In 1937 appearance, Joyce joined Hungarians ‘in the middle’

June 16 is Bloomsday, a secular Irish holiday commemorating Leopold Bloom‘s pub-crawling, spouse-avoiding, self-pleasuring peregrination through Dublin on 16 Jun 1904—selected by James Joyce as the day, in Ulysses, that Bloom and his mundane existence take on epic scale, corresponding in outline to Odysseus‘s 10-year trek back to Ithaca.

Joyce writes about Gaelic football early in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man—“after every charge and thud of the footballers the greasy leather orb flew like a heavy bird through the grey light.” Still more significant, given the ongoing European Championships and associated cultural programming, is an extraordinary literary encounter in Paris in Feb 1937. Joyce, Vladimir Nabokov—the up-and-coming Russian exile yet to find his niche in English-language literature and lepidoptera at Cornell University—and the Hungarian national football team crossed paths for perhaps the only time.

Joyce lived in Trieste—then part of Austria-Hungary—while writing Ulysses, a book in which football does not feature. The statue is on the Ponterosso, near the Hotel James Joyce.

The circumstances, as one might guess, were unusual. Nabokov and Joyce had not met formally, yet Joyce felt called to attend Nabokov’s lecture honoring the centenary of Russian poet Alexander Pushkin‘s death. Nabokov, then 37, filled in for a female Hungarian novelist, word of whose illness had yet to trickle through the expatriate Hungarian population. That contingent, on this night, apparently included a critical mass of literarily inclined footballers. Nabokov, in Strong Opinions, confesses his nervousness before the event but was heartened by “the sight of Joyce sitting, arms folded and glasses glinting, in the midst of the Hungarian football team.” He continues in a later interview:

[T]here in the middle of the Hungarian soccer team sat Joyce—he was a rather small man, you know—and he sat there with his dark glasses on and his cane and paid perfect attention to my lecture.

So many questions jump to the fore it is difficult to set them all down. Why was Nabokov certain that this was the Hungarian national team? Did they introduce themselves as such? Did he know them on sight? Were they wearing Hungarian kit? Or was this a soccer team, of unknown provenance, consisting in the main of Hungarians? A touring club side? An age-group team? Did they ask questions of Nabokov? Were they disappointed that the Hungarian novelist had not shown up? Had Nabokov (or Joyce) invited the footballers?

FIFA records do not indicate fixtures for Hungary in this time period. The Hungarian side’s previous competitive match had been in Dec 1936—coincidentally, a friendly in Dublin against the Irish Free State, which endured from 1922–37. Hungary won 3–2. The senior team would not play a competitive game again until Apr 1937, the month and year of Ferenc Puskás‘s birth. At the 1938 World Cup final—which was in Paris—Hungary lost 2–4 to Italy.

We know that Nabokov, a native of Saint Petersburg, was a fan and player; Joyce was not. At some length, Nabokov writes in Conclusive Evidence and also in the revised version of his autobiography, Speak, Memory, about a fondness for tending goal that blossomed at Cambridge: “[S]occer has remained a wind-swept clearing in the middle of a rather muddled period.” He continues:

I was crazy about goal keeping. In Russia and the Latin countries, that gallant art had been always surrounded with an aura of singular glamor. Aloof, solitary, impassive, the crack goalie is followed in the streets by entranced small boys. He vies with the matador and the flying ace as an object of thrilled adulation. His sweater, his peaked cap, his knee-guards, the gloves protruding from the hip-pocket of his shorts, set him apart from the rest of the team. He is the lone eagle, the man of mystery, the last defender.

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