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Friday, 7 May 2010

Vladimir Nabokov: Keeper of a Secret


Of the games I played at Cambridge, soccer has remained a wind-swept clearing in the middle of a rather muddled period. I was crazy about goal keeping. In Russia and the Latin countries, that gallant art had been always surrounded with a halo of singular glamour. Aloof, solitary, impassive, the crack goalie is followed 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. Photographers, reverently bending one knee, snap him in the act of making a spectacular dive across the goal mouth to deflect with his fingertips a low, lightning-like shot, and the stadium roars in approval as he remains for a moment or two where he fell, his goal still intact.

But in England, at least in the England of my youth, the national dread of showing off and a too grim preoccupation with solid teamwork were not conducive to the development of the goalie's eccentric art. This at least was the explanation I dug up for not being oversuccessful on the playing fields of Cambridge. Oh, to be sure, I had my bright, bracing days -- the good smell of turf, that famous inter-Varsity forward, dribbling closer and closer to me with the new tawny ball at his twinkling toe, then the stinging shot, the lucky save, its protracted tingle... But there were other, more memorable, more esoteric days, under dismal skies, with the goal area a mass of black mud, the ball as greasy as a plum pudding, and my head racked with neuralgia after a sleepless night of verse-making. I would fumble badly -- and retrieve the ball from the net. Mercifully the game would swing to the opposite end of the sodden field. A weak, weary drizzle would start, hesitate, and go on again. With an almost cooing tenderness in their subdued croaking, dilapidated rooks would be flapping about a leafless elm. Now the game would be a vague bobbing of heads near the remote goal of St. John's or Christ, whatever college we were playing. The far, blurred sounds, a cry, a whistle, the thud of a kick, all that was perfectly unimportant and had no connection with me. I was less the keeper of a soccer goal than the keeper of a secret. As with folded arms I leant 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 a fabulous exotic being in an English disguise, composing verse in a tongue nobody understood about a remote country nobody knew. Small wonder I was not very popular with my teammates.

File:Rook-Mindaugas Urbonas-1.jpg

Vladimir Nabokov, from Speak, Memory, 1950

Adrian Mutu rounds the keeper (Brad Friedel): Tom Clark, 2003
Rook (Corvus frugilegus), Siauliai, Lithuania: photo by Mindaugas Urbonas, 2007


Curtis Roberts said...

I love this. In the best possible way it summons up related memories of playing fields experiences from my own youth, which don't often cross my mind because of all the complicated associations they have -- the beauty and the weather mixed with the anguish. Coincidentally, I was thinking about these experiences this morning when I was discussing the evolving social structure of my daughter’s life and why I thought she felt about and reacted to certain things as she did. I like the painting a lot and the rooks. What uniforms are Mutu and Friedel wearing?

TC said...

Thanks Curtis.

Ditto about this:

...playing fields experiences from my own youth, which don't often cross my mind because of all the complicated associations they have -- the beauty and the weather mixed with the anguish.

One tends to forget the anguish, what with all the later anguish.

Then one remembers. Ah, the anguish. The things left behind on all those forgotten playing fields.

The dignity, for starters. What there had ever been of it, up to that point.

The tiny boyish beads of sweat, the occasional drop of blood. The broken digits. Ah, the greater fractures also. The torn and battered youthful ego. The loss of self esteem. The forfeit of any hopeful claim to the attention of the girls, who were last seen laughing as they turned away from the borders of the playing field.

Oh, well.

Mutu appears in Chelsea kit at the time. A year or so later he was suspended for drugs. There was later a long suspension and still later an even-longer-drawn out stretch of legal wrangling between the Romanian Mutu and the former club Chelsea, which had stopped paying out to him his salary -- but a wee drop of a few millions from the deep pocketed Russian oil mogul Roman Abramovich's legendary and indeed real multi-multi-millions.

Brad Friedel, the keeper in the painting, is in the goalie kit of Blackburn. (He is American, by the by, and by now almost as old as Vladimir Nabokov, yet toils on in the English Premiere League.)

(About the rooks, hopefully nobody will notice they are rooking-about in neither St. John's or Christ's fields but Poland.)

Curtis Roberts said...

Yes, that anguish (precisely). Thanks very much for the information about the uniforms, which fills in the context and is helpful to know. I have extensive experience following the passions of people who follow English soccer passionately.

leigh tuplin said...

'other,more memorable,more esoteric days,under dismal skies,with the goal area a mass of black mud,the ball as greasy as a plum pudding,and my head racked with neuralgia after a sleepless night...' - the scuffed glory of sunday mornings, the bickering, the banter, the sharing of loss and triumph, one man and his dog watching as you give your all. Glorious indeed.

Though I fear his unpopularity may have been added too by using the word 'soccer', still frowned upon over here :)

jim sharp said...

Thanks Tom. I play goalie in an over 35 indoor soccer league (aka the walk of shame league), returning injured most times to the glare of my wife and the amusement of my daughter. My middle aged body does however feel joy when outstretched and punching a ball wide. I like the painting and coincidentally have always followed Mutu since Tim Parke's book about his year in Verona with the team. A keeper for any soccer fan (pardon the pun). As well, might I suggest the German film "The goalie's anxiety at the penalty kick." How does one outfox the other?



Thanks for this remembrance of Nabokov's memory, which continues to speak so clearly of those "more memorable, more esoteric days. . . ." (And painting too.)


grey light in sky above still dark ridge,
curve of moon above planet beside branch
in foreground, waves sounding in channel

which in the end comes down
to, actual perception

a line, sometimes invisible,
thread appears broken

cloudless blue sky reflected in channel,
sunlit line of fog to the left of point

TC said...

Well, Curtis, I follow it both dispassionately, in the sense that I try never to care who wins anything (just so long as Chelsea give up points to Wigan tomorrow), and passionately, in the sense that I am perhaps a bit of a nutter.

Leigh, I find the word "soccer" impossible to say, intolerable to hear spoken, and a certain deterrent to reading anything, once it has made its appearance in a text of any kind.

I expect, though, that with VN it was a case of mentally translating from the Russian (in which there is no such word as "soccer"), and... When In Rome. (The book was, after all, written in that country where people say "soccer", and those were the people Nabokov had to please to earn his living.)

Jim, brilliant of you to show up here, a real goalkeeper, made my evening. (Sometimes insomnia has its hidden rewards.)

My sympathies lay with Mutu.

I don't see anything wrong with a keeper being over 35. Look at van der Sar, Cech, and so on. Brad Friedel must be closer to fifty than thirty and he stood the test well enough for Villa this season. Henry Green would have appreciated that.

The former keeper of the Nigerian national team once explained to me, demonstrating the close analytical and observational skills of a man living up to the Ph.D. after his name, how a smart keeper may "read" the small reflexive gestures and movements of the eyes and body of someone taking penalty kick, so as to try to stop it. Fascinating stuff. At the end of it he cautioned: "Still only works a small percent of the time".

I have had this explained to me more than once. Another ex-goalkeeping Ph.D. (why are so many goalies neurotic intellectuals, belying their playing-field demeanour of unshakable authority?) told me he had concluded that a clever goalkeeper should be able to figure out well over half the time which way the shot is coming.

So what percent of kicks should he be saving? I asked.

My friend shrugged.

Probably no better than fifteen percent, even if he guesses right, he said.

which in the end

-- as Stephen, and Herr Heidegger (?!), have reminded us --

comes down
to, actual perception

(Re. the film and book about the angst-ridden goalie, they were meant to be the subject of the other half of this projected two-part anxious-goalie post: that second part may now be found here; and I have put a couple of links to clips of the film in the comments box to go with it.)

human being said...

this is such a great piece, Tom... thanks for your always fabulous choices...

the way he describes the goalkeeper... his singularity... a lone eagle... the last defender... the keeper of secrets... these are the aspects i have always loved in a goalkeeper... the big responsibility on his shoulder... his intricate role/connection with other players...

and his own life... nights composing poetry and days playing with others... with rooks flying around...
all said so beautifully...

and i feel you there... think your choice is a bridge between us readers and you, dear eagle...

you have the same role in this game we play, eh?

you are a great defender...

TC said...


Soaring in like this and crossing deftly for the joy of others, you are a great winger.

My Polish rooks seem to have taken wing back to Gdansk, however, so I have had to bring in a loner rook from Lithuania as my sweeper. Perhaps a fellow spirit of yours...


human being said...

hey... these words form the eagle may get into crow's head!

Tom... you are a gem! you replaced the pic just for me... not to be disappointed... eh?

why don't they select poets as heads of the states... then the world would be a very heavenly place... no?

(i know! i know! poets don't play dirty games)

you made my day... like yesterday... (ah... here our days are full of fear and beautiful souls hanging from gallows and singing birds tortured in cages...)

and do you know what that rook is doing there among those beautiful blades of grass with its beak wide open?

it is watching the goalkeeper's feet... so agile and harmonious... like a beautiful dance...

this is what it's saying...


TC said...

Well hb, I've not been feeling so well and found that lying in the dark worrying about losing that those rooks that were meant as messages to you -- too much to bear.

Rooks are said to be able to forecast weather, and in some folklore their arrival is an augury of death. So they must be appeased somehow.

On the other hand, their name (Corvus frugilegus) simply means food-gathering crow, so they are probably a lot less spooky and superstitious than we are.

At any rate, I have turned up a couple of big black beauties for you, as well as an audio clip of their calls.


Some of the historical and mythical rook stories do give pause, however...

There was the rural folk belief that if a rookery were abandoned, it was said to bring bad fortune for the family that owned the land. This gets into literature as well. There is the scene of the empty rooks' nests in David Copperfield. David grows up in the fictitious Blunderstone Rookery where he subsequently suffers the tragic death of his mother.

But I would like to think that rooks are on the side of the angels. And another folk-tale holds that rooks are responsible for escorting the souls of the virtuous dead to heaven. That must be the correct one.


i ought to have remembered that, since there was a time that i loved SPEAK MEMORY ... and rereading it after analysis felt that it wasn't that good, since the way analyses refeshens a memory approximates proust... Nabokov is right about how miserable it is to play on a muddy pitch, i recall a dreadful moment, about 9 feet from the goal ready to shoot the ball and getting no traction, the utter FRUSTRATION of being unable to score with such a golden opportunity!

human being said...

just say something and a true friend never forgets it... once i told a friend that i think anything that comes to me has a message for me... and because of this, you didn't want me to feel bad about not seeing the photo, eh?

thanks for your concern, dear Tom... also thanks for this picture of the two rooks... a very great shot... their posture... their majestic color... the wooden fence... the hazy background all make up a great scene...

and such interesting information!
you know, if we think a bit, the root of some of these beliefs are detected...

for example, these bird can sense the future conditions of weather and climate... so if they feel that there's not going to rain much, they know there won't be much crop and food... so they decide to move to some other place... then after some time people see that they are having a bad life... they just see that after the birds left, everything changed too... and call this bad fortune...
there is a reason behind all things happening in this world... just we should ponder enough to find them...

and i really love it to know about all creatures especially the corvid family... as each day i feel more similarity in our attitudes toward life...

i can sense the change of climate too... a very horrible 'storm' is on the way... and then a 'drought'...
me too have decided to abandon my nest...
but i cannot do it as easily as rooks do...

thanks again for taking the crow seriously... and the time you put into your comments...

they mean a lot to me!
i learn more than you think...

may you always feel as happy as an eagle soaring in the deep of the sky...