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.

Out of the blue, footballers sometimes wander through Nabokov’s prose. In commentary on John Shade‘s third canto in Pale Fire, Nabokov writes about two expatriate Russians who visit the mythical kingdom of Zembla as contract workers:

It was delightful to watch the two splendid Sovietchiks running about in the yard and kicking a chalk-dusty, thumping-tight soccer ball (looking so large and bald in such surroundings). Andronnikov could tap-play it on his toe up and down a dozen times before punting it rocket straight into the melancholy, surprised, bleached, harmless heavens; and Niagarin could imitate to perfection the mannerisms of a certain stupendous Dynamo goalkeeper.

Children playing football in Karl-Marx-Hof, Vienna, 1932, taking advantage of the space available in the Vorstädte. In describing a Viennese football boom in the early 20th century, author David Goldblatt writes of “innumerable kickabouts and neighbourhood contests” in these unclaimed industrial tracts. (IMAGNO | ÖNB | Lothar Rübelt)

While such musings are digressive—more like an aside than a sustainable trope—major competitions such as Euro 2008 regularly inspire creativity on the part of hosts eager to demonstrate legitimacy as a culture concerned with more than mere sport. Austria, nervous about its performance on the pitch, mounted a literary festival and related football tournament. Péter Zilahy captained the Hungarian writers’ team to victory and, in an article for the Observer, noted how the country’s cultural achievements might answer an ingrained fascination with failure: “Although we’re not always brilliant at football, like the English we are superb at coming up with excuses, seeking victories in the rhetorical sense.”

At Vienna’s Technisches Museum, “herz:rasen—die Fußballausstellung” (“racing:heart—The Football Exhibit”) presents artistic and historical responses to the sport, with Austrian accent. For example, an interactive station lets visitors see if they can overturn Austria’s shock 0–1 loss to Faroe Islands in Euro 1992 qualifying. The Vienna Independent Shorts cinema program in May offered 11 films of Swiss and Austrian origin, including documentary and drama.

A community theater in Dornach, Switzerland, presents a specially commissioned musical, TraumBall 4/2/4 (DreamBall 4-2-4), featuring the unlikely union of legendary Jewish Hungarian manager Béla Guttmann with Sophia Loren. They guide a young lad in search of his football heroes (see video), including Puskás and Eusébio, whom Guttmann mentored during his European Cup–winning years at Benfica. Czech author Eduard Bass‘s 1922 novel Klapzuba’s Eleven has been adapted for the stage by the husband-wife team of Jean-Luc Bideau and Marcela Salivarova-Bideau. The show runs Jun 17–28 at Theater Saint-Gervais in Geneva (see AFP video).

One of the most substantive explorations appears to be the “Hors Jeu” (“Offside”) exhibit at the Musée d’Ethnographie de Genève, which runs through 26 Apr 09. Curators, obviously with long lead time, contacted craftsmen in Côte d’Ivoire to carve totems, from rubber trees, representing a holy pantheon of world football: Diego Maradona (“God”), Joseph “Sepp” Blatter (“Pope”), Michel Platini (“Cardinal”) and Victoria Beckham (“Courtesan”). The figurines take an active role, according to exhibition curator Christian Delecraz: “They question the visitor: ‘Is football a good lens through which we can try and make sense of what’s going on in our world?’ ”

The “Hors Jeu” exhibit in Geneva, which looks at football “through an anthropological lens,” covers totemic aspects. Some players carry gris-gris (talismans) or wear lucky undergarments. An Italy supporter carried this doll at the 2006 World Cup—pins presumably placed ex post facto, following the Zidane-Materazzi incident. (Musée d’Ethnographie de Genève)

But of all the literary, musical and visual inspirations on view, among the most thoughtful words come from Turkish author Orhan Pamuk. In an interview with Der Spiegel (“Football Is Faster Than Words,” Jun 4), the Nobel Prize winner—again, a writer who occasionally lets football take a scene-setting or background role in his fiction—confesses his conflicted views. On one hand, Pamuk says, football has offered him community. Yet his imaginary football has suffered from attendant “nationalism, xenophobia and authoritarian thinking,” particularly in Turkey, where the game has been a tool for nation builders—even before its stunning, Euro 08–saving victory over the Czech Republic on Jun 15. In Pamuk’s novel Snow, “secret confessions of a national goalkeeper” form part of a patriotic stage production at the National Theater in Kars.

Pamuk has stored his affections in memory. Of seeing Fenerbahçe matches with his father, Pamuk likens the players in yellow strip to canaries, “fluttering into the stadium out of a hole”:

I can still recite the entire lineup of the 1959 Fenerbahçe team like a poem. Of course, it has something to do with identifying with my father. We always sat in the main stands next to the VIPs, who looked like capitalists from a Bertolt Brecht play. Throughout the match they smoked cigars, a sign of great wealth at the time, and because a breeze from the Bosporus was constantly blowing into the stadium, the smoke made my eyes tear up.

We issue a call to playwrights around the world. If football can fire such recollection, the cast of 1937 Hungarian players now cries out for rebirth. Why not a reenactment, with these kitted-out Magyars as intermediaries, of the Joyce-Nabokov meeting on its 75th anniversary … in 2012 in Kyiv?


Michael H. Begnal, “Joyce, Nabokov, and the Hungarian National Soccer Team,” James Joyce Quarterly 31 (summer 1994): 519–25; James Joyce, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (1916; Middlesex, England: Penguin, 1981); Vladimir Nabokov, Conclusive Evidence (New York: Harper & Bros., 1951), 195–200; idem, Pale Fire, in Novels, 1955–1962 (1962; New York: Library of America, 1996).

About the Author

John Turnbull founded The Global Game in 2003. He was lead editor for The Global Game: Writers on Soccer (University of Nebraska Press, 2008) and has also written on soccer for Afriche e Orienti (Bologna, Italy), the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, the New York Times Goal blog, Soccer and Society, So Foot (Paris) and When Saturday Comes. His essay "Alone in the Woods: The Literary Landscape of Soccer's 'Last Defender' " in World Literature Today was nominated for a Pushcart Prize. Also for World Literature Today he edited a special section on women's soccer, "World Cup/World Lit 2011," before the Women's World Cup in Germany. The section appeared in the May-June issue. His next project is a book on soccer and faith.

Comments (3)

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  1. [...] was no master of the “greasy leather orb,” as he referred to the ball but, according to this intriguing post on The Global Game he was happy to rub shoulders with the Hungarian football team at a lecture in Paris in 1937. [...]

  2. The 1937 Hungarian All-Star football team was in Paris
    quite understandably — being in the playoffs for the
    World Cup finals in 1938, to be played in Paris. I lived in Budapest in those years and remember how dominant the Hungarian teams were — over even the Italians, who eventually beat them in the final. For a country of a mere 10 million, after a tragic war and more tragic peace settlement at Trianon, the Hungarians
    had nothing to be ashamed of in football for most of the first half of the century. Their prize-winning female novelist, author of “The Street of the Fishing Cat,” received her prize in Paris and was undoubtedly the reason the footballers had that enviable literary encounter with the two greats, Nabokov and Joyce.

  3. As a child fan of Hungarian football teams of the late
    ’30′s, I find their presence in Paris, sitting next to James Joyce and listening to Nabokov a rare reminder of those days of glory, when Hungarian teams regularly defeated everyone, usually from much larger countries,
    that challenged them in football. Thanks for the memories!

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