Friday, 30 March 2012

Ben Markovits, Playing Days (Faber 2010)

Full disclosure requires I note that Markovits is both a colleague and a friend of mine; but though 'full disclosure' is often a token gesture it seems peculiarly appropriate in this context.  Playing Days is, amongst other things, about full disclosure. In the most obvious sense it is closer to memoir than novel. Markovits, an American, played professional basketball in his youth for a German team, living the while in Landshut, near Munich. His first novel was The Syme Papers which came out in 2004. Playing Days tells the story of a character called Ben Markovits, an American, playing professional basketball for a German team in Landshut, near Munich, and in his spare moments working on the first drafts of a novel called The Syme Papers. The few facts I know about this period of Markovits’ life fit precisely with the representation; but then again such facts as I know about him are of course external ones. If Playing Days claims to be fiction rather than memoir it is presumably on its psychological and emotional grounds. The title page says ‘Playing Days: a Novel’, and perhaps the subtitle is meant playfully—it has the faint shading of irony; not quite as full-on as Conrad subtitling the very unsimple The Secret Agent ‘A Simple Tale’; closer, perhaps, to Hardy’s title-page gloss on Tess as ‘A Pure Woman’. Then there’s the dedication, ‘To My Father’ (Markovits senior appears in the novel), which is followed, as we turn the page, by the book’s most tendentious moment, an epigraph from Byron. Of course, Byron.
But I hate things all fiction—there should always be some foundation of fact for the most airy fabric—and pure invention is but the talent of a liar.
OK then.

Since the purpose of this essay is not really reviewerish evaluation I suppose I need to get out of the way (if it doesn’t seem unseemly) the praise: this is an extraordinarily good novel, beautifully written, consistently and sometimes hypnotically involving on subjects about which I am either indifferent (basketball) or else which are designedly uneventful: waiting around, indecision, small-scale failure. The way things don’t quite happen. There are two main currents; on the one hand, we get a sensitive account of Markovits’ relationship with a local woman called Anke, the mother of a young child, separated but not divorced from one of Markovits’s team-mates, a Southern US man with the rather wonderful name of Bo Hadnot. On the other we have a detailed account of Markovits as part of the basketball team; his teammates (some American, some German), his coach, training, more training, the economics of running a minor league basketball team in a Continent in love with another sport—football—and accounts of basketball games. Markovits, cannily I think, does not soft-pedal any of this. Quite a high proportion of the whole is stuff like this:
Olaf drifted up to the elbow and Hadnot cut in to meet him with his forearms crossed. The big man curled off him, and Jurkovich stepped out to slow him down. Bo turned, too, but on the outside pivot, and Jurkovich got stuck on his shoulder. Karl bounced the pass in and Hadnot used the lift of the bounce to send him into his motion. [112]
And from time to time characters make this sort of assessment of one another:
Bad hands, too small, and what coaches call “hard”. Decent ups, a respectable shooting stroke, but no inside moves. His rotational quickness was poor, which is what big men depend upon in the pivot. [229]
As a fan of SF I’m used to reading descriptions larded with baffling terminology, and I quite liked all this material: I never doubted it was precisely framed, but it generated a useful distanciating effect.

The best sports novels, the cliché goes, are only incidentally about their sport. They are, rather, about the characters who play the sport, about the mentality of winning (or losing), about being part of a team or being isolated from a team. Playing Days is certainly about all that stuff, and some other things besides. I don’t mean that to sound dismissive; it’s superbly well rendered. One of the themes of the novel is repetition, and in this respect basketball is the right sport to write about. The thing I most love about football—the way so few goals are scored, the way the play builds and builds tension that is only finally released in the joy of your team scoring (or the agony of the opposing team scoring against you)—seems to me fatally dissipated in those US sports where points are scored with relentless frequency: basketball, baseball, hockey, American 'foot'-ball and so on. Some of the most viscerally exciting games I have ever watched have been close fought 1-0, or 2-1 matches; and when England beat German 5-1 (five whole goals!) it felt like a cataract, but that in turn set free blocked energies of having been, for decades previously, mostly beaten by Germany. Basketball is different. A player needs to score fifty points in a game for people to consider it remarkable. On the other hand, this is precisely what draws Markovits: not dissipated energies, but rather repetition—the repetition of training, day after day; the repetition of playing individual matches, scoring, clocking up scores; the repetition of playing match after match and slowly working your way up the league tables, hoping for a play-off place at the end of the season.

Markovits has inherited from his father a Jewish surname and Jewish looks, something he comments on in the novel. In Munich he attends a synagogue, looking amongst other things for community. He doesn’t understand the prayers, but joins in anyway.
I suppose the men there were as various as any other set of old men, but to my eyes they seemed mostly short and a little fat. It was something of a relief, after a week devoted to the perfection of the body, to spend an hour or two among people who had long ago accepted the eccentricities of their own. Besides, I didn’t really want to understand the prayers; incomprehensibility was a part of their charm. We bowed and ducked and shouted and mumbled. Sport is the art of repeating meaningless and tiny acts; I liked the idea of a God who required a similar duty in his people. [67]
The novel makes a lot, deftly and insightfully, out of this trope of repetition. It’s expressive: every writer knows that novels only get written by the writer clocking on, repeatedly, day after day, and going through many of the same motions over and over. Many jobs are like this; as are the habits of (say) raising children. Sex too, of course, involves repeating meaningless and tiny acts; and sex is one of the topics of Playing Days, as Markovits’ relationship with the attractive Anke moves from surreptitious voyeurism through friendship and drawn-out courtship to consummation, and then again through the dying fall into estrangement. Indeed, one of the novel’s few false-touches, I thought, was its opening paragraphs (the first sentence is ‘my first recognizable sexual experience took place in the weight room of my junior high school, after class, during basketball practice.’) It seems to promise something rather more gauche, or tacky, than the novel actually delivers.  In fact sex is handled in novel obliquely: the homosocial bond between the men is lightly treated, the (if you’ll pardon the phrase) ins-and-outs of Ben and Anke's phsyical relationship left discretely off-stage. That’s right, too; Playing Days has a core vehicle—basketball—that can do all that work perfectly well without spilling it all over the page.

Basketball is a sport that rewards not brilliance per se, but the ability to be consistently brilliant, to repeat brilliant manoeuvres over and over again.**  Hadnot, Anke’s estranged husband and Markovits’s teammate (the novels plays the awkwardness of this juxtaposition very well indeed), has something of this brilliance.
On the Tuesday, after lunch, I headed back to the gym to work on my shot and found Hadnot there. No one had turned the lights on, and for a minute I stood in the tall twilight of the sports hall watching him, about twenty feet away. ... Of course, whatever he was doing he had done a hundred thousand times before, planting his feet, lining his elbow up and following through. Watching the ball go in or out, starting from scratch. How much would it help him to practice a thousand more? But you do it anyway. [284]
Markovits has, the novel implies, perhaps inherited this machinic ability to repeat things over and over again from his father. We learn that Markovits senior likes ‘ethnic foods’, which is to say, ‘anything that can be consumed in small repeatable portions.’ When he visits he plays with Anke’s daughter with the repetitive persistence that small kids really love. The narrator notes that ‘my father has always liked children ... it’s his job, but it suits him too, and tests his great patience, whch I have inherited to a degree, for repetition’:
Franzisca had found a small plastic ball in the playground, which she wouldn’t let go of, even when climbing—she kept falling over wet bars. My father convinced her at last to let him roll the ball up the slide instead of down and crouched at the bottom, propping her in his lap. He threw it against the incline, again and again; they watched it bounce towards them. Franziska tried to catch it by clapping her hands together, but mostly she just clapped, [199-200]
As it happens repetition bores me very much, agonizingly so sometimes, so all this struck me forcefully. Anke at one point compares Markovits with her (soon to be) ex-husband. ‘“You are like Bo,” Anke said to me. “You don’t mind doing something over and over again.”’ [249] But this is a compromised virtue; one of its faces is ‘stubbornness’. Bo Hadnot, for instance, refuses to learn German properly, even though he is living and working in Germany and more to the point even though his daughter doesn’t speak any English. The pig-headedness serves him as a sportsman (‘all he does is play basketball and think about basketball’), although even there the matter is complicated; but as a pen-portrait of a human being Hadnot comes over as trapped in stubborn small-c conservatism and competitiveness in ways that make him nothing but miserable. Anke, having had one failed relationship with a basketball player, looks for much of the novel to be about to repeat her mistake with Markovits. The narrative/protagonist himself, unsparingly, attributes his own actions, or his more damaging inaction, to laziness and drift; but there’s a stubbornness there, too. Or perhaps the stubbornness is in the grain of things; the way the cosmos keeps wheeling through the same old same old, the inertia of it all.
Books are mostly about things happening to people, I said, but nothing ever seems to happen to me. So I want to write books about that. ‘That doesn’t sound very interesting,’ she said. [166]
It is interesting, of course; because it speaks to our sense of how life is actually lived, or our lives at any rate. Or: it is interesting if it is written properly. The book builds to the sort of climax we might associate with a sports-novel: the team, though put together on the cheap and insufficiently coached, manages to pull together. Hadnot leaves and goes to play for the opposition, but they make the league playoffs anyway. Victory will mean promotion, more money, more coverage and for the best players a shot at the big time. Landshut play Würzburg, the team to which Hadnot had defected. Markovits and Hadnot meet on the court as rivals, with Anke in the audience (over-egging it slightly, the narrator comments ‘I wondered who she was rooting for’ [310]). Hadnot is getting on, but has significant talent and a victory here could give his career the boost to achieve greater things. The game is close-fought, and comes down to the last seconds. Markovits, marking Hadnot, has a sudden insight into the move he is going to try: ‘plant your right foot, take two hard dribbles right. Fix the defender against your left shoulder. Plant your left foot, then jump a little backwards with your shoulder still turned and shoot. If you do it correctly, moving quick and hard, it’s almost impossible for anyone to reach your shooting hand. Hadnot alone in the gym expected to make eight out of ten ... Against a tall defender, who knew what was coming, his chances dropped to five out of ten; he had told me this himself’ [312]. Here is the last paragraph-and-a-bit of the novel:
When we were working on the move together, one morning before practice, I asked him again what he thought about while going up to shoot—forgetting I had asked him before. But this time he gave a different answer. “I always think the same damn thing,” he said. “Go in.” The phrase came back to me, in the heat of that moment, as phrases sometimes do—without meaning much. For a few seconds we stood there, amid three thousand people, on one of those strange, sudden islands that emerge from the flow of play. This is how I like to think of him; just as far away as the reach of my arm, with the ball in his hands and everything still undecided.
This is a beautiful moment on which to end: the culminating swerve where the thing repeated over and over gives, unexpectedly, a different answer, or else fails to do. But Markovits doesn’t leave it there, and I rather wish he had (perhaps he considered it too cheesy, like the freeze frame at the end of another sporting text, the movie Gallipoli). There is a 9-page epilogue in which we discover who won the play-off, what happened to Hadnot—and to Markovits. Too many loose ends are methodically tied; we can, after all, intuit from the novel itself that Markovits abandoned basketball for writing. Or perhaps it is his sense that the freeze-frame mendaciously isolates moments of intensity that are actually experienced, in life, in terms of anticipation and longer-lingering aftermath and anticlimax. Markovits is, as a writer, particularly gifted at the representation of those latter two qualities; and verisimilitude is certainly part of his skill-set. In his essay on Colm Tóibín’s Henry James novel, The Master, [in Liam McIlvanney and Ray Ryan (eds), The Good of the Novel (Faber 2011), 186-200] Markovits praises Tóibín’s rather un-Jamesian prose:
What Tóibín avoids, for the most part, are metaphorical flights and grammatical complexities ... When he runs on he runs on unashamedly, connecting the parts of his thought with nothing more elaborate than a few commas. He balks at elegant variations, and has never taken seriously Nabokov’s advice, to avoid starting successive paragraphs with the same word. Subject + verb suits him fine. Children tell stories by saying, this and then this and then this; his novels are enormously complicated versions of this technique. The effect can be relentless, but his relentlessness is also deeply persuasive. Modesty is the proof he gives us of his realism. [188]
He could be describing his own writing in Playing Days; indeed, he could be describing the flow and leap of a player on the basketball court (‘when he runs on he runs on unashamedly’). The repetitiveness of this approach is, as the phrase goes, a feature, not a bug; not only well-fitted to the repetition of the sport Markovits is describing, but to the larger aesthetic project of writing about the way things don’t happen, the way life is an untraumatic, non-Beckettian, ordinary and in a way happy series of repetitions of nothing very much. The question I have is the modesty one. He means it in an aesthetic rather than a personal or practical sense, but although it tells its semi-, or hemi- or whatever-autobiographical story with a quantity of effective self-effacement, I’m not sure modesty is really the currency of this novel. That US habit of treating the word ‘loser’ as the most devastating of put-downs can’t help filtering through. The point of view is rather more with the lions than the Christians. ‘There’s a lot of talk in the sporting news about the love of underdogs,’ the narrator opines towards the end, ‘but it really shouldn’t be confused with an attraction to failure. Really what we like to see is people winning and beating others—the bigger victim, the better’ [301]. Gracious, really? An attraction to failure would be, what—morbid? In a passage I had to read twice to try and work-out if it was framed ironically, the narrator reports on what it is like playing for a winning team.
It turns out that playing for a winning club is kind of wonderful. No matter what else is going on in your personal life, you’re always a little bit happy. Not deeply happy, of course, but as happy as you might be in this first few weeks after buying a new convertible. It’s enough on a sunny afternoon to be driving around in it with the top down, to be publicly visible.’
I don’t think this is irony; I think it’s as ingenuously shallow as it seems, which in turn makes the tonal qualifications (‘kind of’ ‘not deeply happy of course’) a little jarring. Jarring not because the passage trades in a kind of immodesty, but because if you’re going to be immodest you might as well do it wholeheartedly. Winning makes us happy; new cars make us happy; showing off to other people makes us happy. The converse is presumably that losing, not having material possessions, not having a crowd to show-off to, make us unhappy. That’s not fair, of course; Playing Days is a much more nuanced and subtle piece of fiction than that. And I suppose there is some force to the objection that a Jamesian, or perhaps more pointedly a late-Jamesian approach to the business of representing human psyches and their interactions can turn obliqueness itself into a sort of fetish, in ways that are more evasive than revealing. And there is a central point which I haven't made yet, but which is actually vital.  The largest trajectory of Markovits’ novel is about how he didn’t repeat—how he did minor-league basketball for a while in Germany but now he’s doing something quite different. If he was a minor basketball professional he is a major novelist, so we might want to say: he jumped the right way. And perhaps that’s one of the things the novel is about, as well.

**

A personal postscript. To go back to that Byron epigraph once again.
But I hate things all fiction—there should always be some foundation of fact for the most airy fabric—and pure invention is but the talent of a liar.
I want, naturally, to avoid the cheap trick of turning this essay about a near-memoir into a near-memoir itself, but I will note that when I opened the book and read that Byronic passage my first thought was: ‘hey, Ben really is a very different sort of novelist to the sort I am, whatever that is.’ Because that Byron quotation seems to me almost entirely wrongheaded.  It seems to me that any given novel’s relationship to reality, though unavoidable and even, to some extent, a becessary feature of its effectiveness, ought to be ironic rather than mimetic. Markovits is capable of genuinely brilliant ironies as a writer, here and elsewhere; but his overall approach here is evidently on the mimetic side of things. Indeed, only our chance proximity, teaching at the same institution, even prompts the comparison: for what sane critic would put one of my novels alongside one of Markovits’s? But my point is, on reflection I’m not sure we are that different as writers. I’m not talking, incidentally, in terms of our respective merits, something I neither would nor, frankly, could attempt to judge.  No, I mean approach, I mean the sort of books we write (whether or not we successfully achieve what we’re aiming at). To be a little more precise, I would say that Markovits and I are different varieties of the same thing: Romantic writers. Byron -- about whom Markovits has written a trilogy of novels, and to whom he evidently feels a complicated sort of affinity -- was, in one sense, the least Romantic of the Romantic poets. He despised most of his contemporaries, Southey and Wordsworth (‘Turdsworth’ he called him) most of all, and he thought the last great English poet had been Pope. He was a writer whose sensibilities were much more classical than anything else, and whose writerly self-revelations were very different to those of what has come to be called ‘confessional’ writing—extremely allergic to gush or self-pity, his self-revelations are staged instead according to a drama of self-conscious doomed nobility—a drama which, perhaps counter-intuitively, is as hospitable to the comic as the tragic. Me, I like Byron fine, but my heart has always been with Shelley and Keats (and even more, with Tennyson and Browning). De gustibus, and so on. I write science fiction novels of varying degrees of metaphorical extravagance. Markovits writes autobiographical fictions that evade confessional mush with a precision of tone and insight. I came across a passage from Santayana in a recent Adam Phillips book (the passage is from The Genteel Tradition in American Philosophy).  It strikes me as pertinent here:
To understand oneself is the classic form of consolation; to elude oneself is the romantic.
I have the sense Markovits’ writing gets him closer to understanding himself than mine does to me eluding me. But part of the thing this very fine basketball novel achieves is the sense that understanding is a less dramatic, more elusive thing than it is sometimes taken to be.

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** You might want to object that all sport is like this, but I don't think so.  To watch a film like Zidane is to be struck how much of the match that amazing player spent doing nothing very much, standing about, strolling up and down.  That's how I play football too, as it happens.  The difference is that when Zidane did get on the ball, he was astonishing.  Matthew Le Tissier was a bit like that, too.  Me ... not so much.

2 comments:

Tom Elrod said...

My one quibble is to say that hockey is certainly not thought of as a high-scoring sport. In fact, the final score of a hockey game often resembles soccer/football scores.

Adam Roberts said...

Quite right, Tom. Sloppy of me.