No 18: The Mighty Waltzer by Howard Jacobson

What’s it all about?

Oliver Waltzer is a ping pong player extraordinaire. Growing up in Manchester’s Jewish community, he discovers and hones his skills on the table tennis table using an edition of the Everyman’s Library as a bat and the angles provided by the anaglypta wallpaper of his family home as an opponent. By the time he finds his way into the embrace of the Akiva Social Club Table Tennis Team, picking up a proper bat along the way, he is a champion in the making. His love of the game, the camaraderie of the club and its denizens, and the social mores of 1960s Manchester take him, via the Kardomah coffee bar and the markets of the north west, to Cambridge and beyond, self-consciously shaping his adult life.

What’s it got to do with leisure?

The Mighty Waltzer might be unique in its standing as a – the – table tennis novel. There is sufficient detail of the game to satisfy the most ardent table tennis aficionado, not least in the agonies of bat selection and the arrival of the dreaded sponge bat, but Jacobson wields the minutiae of the game easily enough for the non-ping-ponger to assimilate the information and move on with the characters and their travails. Using table tennis as its vehicle, The Mighty Waltzer goes a long way to explaining the obsessive nature of sport, the lure and the hold it has for so many of us. As Oliver Waltzer explains when describing his seven-year-old self and his lack of sporting prowess up to that point, ping pong “met me half-way. It made concessions to my solitary nature. Ping-pong is airless and cramped and repetitive and self-absorbed, and so was I. But we sniffed greatness in each other.”

Why should I read it?

While there is any number of novels with a sporting theme, there are few that are of any significant merit and even fewer that are worthy of the investment of precious reading time. The Mighty Waltzer is among this happy few. Jacobson’s merit as a novelist was recently recognised by the judges of the Man Booker prize for another novel but his immense skill as a teller of stories, confessor of sins and chronicler of human failings is also on show here. For a group of Jewish boys growing up in Manchester ping-pong was about a lot more than sport. It was about ping-pong balls as “the music of the spheres”, about playing with style that belied the game’s, and the players’, working-class backgrounds, and ultimately about chasing life itself, enduring the agonies of “the illness of winning… a role call of the psychotic”, striving through “this history of embarrassments” only to realise that being the owner of the best backhand flick in the north west of England was still not good enough to get into Lorna Peachey’s pants.

Jacobson weaves the story of Oliver Waltzer from the streets of Manchester to the quadrangles of Cambridge and the canals of Venice with a fine attention to the detail of Oliver’s anguish, the existential angst that drives him to question every aspect of his life and every aspect of the lives of everyone else. Despite this angst, but, of course, because of it, The Mighty Waltzer is very funny; a self-imposed, self-analytical would-be tragedy that is deeply comic. His explanation of the role of the yo-yo as a tool of anti-fascism sets the tone early in the novel and the air of fatalism and fatality which is played to full comic effect brings the reader into a shared understanding of world in which Benny the Pole is widely lauded as the first person in Manchester to wear suede and snakeskin shoes.

Anyone in love with table tennis will find the novel they have been longing for, while anyone with their roots in Manchester and the north west will warm to the intimate sense of place. However, anyone with any interest in life and the human condition will appreciate the understated grandeur of The Mighty Waltzer.





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“Using table tennis as its vehicle, The Mighty Waltzer goes a long way to explaining the obsessive nature of sport, the lure and the hold it has for so many of us.”
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