10:03pm

Fri April 1, 2011
Arts & Life

'The Mighty Walzer,' Ping Pong Wizard (Of Sorts)

Howard Jacobson's novel The Mighty Walzer was acclaimed when it was published in Great Britain more than 10 years ago. It tells the story of Oliver Walzer, an anxious adolescent in Manchester, England, in the 1950s, who doesn't quite know how he fits into the world around him. His family immigrated from a part of Eastern Europe he calls "bug country ... all we've been doing since the Middle Ages has been growing beet root and running away from Cossacks." Oliver is especially shy around girls, but at least he has pingpong. That's right — pingpong.

Jacobson won the Man Booker Prize last year for his novel The Finkler Question; as a result, his 1999 novel The Mighty Walzer is now being published in the United States.

The novel has been called autobiographical, which Jacobson agrees with in a sense — like Oliver, Jacobson grew up in Manchester in the '50s, played table tennis, dreamed of being a world champion and mostly failed.

"I shouldn't give the story away," Jacobson tells Scott Simon on Weekend Edition Saturday. "But anybody should know pretty soon that he's not going to succeed. It is pretty much the story of my life in table tennis, if you like, in the '50s."

Like Jacobson, Oliver plays his first games with a leatherette-covered book as a paddle. Jacobson recalls a collection of classics like Jane Eyre, Wuthering Heights and The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde published with green leather covers, and that was what he used to practice pingpong.

"I decided this would make me really good, because the book had an uneven surface, so the ball would come off at all sorts of strange angles," Jacobson says. "I think I played with Wuthering Heights, probably, and then I thought I'd be even better when it came to playing with a bat."

Using a nontraditional item as a practice paddle wasn't the worst idea: Jacobson was fairly decent at table tennis as a 14-year-old, but only, he qualifies, "as a 14-year-old."

But being good at something as a 14-year-old can be incredibly significant. For Oliver, Jacobson says, "it gave him an activity; it took him out of his shyness." Oliver tends to be introspective, but playing table tennis gives him the feeling that nobody's watching and you can be just as you are — because generally, nobody is watching.

"It doesn't liberate you from your shyness, but it puts no pressure on your shyness," Jacobson explains.

One of the best aspects of playing the game meant that it put Oliver on a team, where every Thursday night in a cold Manchester winter, a group of five or so friends would pick him up in a car, drive around, tease him and give him a little more confidence as he learned the game, Jacobson says.

"It gave him camaraderie, and also ... a real sense of achievement, [of] victory."

At heart, though, Jacobson says there's something of a masochist in Oliver Walzer, to play a game with so few rewards. Oliver's still kind of a loser, even if he wins a few pingpong matches.

"I think most novelists write about losers," he explains, "We love losers, we're not interested in winners. This would not have been a funny or touching novel had Oliver Walzer become the world's greatest table tennis player."

Oliver's feelings of loss transfer into a romantic attachment toward Lorna Peachly, another pingpong player and a seemingly untouchable romantic interest. Lorna comes from somewhere in Jacobson's own life — he can't quite remember if she was real or if he dreamed her; he says that you either find someone like Lorna or you make her up. Oliver remarks of Lorna at one point, "I feel sorry for lovely girls; they feel they are the cause of their own troubles, but are never quite sure why," and Lorna's troubles eventually get mixed in with Oliver's own.

Jacobson learned to read literature with great closeness from a professor at Cambridge, the literary critic F. R. Leavis. He felt poetry and novels with great force, Jacobson says, and taught his students that all you needed to know about a poem was within the poem itself.

"And if you need to know about the world behind the poem, this poem is the introduction to that world ... he taught you to really love a work of literature, and to take it seriously, and I carried that around with me forever, really." Copyright 2011 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

SCOTT SIMON, host:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. Im Scott Simon.

Oliver Walzer is an anxious adolescent growing up in Manchester, England of the 1950s. Jewish immigrants from a part of Eastern Europe he calls Bug Country: All we've been doing since the Middle Ages was growing beetroot and running away from Cossacks. But his father was a yo-yo champ, and his mother is glamorous, with what he calls: Whitefish ball cheeks. Oliver, shy with girls, doesn't know where he fits into the world that's coming into being but at least he has ping-pong.

Thats right, ping-pong. The story of Oliver Walzer coming of age in the novel, "The Mighty Walzer," was acclaimed when it was published in Great Britain more than 10 years ago. Its author, Howard Jacobson, won the Man Booker Prize last year for his novel, "The Finkler Question." And now "The Mighty Walzer" is being published in the United States and in his 60's now, Howard Jacobson is being compared to Phillip Roth in his prime.

Howard Jacobson joins us from our studios in London. Thanks so much for being with us.

Mr. HOWARD JACOBSON (Author, "The Mighty Walzer"): It's my pleasure. Thank you for having me.

SIMON: And critics who, as I note, love this novel, called it autobiographical because you're from Manchester. Is it autobiographical?

Mr. JACOBSON: Well, you know how difficult this is, the whole autobiographical question. There's a sense in which Im the kind of novelist for whom every novel is autobiographical in a way, in that it's the story of my soul, if not the story of the life that I've lived.

But this one more than ever is. I did, indeed, play table tennis. I did indeed dream of being a world champion like my hero, Oliver Walzer. I failed. I shouldnt give the story give away.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. JACOBSON: But anybody would know pretty soon that he's not going to succeed. It is pretty much the story of my life in table tennis, if you like, in Manchester in the '50s.

SIMON: Of course, Oliver's first paddle is a book; a leatherette covered book. Was that true with you?

Mr. JACOBSON: It is.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. JACOBSON: And I did play with that. I played with those - I dont know whether you have them over there - we read our classics. I read "Wuthering Heights" and "Jane Eyre" and other works like that in these little, green leatherette "World's Classics," I think they were called. And that was the book that was to hand and that was what I had practiced with. And then I decided this would make me really good, because the book had an uneven surface, so the ball would come off at all sorts of strange angles.

I thought if I can play well "Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde," which is the bat Oliver Walzer plays with. I think I probably cheated. I think I played with "Wuthering Heights," probably. Then I thought then I'd be even better when it came to playing with a bat. And for a little while, I was right. I was good. When I was young I was good. For a 14-year-old, I was good; as, indeed, Oliver Walzer is good as a 14-year-old.

SIMON: Yeah, it just occurred to me. I mean if you use a leatherette-bound version of "War and Peace," your stroke might be slow because of the weight.

(Soundbite of laughter)

SIMON: But "Animal Farm," for example, you should zip right through a game.

Mr. JACOBSON: Yes. Yes, or a short story by Hemingway could have been good. Yes.

SIMON: What did table tennis do to uplift Oliver Walzer?

Mr. JACOBSON: It gave him an activity. It took him out of his shyness. He's a very introspective boy, very shy boy. He, you know, he was the color of beetroot the whole time - right throughout his adolescence. As, indeed, was I. You can play table tennis and not feel anybody is watching because nobody is.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. JACOBSON: You can feel that you are, you know, if you play it in a small room, it somehow matches your mind. It doesn't liberate you from your shyness, but it puts no pressure on your shyness. Oliver Walzer could not have gone out and played on a tennis court. He could not have dreamed of playing tennis in front of, you know, thousands of adoring people - although he wants adoring fans, it's true.

It's a tight, small game and it suited the small tightness of his nature at that time, as well as which it gave him friends. I mean the wonderful thing about playing table tennis is you play on a team, and I wrote about this with great lovingness what it's like very Thursday night in a Manchester winter, to get into a car with five of your friends. They're all older than Oliver is. -they were all older than me - who'd tease him, who introduced him to sex, who give him a little bit more confidence. It gave him friends. It gave him a family.

He has sisters at home and this gave him brothers. So it gave him camaraderie. And also, in the end when he becomes good at the game and starts to win, it gives him a real sense of achievement, victory.

SIMON: Yeah. We're speaking with Howard Jacobson about his novel "The Mighty Walzer."

Does every young man have a Lorna Peachley?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. JACOBSON: Lorna Peachley, the girl with the all-moving body parts.

SIMON: Yes.

Mr. JACOBSON: Yes, I think you either find one or you imagine one. And, just between ourselves, there was one. And lots of these characters are made up. But Lorna Peachley is - well, look, I think there was one. I think I saw a girl just like that. I even have a feeling her name was Lorna. I had a feeling I couldnt even bear to change her name. and that was how she looked to me, whether she was in fact like that, whether there - I mean Im beginning to feel like Antony talking about Cleopatra now.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. JACOBSON: Was there such a Lorna or did I dream her? Maybe I dreamed her out of God knows what recesses of my sick imagination. But I think there was such a girl. And of course there's immense amount of fun and rude fun at that, about the men playing with Lorna Peachly and playing certain strokes which would get her to run around the table and come charging in so they could watch and enjoy those moving body parts.

SIMON: Yeah. You have a line in there which I wrote down I liked so much, where Oliver says to himself, I feel sorry for lovely girls. They feel they are the cause of their own troubles but are never quite sure why.

Mr. JACOBSON: Yes.

SIMON: Help us puzzle it out.

Mr. JACOBSON: Lets puzzle it out. Well, I suppose this is someone feeling that he's had a very troubled relationship with this girl. He does end up having a relationship with this girl. There's something of the masochist in Oliver Walzer. I think I argue somewhere in the novel that you have to be a masochist to play a game which has so few rewards. Hes a loser. I write about losers. I think most novelists write about losers. We love losers. We're not interested in winners. This would not have been a touching or funny novel had Oliver Walzer become the world's greatest table tennis player and become a millionaire. He is a loser and he's interested in loss, and romantically and erotically that transfers into sort of feelings for Lorna that she just doesn't know what to do with.

SIMON: You studied at Cambridge under the very famous professor and literary critic F. R. Leavis.

Mr. JACOBSON: Yes.

SIMON: What was that like?

Mr. JACOBSON: He was a wonderful teacher of reading. He taught you how to read with great closeness. He removed all the clutter of literature from your mind. You know, the idea that you had to know things outside the work, and that the idea that you, you know, before you could read a book that you had to know so much and you had to study so much. He was terrific at getting you, read the book. Everything you need to know about this poem is in this poem, and if you need to know about the world behind the poem this poem is the introduction to that world. You read the poem before you read anything about the poem. And he was a wonderfully sensitive reader himself. He felt particularly poetry but also novels with great force and he conveyed that.

He was terrific at teaching you what it's like - when all is said and done this was what it was. He taught you what it was like to really love a work of literature and take it seriously. And I carried that round with me forever really. Even now I'm not - I haven't been a teacher myself for over 20 years, as long as I've been writing, but I still hear his words.

I think he would not like what I write. I think I am - I don't think he liked funny books, and I like to write funny as well as touching books. But I still feel whether he would of like them or not that, you know, I am writing something that he ought to have liked.

SIMON: Howard Jacobson, who won last years Man Booker prize, and his coming of age novel The Mighty Walzer is now just being published in the United States.

Thanks so much for being with us.

Mr. JACOBSON: Its my pleasure. Thank you for talking to me. Really enjoyed it. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.

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