Goal-Line Philosophy

This appeared in the Life & Arts section of the Financial Times (FT Weekend) 14-15 May 2016: 9.

Goal-Line Philosophy

football

Andrew Gallix admires a novelist’s provocative and playful investigation into the beautiful game

Camus notwithstanding, le ballon rond has never acquired significant literary cachet in continental Europe. So it is small wonder that anxieties surrounding the worthiness of this subject should haunt Jean-Philippe Toussaint’s Football. Not only does football lack the gravitas to pass as a highbrow pursuit, but it also goes against the grain of family tradition. As a child in Belgium, Toussaint kept his passion for the game in check to blend in with his cerebral relatives. Now this middle-aged man of letters has decided to drop the act. This, he confesses at the outset, is a book he “had to write”.

Toussaint is an award-winning novelist, film-maker and photographer whose 13 books to date have all been published by the prestigious Éditions de Minuit, home to Beckett and the nouveau roman — two of his major influences, at least in the early days. Football, published here ahead of Euro 2016, is a series of fragmentary essays, of which the most famous, “Zidane’s Melancholy”, has already appeared separately, as a very slim volume, in 2006. Toussaint covers most of the World Cups since 1998 in idiosyncratic style, talking about everything but the games themselves. Instead, he recounts — sometimes in beautifully granular detail — what it feels like to attend them.

Football kicks off in playful mode, with a declaration of independence masquerading as provocative caveat: “This is a book that no one will like.” The author warns that his work will alienate intellectuals who despise the beautiful game, as well as football fans who despise intellectuals. In fact, he will attempt to reconcile both constituencies. He does so with his habitual lightness of touch and trademark deadpan humour, while also approaching his subject with a seriousness of intent.

Football, for Toussaint, is a prelapsarian Neverland. It is bound up with his childhood in Brussels, which came to an end, at the age of 13, when his parents moved to Paris — an event he experienced as an expulsion from paradise. “The football of adults” — that of politics, big money, and Fifa scandals — “leaves me cold”, he acknowledges in a revealing passage, and when a sea breeze gently ripples the corner flags during a match in Kobe, his eyes suddenly become those of a “marvelling child” once more.

For Toussaint, football produces a wide-eyed re-enchantment of the world, allowing the adult writer a “temporarily acceptable intellectual regression”. When he contemplates the “absolute green” of the pitch and the “timeless colours” of the national strips, he writes, “Everything returns to a state of order, nature becomes immutable and reassuring again.”

The gist of the book is contained in the closing line of the opening essay: “I am pretending to write about football, but I am writing, as always, about the passing of time.” During a game, Toussaint argues, the future remains “fundamentally open” until the very last second, and the degree of absorption this requires “holds us radically at a distance from death”, which in turn produces “a kind of metaphysical wellbeing”.

As soon as the final result is known, however, “nothing remains but the materiality of the players, the emergence of the prosaic and the violence of the real”. Zinedine Zidane’s infamous headbutt during the 2006 World Cup final is reinterpreted as the player’s refusal to complete his final match and break the “invisible thread connecting football to the passage of time”.

At times, football is seen by the author as a distraction from writing. At others, writing becomes a ruse to watch football games: in 2002, for instance, Toussaint organised a series of talks and readings coinciding with the World Cup in Korea and Japan. Throughout, however, there is an almost subterranean quest for words that would “have the power to reactivate the magic of football”: “words of poetry, or literature, which come to brush against football, grasp its movement”. Football by other means.

ft

Here is an earlier, unpublished version:

Camus notwithstanding, le ballon rond has never acquired the literary cachet afforded to cycling in the heyday of Le Tour. Small wonder that anxieties surrounding the worthiness of this subject should haunt Jean-Philippe Toussaint’s Football. Not only does it lack the necessary gravitas to pass muster as a highbrow pursuit, but it also goes against the grain of family tradition. He describes his four-year-old likeness as “anticipating, by more than fifty years, the austere and taciturn appearance bestowed on writers” in solidarity with his Lithuanian grandfather, pictured standing next to him, who failed to take him to a single match. Now that he is no longer simply bald at heart, the middle-aged man of letters may have decided that it was high time to drop the act in solidarity with his younger self. This, he confesses at the outset, is a book he “had to write” lest he “break the fine thread that still connects [him] to the world”. The world of childhood and the seriousness of its games, no doubt, that he opposes to the trivial childishness of adults at play: “I can’t dissociate football from dreams and childhood”. The few sentences from his first novel he has lovingly woven into the text testify to the importance of this endeavour, which could be construed as a summation of his entire work.

Jean-Philippe Toussaint is an award-winning novelist, filmmaker and photographer, whose fifteen books to date have all been published by the iconic Editions de Minuit, home to Beckett and the nouveau roman — two of his major influences, at least in the early days. Football, released here ahead of Euro 2016, is a series of fragmentary essays (the most famous one — “Zidane’s Melancholy” — had already appeared separately, as a very slim volume, in 2006). Toussaint covers most of the World Cups since 1998 in his idiosyncratic style, which consists in talking about everything but the games themselves. Instead, he recounts — sometimes in beautifully granular detail — what it feels like to attend them.

Football kicks off in playful mode with a declaration of independence masquerading as provocative caveat: “This is a book no one will like”. The author warns that his work will alienate intellectuals who despise the beautiful game, as well as football fans who despise intellectuals. In fact, he will attempt to reconcile both constituencies which reflect Descartes’ mind-body dichotomy as well as the two facets of his divided self. Toussaint — whose name is French for All Saints’ Day — seemed predestined to tackle such a weighty issue, and does so with his habitual lightness of touch and trademark deadpan humour. Religious imagery runs through these essays like Gareth Bale across a pitch. Early on, he recalls how the two teams in his primary school were picked with “biblical simplicity” according to whether pupils attended civic education or religious classes: “we played Moral versus Religion football matches”. The children run after the ball “amidst a halo of dust” that, with time, morphs into a “halo of memory”. Toussaint was on the side of Religion, but he is torn between mind, soul, and body. He describes himself watching the 1970 World Cup through a shop window and smiling at the way players left their “physical envelope” behind — “like a halo of themselves” — due to imperfect colour technology. Holed up in his Corsican retreat, hell-bent on writing another novel, he chronicles, several decades later, the intrusion of “sacrilegious”, “profane images” — “images of football” — upon his sacred work. Soon he is glued to a live stream of the 2014 World Cup, having raised his laptop “like an offering on a profane little altar consisting of two or three volumes of the Encyclopédie Universalis (a paradoxical homage of virtue to vice)”.

Football, for Toussaint, is a prelapsarian Neverland. It is bound up with his childhood in Brussels, which came to an end, at the age of thirteen, when his parents moved to Paris — an event he experienced as an expulsion from Paradise. “The football of adults” (that of politics, big money, and FIFA scandals) “leaves me cold,” he acknowledges in a revealing passage, and when a sea breeze gently ripples the corner flags during a match in Kobe, his eyes suddenly become those of a “marvelling child” once more. Football produces a wide-eyed re-enchantment of the world. It allows the adult writer a “temporarily acceptable intellectual regression”: “Everything returns to a state of order, nature becomes immutable and reassuring again” when he contemplates the “absolute green” of the pitch or the “timeless colours” of the national strips.

The gist of the book is contained in the closing line of the opening essay: “I am pretending to write about football, but I am writing, as always, about the passing of time”. During a game, Toussaint argues, the future remains “fundamentally open” until the very last second, and the degree of absorption this requires “holds us radically at a distance from death”, which in turn produces “a kind of metaphysical wellbeing”. When the “invisible thread connecting football to the passage of time is broken” — as soon as the final result is known —“nothing remains but the materiality of the players, the emergence of the prosaic and the violence of the real”. The infamous headbutt during the 2006 World Cup final is reinterpreted as Zidane’s refusal to complete his final match and break this “invisible thread”.

At times, football is seen by the author as a distraction from writing, or even its very antithesis. At others, writing becomes a ruse to watch football games: in 2002, for instance, he organised a series of talks, readings, and journalistic assignments coinciding with the World Cup in Korea and Japan. Throughout, however, there is an almost subterranean quest for words which would “have the power to reactivate the magic of football” once the “invisible thread” is broken — “words of poetry, or literature, which come to brush against football, grasp its movement”. Football by other means.

A History of Pie Activism

This appeared in The Guardian’s Comment is Free section on 20 July 2011:

From Jonnie Marbles to the Yippies: A History of Pie Activism
The attack on Rupert Murdoch is part of a tradition of patisserie activism — but shaving foam is no substitute for the real thing
Noel Godin, political custard pie thrower
[Nöel Godin, political custard pie thrower. Photograph: Van Parys/Corbis]

Jonathan May-Bowles (aka Jonnie Marbles), who attacked Rupert Murdoch during yesterday’s phone-hacking hearing, has all the makings of a formidable flan flinger. In his capacity as comedian-cum-activist, he embodies a kind of Platonic ideal of patisserie terrorism – that strange interface between slapstick and protest.

Pie-throwing as a political gesture has its roots in the Groucho-Marxism of the 1960s student uprisings and, more specifically, in the prankish happenings of the Yippies. Tom Forçade, the founder of High Times magazine, is usually considered to have perpetrated the very first political pie crime in 1970. Aron Kay, who came to be known as “The Yippie Pie Man”, followed suit, covering countless politicians and celebrities (including the mayor of New York City and Andy Warhol) in cream, between the late 1970s and early 1990s. Yesterday, he allegedly posted a message on a website giving his full support to May-Bowles: “Murdoch definitely needed a pie, for sure.” However, it was a Belgian anarchist who really put “patisserie guerrilla” on the map. One could argue that he even managed to turn it into an art form.

In the late 60s, Nöel Godin was, among other things, a film critic who amused himself by reviewing movies he hadn’t seen or that didn’t even exist. Georges Le Gloupier, a fictitious film director (invented by his partner in crime Jean-Pierre Bouyxou), made regular appearances in these reviews.

In 1969, Godin wrote that Le Gloupier had been so outraged by Robert Bresson‘s latest film that he had felt compelled to chuck a “Mack Sennett-style” pie smack in the director’s face. In a sequel, he went on to describe how the French novelist Marguerite Duras had avenged the initial “creamy affront” by giving Le Gloupier an impromptu pastry pasting while he was dining out in Saint-Germain-des-Prés. “Madame,” said the biter bit after licking his frothy chops, “I prefer your patisserie to your novels.”

Through some quirk of fate, the publication of the second article coincided with Madame Duras’s arrival in Belgium on a promotional tour. This proved a godsend to Godin, who decided to give a final twist to this burlesque saga. He ambushed the prime exponent of the “empty novel” and treated her to a real custard pie this time round. A visiting card was nestling in the incredible, edible weapon. It read: “With the compliments of Le Gloupier.”

The seminal Duras drubbing provided a blueprint for all the subsequent pie attacks. A few months later, it was choreographer Maurice Béjart‘s turn to fall victim to a Chantilly crime. By that time, Le Gloupier had acquired all his distinctive features: the refined dinner jacket and bow tie of gentleman-burglar Arsène Lupin, the false beard and spectacles of a cartoon, bomb-throwing anarchist and, last but not least, the absurd “gloup! gloup!” mantra. In the time-honoured tradition of Galatea, Pinocchio and sundry gingerbread men legging it after rising from the pastry board, Le Gloupier took on a life of his own: he started popping up all over the place, unbeknown to his creator, who was often associated with attacks he had taken no part in, but was only too willing to take credit for.

According to Godin, a well-aimed pie can break through the victim’s public image and lay bare his true character. New Wave director Jean-Luc Godard, for instance, reacted in good-humoured fashion and refused to press charges. By contrast, Bernard-Henri Lévy reacted violently and was flanned on at least five occasions as a result. The vendetta against the pop philosopher turned into a running gag in France.

The movement probably peaked in 1998, with the pieing of Bill Gates. Godin had now become a celebrity in his own right, and was frequently invited on live TV shows to be pied by presenters he had himself pied. The whole thing was descending into farce. However, the website of Godin’s “Internationale pâtissière” continues to advertise the latest pie attacks on a monthly, and sometimes even weekly, basis. The pieing of Murdoch could well be the sign of a revival.

Jonathan May-Bowles still has a thing or two to learn, though. A plateful of shaving foam is no substitute for the real thing. Godin once told the Observer: “We only use the finest patisserie ordered at the last minute from small local bakers. Quality is everything. If things go wrong, we eat them.”

****

Here is a longer (unpublished) version of the same piece:

Jonathan May-Bowles, who attacked Rupert Murdoch during yesterday’s phone-hacking hearing, has all the makings of a formidable flan flinger. In his capacity as comedian-cum-activist, he embodies a kind of Platonic ideal of patisserie terrorism — that strange interface between slapstick and protest. Pity, then, that he didn’t take a leaf out of Mack Sennett‘s book: “A mother never gets hit with a custard pie,” warned the Hollywood director, who knew a thing or two about the use of confectionery as weaponry, “Mothers-in-law, yes. But mothers? Never”. Old men are also a no-no, even if they happen to be at the head of an evil international media conglomerate. Pieing is always a difficult balancing act, a subtle blend of humour and anger, and in this case the first, vital ingredient was sorely lacking. Like the pie itself — a plateful of shaving foam — it wasn’t the real thing. Instead of shattering the spectacle (in Situationist parlance), May-Bowles has simply provided a perfect photo opportunity illustrating the metaphorical humble pie that Murdoch was already eating. Worse still, the media mogul may come out of this looking like the victim.

Pie-throwing as a political gesture has its roots in the Groucho-Marxism of the 60s student uprisings and, more specifically, in the prankish happenings of the Yippies in the United States. Tom Forçade, the founder of High Times magazine, is usually considered to have perpetrated the very first political pie crime in 1970. Aron Kay, who came to be known as “The Yippie Pie Man”, followed suit, covering countless politicians and celebrities (including the mayor of New York City and Andy Warhol) in cream, between the late 70s and early 90s. Yesterday, he allegedly posted a message on a website giving his full support to May-Bowles: “Murdoch definitely needed a pie, for sure!” However, it was Belgian anarchist Noël Godin who really put “patisserie guerrilla” on the map. One could argue that he even managed to turn it into an art form.

Like Aron Kay, Godin was influenced by the slapstick of the Three Stoges and the political ferment of 1968, but he also drew inspiration from the insurrectionary humour of late nineteenth-century French anarcho-pranksters like the Hydropathes or the Zutistes, to whom he paid homage in his anthology of radical subversion (Anthologie de la subversion carabinée, 1988).

In the late 60s, Godin was, among other things, a film critic who amused himself by reviewing movies he hadn’t seen or that didn’t even exist. Georges Le Gloupier, a fictitious film director (invented by his partner in crime Jean-Pierre Bouyxou), made regular appearances in these reviews. In1969, Godin wrote that Le Gloupier had been so outraged by Robert Bresson’s latest film, that he had felt compelled to chuck a “Mack Sennett-style” pie smack in the director’s face. In a sequel worthy of one of Joe Orton’s classic epistolary pranks, he went on to describe how the French novelist Marguerite Duras had avenged the initial “creamy affront” by giving Le Gloupier an impromptu pastry pasting while he was dining out in Saint-Germain-des-Prés. “Madame,” said the biter bit after licking his frothy chops, “I prefer your patisserie to your novels”. Through some quirk of fate, the publication of the second article coincided with Mme Duras’s arrival in Belgium on a promotional tour. This proved a godsend to Godin. The affair was causing so much fuss that the novelist was immediately forced to hold a press conference during which she repeatedly denied all prior knowledge of “Le Gloutier” (sic). Godin decided to give a final twist to this burlesque saga, thus illustrating Wilde’s dictum that life imitates art. He ambushed the prime exponent of the “empty novel,” and treated her to a real custard pie this time round. A visiting card was nestling in the incredible, edible weapon. It read: “With the compliments of Le Gloupier”.

The seminal Duras drubbing provided a blueprint for all the subsequent pie attacks. Le Gloupier’s metamorphosis into a latter-day noble bandit figure had occured overnight. A few months later, it was choreographer Maurice Béjart’s turn to fall victim to a chantilly crime. By that time, Le Gloupier had acquired all his distinctive features: the refined dinner jacket and bow tie of gentleman-cambrioleur Arsène Lupin, the false beard and spectacles of a cartoon, bomb-throwing anarchist and, last but not least, the absurd “gloup! gloup!” slogan. In the time-honoured tradition of Galatea, Pinocchio and sundry gingerbread men legging it after rising from the pastry board, Le Gloupier took on a life of his own, popping up all over the place, unbeknown to his creator, who was sometimes associated with attacks he had taken no part in, but was only too willing to take credit for.

According to Godin, custard pies are the weapons of “the weak and powerless” (L.A. Times). A well-aimed pie can shatter the pompous and vacuous public image of a celebrity in a matter of seconds. Le Gloupier’s targets (politicians, journalists, actors, pop stars, writers) are never selected at random (“Every victim has to be thoroughly justified,” The Observer) and his weapons are chosen with the same meticulous care (“We only use the finest patisserie ordered at the last minute from small local bakers. Quality is everything. If things go wrong, we eat them”). Pseudo-philosopher Bernard-Henri Lévy was flanned on five different occasions because he was “totally in love with himself” and epitomized “empty, vanity-filled literature”.

According to Godin, a well-aimed pie can break through the victim’s public image and lay bare his true character. New Wave director Jean-Luc Godard, for instance, reacted in good-humoured fashion and refused to press charges. By contrast, Bernard-Henri Lévy reacted violently and was flanned on at least five occasions as a result. The vendetta against the pop philosopher turned into a running gag in France.

The movement probably peaked in 1998, with the pieing of Bill Gates. Godin had now become a celebrity in his own right, and was frequently invited on live TV shows to be pied by presenters he had himself pied. The whole thing was descending into farce. However, the website of Godin’s “Internationale pâtissière” continues to advertise the latest pie attacks on a monthly, and sometimes even weekly, basis. The pieing of Murdoch could well be the sign of a revival.

Jonathan May-Bowles still has a thing or two to learn, though. A plateful of shaving foam is no substitute for the real thing. Godin once told the Observer: “We only use the finest patisserie ordered at the last minute from small local bakers. Quality is everything. If things go wrong, we eat them.”