Boyd Tonkin: The sporting novel often underperforms, but it still has a team of champions


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The Independent Culture

Without any pommel-horse gyrations and contortions, I can offer one genuine affinity between Olympic artistry and the other sort of contest embodied in the long-list for the Man Booker Prize. Aritomo, the mysterious Japanese gardener in Malaya of Tan Twan Eng's novel The Garden of Evening Mists, also excels at archery.

Tan several times shows him teaching his student, Yun Ling, the Zen stillness and focus that lets the arrow find the centre of the target even before it has left the bow. These passages, as refined as anything in a consistently lovely book, should prove to the loftiest aesthete that the practice of some sports in the Olympic repertoire can and should adorn the literary novel.

Along with millions of others, what I took from the Games was a truly Homeric harvest of stories. London 2012 delivered the Iliad without the bloodshed (well, except for the boxing); the Odyssey without any non-human monsters – although with plenty of boats. In fact, the sheer narrative firepower on display – not simply in the thrill of the arenas, but in the long haul of personal journeys behind them – helps to answer a persistent question. Why does the sporting novel so often underperform, given the range and intensity of human drama that its settings can supply? Maybe, in contests marked by the pure and uncluttered pursuit of victory, fact outruns fiction and the reporter will sprint while the novelist limps.

Of course, some sports have inspired a rich and evolving literature: boxing, racing and cricket come to mind. These tend to be the activities that generate a complex, layered social scene around the exploits of ring, pitch or track. Several recent stand-out works find their momentum in disciplines unlikely to grace the Olympic calendar soon: horse-racing (Jaimy Gordon's Lord of Misrule); baseball (Chad Harbach's The Art of Fielding) and cricket (Shehan Karunatilaka's Chinaman). Yet golf, the cultural microcosm at the heart of Nicola Barker's The Yips (also on the Man Booker long-list), will debut at Rio in 2016. I can't help but find its presence - to use the contagious adjective of sweaty medallists - "totally surreal".

For social novelists, the solitary passion of the race-fixated athlete may deter. In a sense, the very title of Alan Sillitoe's classic story "The Loneliness of the Long-distance Runner" says it all – even though his insurgent Borstal boy bears on his fleet feet all the weight of class division. I can locate very few substantial British novels with a track-and-field theme since Sillitoe, apart from Brian Glanville's The Olympian.

Yet writers of a more existential bent may find rich pickings in the inward battles of the racer. Two finely wrought but boringly titled novels have dipped into competitive swimming: Bill Broady's Swimmer, and Nicola Keegan's Olympic-focused Swimming. From the velodrome, Chris Cleave's new Gold takes a storyline from the preparations of an elite squad of British cyclists for 2012, but balances individual struggles against a group portrait of a rivalrous band of teammates.

No worthwhile "sports" novel is ever just about the race, bout or match. Equally, any novelist who fails to capture the raptures and agonies in convincing close-up can hardly hope to succeed on the broader field of character and context. It's a balancing act to tax the most flexible of gymnasts. For a masterly demonstration, I would turn to rowing, and the Dutch novelist HM van den Brink's On the Water. Set in summer 1939, viewed in lyrical retrospect, it depicts two Amsterdam rower friends who, as a coxless pair, train with a German scientist ahead of the Olympics of 1940 – the Games that never happened. History, friendship, war, youth, memory: these waters run deep indeed. Novelists now drawn by the lure of a sporting theme could hardly find a better coach.

Queen Vic hires a champion among ghosts

The post-Olympic book rush will trigger a sort of shadow contest for top ghost-writer. It’s one that cycling star Victoria Pendleton, who had such a spectacularly up-anddown Games, may well win. Due on 13 September, her memoir Between the Lines has been written with Donald McRae, not just a world-class sports journalist but a nonfiction narrator of rare skill. His latest book, the autobiographical Under Our Skin, evokes his South African childhood under apartheid. Queen Vic should be proud of her pedalling partner.

Manchester's modern masters

Until now, Ford Madox Ford's Parade's End tetralogy has felt rather like the Faerie Queene of modern English fiction – so often cited; so rarely read; but inspiring such devotion when discovered. Its readers should soon multiply when, next Friday, Sir Tom Stoppard's TV adaptation of Ford's four novels begins its BBC run. And newcomers will have one publisher above all to thank: Manchester-based Carcanet Press, which issues the sequence both in separate volumes and as an omnibus edition. Michael Schmidt's outfit, a notable poetry specialist but one with a keen eye for the lesser-spotted classic of fiction, publishes all of Ford's work. Carcanet has always paid its dues to tradition - including, as with Ford, the Modernist tradition - while seeking out new voices and never sounding remotely fogeyish. Good taste, one hopes, will pay off in the end.