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."