Book review: Football by Jean-Philippe Toussaint

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BY DAVE MARPLES – @DavidMarples

The first thing to unequivocally state about this book is that it looks beautiful. Minimalist in design with a beautiful off-white cover and the word ‘football’ neatly written on a card so tactile you want to stroke and caress it; all presented in a design reminiscent of Jean-Paul Sartre’s pocket sized edition of ‘Existentialism and Humanism.’

If that signals to the reader a weighty philosophical exploration into the nature of beauty and existence against a footballing context, then that’s kind of true – but only up to a point.

Jean-Philippe Toussaint – author of nine novels and winner of numerous literary prizes – is upfront about this from the beginning. The epilogue proudly proclaims:

“This is a book that no one will like, not intellectuals, who aren’t interested in football, or football-lovers, who will find it too intellectual.”

Of course, it does so happen that one might just be interested in football and also be intellectual. The two states are not separate islands.

Nonetheless, such a statement seems like Toussaint is whipping off his fencing glove and smacking the reader across the cheek with a wet fish as a challenge to dare to be intellectual enough to read, nay, to understand his pontifications.

Go on then. Challenge accepted.

Early on, Toussaint wonders aloud, to no one in particular, “I’m starting to get a bit fed up with football. I prefer poetry (I’m barely joking).”

The overriding emotion at this stage might well be to suppress an irresistible urge to grab the author by the cravat (got him pegged as a cravat wearer) and shake him while screaming in his face until his little nose is covered in your spittle, ‘I can enjoy football and poetry at the same time – I have a brain and everything.’

If such musings pique your interest, give it a go. If not, move on.

His thought process meanders on like a squiggle drawn by a kid who has consumed a ton of Tangfastic but is now experiencing the mother of all sugary comedowns. One constant though is his unhealthy obsession with the weather and wind. While in Korea/Japan for the 2002 World Cup (he was there you know), he muses:

“Then there was the delicious spring evening of the same Kobe stadium some weeks later, on the evening of the wonderful Brazil-Belgium match when, in front of my eyes, the eyes of a marveling child, a sea breeze gently rippled the flags of the corner posts in the tepid night.”

There’s more.

“I arrived in Japan, heavy, humid weather over Tokyo, a uniformly blue sky in the Kansai, slightly windy, with, here and there, via a sliding door suddenly opening up on to Osaka Bay, a gust of sea air catching you in the face.”

And from a chateau on Corsica where, for reasons unclear, he secluded himself away for a period:

“But this evening all that anyone could see would be clouds on the horizon, black, threatening clouds coming from the sea and flocking into the sky to make their way towards the village.”

If it’s not the weather, then it’s the food. At one point, we are treated to how he ate whilst in Japan:

“I took my meals at restaurants with Japanese professors who welcomed me into their classes, or alone in my room, snacking in front of England-Sweden or Spain-Paraguay on television, sitting on my bed in my cramped little room, my food carton spread out around me on the bed covers…”

Wanna know what he had? Sure you do.

“…sushi here, seaweed there, fragments of pumpkin, aubergines, spinach.”

Most of us make do with a cheese and pickle sandwich from a Tesco Metro with a bag of cheesy Quavers. More importantly, we refrain from committing such activities to print. The book walks a fine line between universal musings and good old-fashioned, self-indulgent solipsism.

Indeed, one could be forgiven for thinking that Toussaint is more in love with the ‘idea’ of football, rather than football itself.

Nonetheless, “Football” is not without some beautiful poetic moments, with a whiff of “The Great Gatsby”. Again from Corsica:

“I glimpsed a firefly in the darkness of a hot June evening in Corsica, a little streamer of luminescent green, crystalline and liquid, which sent out its fragile, motionless signal on the slope of a hill, between the grass and the rocks plunging into the darkness.”

Perhaps the novel is best read not as a philosophical treatise on the nature of the game but with a continuous loop of a French New Wave film – maybe Alain Resnais’ “L’Annee derniere a Marienbad” and its indecipherable plot – playing out while Toussaint imagines himself as Jean-Paul Belmondo in “A Bout de Souffle”, desperately trying to woo the reader with his existentialist notions on life while Jean Seberg wanders off – a little bored – in search of some actual football to watch.

FOOTBALL BY JEAN-PHILIPPE TROUSSAINT IS AVAILABLE FROM FITZCARRALDO EDITIONS HERE

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