish background, the dirty jokes, the coming-of-age, the sadness and ruin behind the laughter, the neurosis, and then replace various bits of America with the markets, streets, houses and mild urban decay of the North of England. It’s a simplification, of course, but it more or less works, partly because it describes the style and themes of The Mighty Walzer, but also because it suggests, entirely correctly, that this is a very good book.

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