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.

Without Taking the Easy Way Out

Jean-Philippe Toussaint, Urgency and Patience

With this preparatory phase carried to its extremity, the danger lies in never starting the novel (Barthes’ syndrome, in a way), like the narrator of Television who, due to exaggerated scruples and anxiety from the exigencies of perfectionism, settles for a constant state of readiness to write “without taking the easy way out and actually doing so”.

La faim du livre

Along with Gérard Berréby, Augustin Trapenard, and Hervé Laurent, I was interviewed by Linn Levy for a piece entitled “La faim du livre” which appeared in the December 2013 issue of Swiss magazine Edelweiss. The article features on pp. 44-47; my interview is on p. 46.

La faim du livre

Edelweiss part en quête de la littérature contemporaine, des mots qui dérangent et se demande si être écrivain veut encore dire quelque chose par les temps qui courent. Quatre intellectuels se penchent sur ces questions et nous éclairent.

«Nous sommes les visages de notre temps», clamaient les futuristes russes, le poète Maïakosvki en tête, il y a exactement un siècle, pétris de la conviction que l’art qu’ils inventaient allait renverser l’ordre des choses, qu’en récrivant le monde ils façonneraient le futur. Et aujourd’hui? A qui appartiennent les visages de l’époque contemporaine? Peut-on encore écrire? Et quels sont, parmi le demi-millier d’ouvrages publiés cette rentrée en Suisse et en France, ceux qui tordent la littérature, l’éprouvent, l’inventent? Oui, dans quels livres trouve-t-on les questions que nous ne nous sommes pas encore posées? Difficile pour le lecteur de se retrouver dans le magma de fictions qui ornent les étals des librairies comme les marchandises envahissent les hypermarchés. Le divertissement, devenu la norme au risque d’endormir insidieusement les esprits, laisse peu de place au doute, la tension semble diluée, presque rien ne dérange, pas grand-chose ne dépasse. Alors, pour celui qui a faim d’autre chose que de spectacle et qui ne déteste pas être dérangé – «Etre scandalisé, un plaisir», assurait Pasolini –, il s’agit de résister en cherchant les lignes qui dévient, la littérature, la vraie, ce souffle qui a «la faculté d’empêcher la folie du monde de s’emparer totalement de nous», comme l’écrit Alberto Manguel. Quatre experts nous éclairent sur les mots d’aujourd’hui, l’influence du web, la mort imminente du droit d’auteur, celle de la figure de l’écrivain, sur le remix aussi, et l’irrévérence anglo-saxonne ou helvétique… L’éditeur Gérard Berréby, l’écrivain et professeur Andrew Gallix, le journaliste Augustin Trapenard et le critique d’art Hervé Laurent ont accepté de surcroît de dévoiler leurs titres préférés de la rentrée.

Andrew Gallix
Ecrivain, éditeur, professeur à la Sorbonne

L’écriture a cinquante ans de retard sur la peinture – triste constat de l’artiste Brion Gysin dans les années 60… «Et, pour le philosophe et romancier anglais Lars Iyer, la situation n’a fait qu’empirer. Le roman, censé échapper au monde des genres, est lui-même devenu un genre. Pour lui, la littérature est morte (comme la musique classique avant elle) et les livres que l’on peut encore écrire doivent exprimer la distance qui nous sépare de la grande littérature du passé. Cette «postlittérature» s’inscrit d’ailleurs dans un contexte politique et culturel plus général: pour Mark Fisher ou Simon Reynolds, par exemple, la modernité est derrière nous. Cette nouvelle crise du roman, symbolisée par Reality Hunger, le manifeste de David Shields, se traduit souvent par un rejet de la fiction.» Les idées se bousculent dans l’esprit brillant d’Andrew Gallix. L’écrivain britannique, professeur à la Sorbonne, collaborateur du quotidien The Guardian, punk depuis l’âge de 12 ans, a lancé en 2000 le premier blog littéraire en anglais, «3:AM Magazine»1, dont le mot d’ordre est le très groucho-marxesque: «De quoi qu’il s’agisse, nous sommes contre». Un webzine si avant-gardiste qu’il a donné naissance à un véritable mouvement littéraire, The Offbeat Generation, regroupant des plumes anglophones non conformistes (Tony O’Neill, Ben Myers, Tom McCarthy notamment), rejetant la culture dominante et le monde traditionnel de l’édition. «La littérature est quelque chose qui résiste, analyse-t-il. Même s’il n’existe plus vraiment d’avant-garde – le web l’a diluée en quelque sorte –, je remarque que l’écriture conceptuelle, expérimentale prend de plus en plus d’importance. Il y a toute une génération d’auteurs qui reste très influencée par la théorie poststructuraliste de Derrida, je pense notamment à Rachel Kushner. Il y a un autre courant d’écrivains, américains pour la plupart, qui s’inscrit dans la directe lignée de l’éditeur Gordon Lish – celui qui a en quelque sorte fait Raymond Carver. Pour eux, tout se passe au niveau de la phrase. Et, pour finir, je trouve passionnante et à suivre la scène littéraire qui s’est formée autour de la revue new-yorkaise n+1 (nplusonemag.com).»
1 http://www.andrewgallix.com / http://www.3ammagazine.com

Il lit:
Au départ d’Atocha, Ben Lerner (à paraître)
C, Tom McCarthy, L’Olivier
Nue, Jean-Philippe Toussaint, Editions de Minuit

Quotes

“I had always maintained a difficult relationship with phones, a combination of repulsion, squeamishness, and lifelong fear, an irrepressible phobia that I no longer even tried to suppress but had finally come to terms with, handling it by using them as little as possible. I had always known more or less unconsciously that this fear was tied to death — maybe to sex and death— but never, before this night, never had I been given such an uncontestable confirmation that there is absolutely some secret alchemy connecting phones to death.”
Jean-Philippe Toussaint, Running Away, 2005