Winning isn’t everything (unless you are an athlete)


In a fancy literary function in Cape Town some twenty years ago, probably in early 2002, I was just about to engage in an exclusive conversation with the following year’s Nobel prize in literature laureate – when something happened…

Yes, I’m talking about J. M. Coetzee, the famously reclusive author and academic who migrated to Australia soon after my would-be encounter with him. I still vividly remember having observed him for a long while, and just when I had mentally polished a penetrating critique focused on a Finnish character in The Master of Petersburg which I had recently read, I could no longer spot the bearded don among the multitude.

Had he lived up to his reputation by vanishing in the thin South African air? In other words, would Joseph Brodsky remain the only Nobel prize winner with whom I had exchanged pleasantries?

The South African episode came back to my mind this past Christmas when I finally got around to read Here and Now, J. M. Coetzee and Paul Auster’s co-operative tome consisting of rather old-fashioned letters. At the same time, I was obliged to re-evaluate Coetzee’s exact position in the private literary pantheon of mine. How on earth could a literary lion of his stature discuss sport in a manner that can be best described as pedestrian?

Watching sport is a waste of time, the two giants of contemporary literature concur. A waste of time in which they regularly indulge – ever heard of guilty pleasures? Doing sport is something entirely else, of course; it’s a mighty meaningful endeavor since every single athlete, even the ultimate victor, must first learn how to lose. As with everything in life, losing is more important than winning, because … because sport, you see … sport mirrors life! (My copy of Here and Now happened to be a translation, hence the paraphrasing.)

That messieurs Coetzee and Auster proved unable to tackle the phenomenon of sport in a meaningful, let alone critical manner, somehow dampened my holiday mood. Where oh where are the first-rate Anglophone authors that would not only accept sport as a topic but refuse to peddle platitudes? (For relevant non-Anglophone authors, see e. g. certain works by Alfred Jarry and Per Olov Enquist.)

As it happens, Coetzee and Auster generously heap praise on their colleagues such as Philip Roth, without apparently recalling The Great American Novel, one of the (admittedly) least-known novels by Roth in which the narrator explicates a hideous plot to “destroy America” by making a mockery of “our national game”. This is how the philosophically inclined narrator perceives the meaning of sport:

“Winning is the tops. Winning is the name of the game. Winning is what it’s all about. Winning is the be-all and the end-all, and don’t let anybody tell you otherwise. – – Losing is tedious. Losing is exhausting. Losing is uninteresting. Losing is boring. Losing is debilitating.”

Enough! Read the rest of the bulky book for yourself. And be informed that when I started making inquiries into J. M. Coetzee’s disappearance in the Capetonian clubhouse, I was informed that he had never even made it there in the first place. “We really don’t know why he chose to stay away.”

Today, twenty years after the mostly enjoyable literary soirée, I can confidently state that Professor Coetzee preferred to watch Test cricket on TV with snacks and a cold beverage at hand.



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