Books: Muscling in at the light end

A long wrestling career encouraged Garp's creator to try the written word. A case of upping the metaphoric rate, says Harry Pearson; The Imaginary Girlfriend by John Irving Bloomsbury, pounds 9.99
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John Irving's memoir, The Imaginary Girlfriend, is largely about wrestling. At competition level, wrestling is broken down into weight classes. Weight defines a wrestler. After 33 years spent in the sport, as competitor, referee and coach, weight is something the author of The World According to Garp finds hard to ignore.

As a consequence, he has written the first ever autobiographical work in which the word ``pounds'' features almost as frequently as the first- person pronoun. During the course of The Imaginary Girlfriend Irving tells us his own weight at various stages of his life, the weight of team-mates, opponents, coaches, friends and his three sons throughout their growth. This preoccupation soon becomes infectious, so that when Canadian novelist Robertson Davies appears without the, by now, expected parenthesised poundage after his name, the reader feels rather cheated.

When not writing about grappling, Irving spends the 148 pages of The Imaginary Girlfriend grappling with writing. In the mind of the author the two pursuits are inextricably linked. This comes as no surprise. A certain type of male writer, often American but by no means exclusively so, is always attempting to draw parallels between the practice of his sedentary art and something more physically dynamic.

When Hemingway stood at his lectern to write, he imagined himself stepping into the boxing ring with Tolstoy or Dostoyevsky (Hemingway had an old- fashioned view of the sexes and chivalrously refrained from fantasising about slinging leather at Charlotte Bronte), while warfare, sport and even, in the extreme case of Norman ``I bedded The Bitch'' Mailer, violent sex have all been grasped as metaphors for the punishing masculinity of applying ink to paper.

Irving, admittedly, makes a more plausible case than most, showing how, at 14, wrestling gave him self-confidence, taught him to focus on what he can rather than cannot do and marshal his abilities to maximum effect. The latter lesson is memorably encapsulated by Irving's coach at Exeter, the crusty and likeable Ted Seabrooke (``upwards of 200 pounds'') who tells the nascent writer, ``Talent is over-rated'', and in doing so suggests himself as a suitable candidate for the job of England football manager. Sadly not even these well-wrought analogies could prevent this reviewer (190 pounds) drifting off into a reverie in which a square-jawed novelist compared the exercising of his craft with ice-dancing or flower-arranging.

As a wrestler Irving did fairly well. As a writer he did very well indeed - overcoming dyslexia by the discipline and hard work learnt on the mat, and going on to critical acclaim and bestsellerdom. Chronicled by an outside observer this might have been a heart-warming tale; as autobiography, it seems a trifle self-congratulatory - a feeling reinforced by the occasional bouts of literary criticism. For Irving, poundage evidently defines a novelist too. Although modesty prevents him from telling us into which authorial weight category he himself fits, he drops a hint, remarking, apropros of his dislike of Oscar Wilde, ``I bear no loathing for writers because they are minor.''

The Imaginary Girlfriend weighs nine and a quarter ounces.