The wandering attention of Vladimir Nabokov

Vladimir Nabokov was a goalkeeper. We know this from his memoirs and his other writing, notably his 1920 poem ‘Football’, which he enlarged upon in his longer effort from 1927, A University Poem. He first got between the sticks at the Tenishev or Tenishevsky School in St. Petersburg, from where another poet who wrote about football, Osip Mandelstam, also graduated (more on him in future posts). In an early recollection from his memoirs Speak, Memory, Nabokov writes that the school was “distinguished by its democratic principles, its nondiscrimination in matters of rank, race and creed”. He goes on:

“The headmaster who knew little about games, though greatly approving of their consociative virtues, was suspicious of my always keeping goal in soccer ‘instead of running about with the other players’.”

According to Nabokov, to paraphrase, his PE school report would have criticised him for being a show-off, a non-conformist, and, worst of all in a ‘democratic’ school, an individualist.

Vladimir Nabokov in 1919

Nabokov as he looked in 1919.

Natural, then, we suppose, that he would have chosen to play in goal. After all, Jonathan Wilson, in his superlative history of goalkeeping The Outsider, describes one ‘keeper as “true to type…an outsider, a loner with a shadow across his soul”. Wilson’s book posits a number of interesting theories about why this is, and also references Nabokov a few times, once as part of a fertile list of intellectuals who played in goal, and also because of Nabokov’s glorious description of the Russian goalkeeper as mythic hero, also taken from Speak, Memory:

“In Russia and the Latin countries, that gallant art has always been surrounded with a halo of singular glamour. Aloof, solitary, impassive, the crack goalie is followed in the streets by entranced small boys. He vies with the matador and the flying ace as an object of thrilled adulation. His sweater, his peaked cap, his kneeguards, the gloves protruding from the hip pocket of his shorts, set him apart from the rest of the team. He is the lone eagle, the man of mystery, the last defender.”

This is goalkeeper as folk hero, caught improbably and in the present tense on his way to play in a match already in his kit (unless Nabokov’s goalkeeper is as much of an attention-seeker as he is), competing with other archetypes of heroism, one confined to the theatre of spectacle in the bull ring, the other always out of reach in the sky. But, unlike them, the goalkeeper walks among us and, indeed, can be one of us, or rather we can be him, even for a moment. This is the moment of the great save, which Nabokov also describes with relish in his memoirs.

But to examine Nabokov the ‘keeper in a little more detail, it is worth looking at Nabokov the writer and how he presents Nabokov ‘the character’. For as Dean Flower writes in his article ‘Nabokov’s Personae’:

“Every Nabokovian “self” encountered in his writing, whether it be memoir or interview, novel or letter, preface or lecture, is a fiction. While that may be true of many writers, it is peculiarly so in Nabokov’s case, partly because he draws so heavily and directly on his own history, but also because he demands that the reader look for him in his own productions (as Hitchcock did), and because he always ended these impersonations with a disappearing act”.

Indeed, Nabokov writes “the act of vividly recalling a patch of the past is something that I seem to have been performing with the utmost zest all my life”, suggesting how crucial such recollections are to the ‘performance’ of Nabokov the writer.

More interesting, then, is Nabokov’s recollection of how his some of matches saw the actuality of his goalkeeping becoming subordinate to his artistic urges. He writes at length in Speak, Memory of playing in goal for the Trinity College team at Cambridge:

“Mercifully the game would swing to the opposite end of the sodden field. A weak, weary drizzle would start, hesitate, and go on again…The far, blurred sounds, a cry, a whistle, the thud of a kick, all that was perfectly unimportant and had no connexion with me. I was less the keeper of a soccer goal than the keeper of a secret. As with folded arms I lent my back against the left goalpost, I enjoyed the luxury of closing my eyes, and thus I would listen to my heart knocking and feel the blind drizzle on my face and hear, in the distance, the broken sounds of the game, and think of myself as of a fabulous exotic being in an English footballer’s disguise, composing verse in a tongue nobody understood about a remote country nobody knew. Small wonder I was not very popular with my team-mates.”

This passage is pregnant with Nabokov as imagined hero in his own narrative. As a match, the game described seems unlikely, even fictitious, unless the Trinity team of 1919-1921 was extraordinarily good and could keep the opposition pinned in their half for long periods. Wilson also notes that at this point, ‘keepers were generally expected to remain fixed to their goal-line, and so Nabokov’s lack of attention would only become apparent when the opposition threatened; he had no need to prowl his box and could, in fact, lean against a post. The match is, thus, mythic in the same way that Nabokov’s heroic ‘keeper is: based in reality, but employed on the page to mean or allow more than the real version could.

Vladimir Nabokov

As a grumpier, older version.

More interesting, though, is the image of Nabokov the young poet, allowed by the vagaries of the match time to compose verse. Thomas Karshan illustrates how Nabokov uses a similar idea in his poem ‘Football’, where he writes of himself in goal being described by a spectator as “by birth/ From that wild country, where blood drops on the snow”. The Nabokovs of poetry and memoir overlap and merge, united by their position on a football pitch and the otherness that position inherently suggests. From a dramatic perspective, playing in goal allows Nabokov time to compose and the chance to overhear spectators’ conversations. Nabokov continues in ‘Football’, addressing a spectator: “You could not know,/ That one of the carefree players,/ In silence, at night, is – patiently – creating/ Harmonies for other ages.” The act of poetic creation is removed, in part at least, from the pitch, and into a more private space, but the match is recalled, perhaps to juxtapose the seriousness of poetry with the ‘carefree’ nature of sport. It is worth noting that Nabokov writes in Speak, Memory that “the literary set…frowned upon various other things I went in for, such as entomology, practical jokes, girls, and, especially, athletics”.

And yet all these things (Nabokov studied and wrote about butterflies and moths in academic journals – indeed, in an echo of goalkeeping, Roger Deakin writes that Nabokov was fascinated by them because of the “’immemorial link’ between overcoming gravity and transcending death”) are crucial elements of Nabokov’s personae. Nabokov is indulging in a personal joke about how the supposedly flippant activity of playing in goal in fact affords both the opportunity to write verse and the basis for dramatic action in the product of that writing. Crucial to these facets is the position of goalkeeper, whose literal and metaphorical separateness allows both. This recalls T. S. Eliot’s observation of the artist as outsider, even within a fractured self, from an essay published in 1919, the first year Nabokov attended Cambridge: “the more perfect the artist, the more completely separate in him will be the man who suffers and the mind which creates”. Nabokov presents himself as an outsider in the team, but his innate artist makes that ‘outsideness’ even more pronounced. Nabokov saw himself as an individual first and foremost, both as an artist, and as a person, and the goalkeeper is the position to which he would naturally have gravitated.

We have seen, therefore, that Nabokov deliberately creates personae in his writing and that, for him, the mythic ideal of the goalkeeper was a fertile archetype. Was Nabokov a goalkeeper in reality? He surely was, for he is unlikely to have lied so fully and well about the position purely because it works as a metaphor. However, there is little doubt that both in his description of the goalkeeper as hero and in his own recollections of playing the position, he used a collective understanding of the goalkeeper as individual, as outsider, to great effect. He may even have recalled a goalkeeping mishap of another Trinity College alumnus when writing. Niels Bohr, who won the Nobel Prize for physics in 1922, played as a goalkeeper for the Danish team Akademisk Boldklub in 1906 but let in a long-range shot (or not – accounts differ) because he was so distracted by a mathematical equation he was writing on a goalpost. Bohr attended Trinity College in 1911. It is tantalising to think of the young ‘keeper Nabokov hearing this anecdote at some point and filing it away.

Lastly, it is worth noting, that Nabokov could use the football itself as a metaphor. Nabokov wrote to the Marxist critic Edmund Wilson that he wanted their arguments to be “du choc des opinions jaillit la vérité like a football which provokes a wild scramble all over again”. In using football as a simile here, he is perhaps invoking the chaotic nature of the games he saw on the muddy, water-sodden pitches of Cambridge that were, despite their messy nature, capable of producing moments of great beauty. Though whether these matches were quite as Nabokov described them, we will never really know.

@putnielsingoal

Sources

Vladimir Nabokov, Speak, Memory (Penguin, 1969)

Jonathan Wilson, The Outsider (Orion, 2012)

Dean Flower, ‘Nabokov’s Personae’, The Hudson Review, Vol. 38, No. 1 (Spring, 1985), pp. 147-156

Thomas Karshan, Nabokov and Play, DPhil thesis University of Oxford, 2005, available at www.academia.edu/610059/Nabokov_and_Play/

Roger Deakin, Wildwood: A Journey Through Trees (Penguin, 2007), p. 63

T. S. Eliot, ‘Tradition and the Individual Talent’, from ed. Vincent B. Leitch, The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism (W. W. Norton & Company, 2001), pp. 1092-1098

With thanks to Jennifer Cownie, who can’t stand football, for the reference to Nabokov and butterflies.

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4 comments

  1. …..as was Camus, of course, whereas Socrates preferred the midfielder’s hurlyburly

    1. staggeredhermit · · Reply

      Ha, good. Camus will be making an appearance.

  2. Frances Assa · · Reply

    Frances Assa posted:
    Nicely written article on Nabokov the goalie. One little glitch though: Edmund Wilson was hardly a “Marxist” critic. See, for example, his essay “The Politics of Flaubert” in The Triple Thinkers, where he gives Flaubert odds over Marx in figuring out the political scene.

    1. staggeredhermit · · Reply

      I’m glad you agree it’s a little glitch! In my defence, Flower refers to Wilson as a Marxist, and he was a noted socialist, at least, and certainly influenced by Marx (as well as Freud – but I didn’t call him Freudian, it’s true). I would argue he’s more a ‘Marxist critic’ than any other school of criticism. This is why he took strong positions against US involvement in Vietnam, the Cold War, and sought to bring aspects of socialism out of authors in his literary writings.
      Alex

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