Taking a turn ‘in the woods,’ confronting the goalkeeper’s choice

Many authors have testified to the goalkeeper’s feelings of exposure and of rising above paralysis. Not only Camus, but Vladimir Nabokov, Yevgeny Yevtushenko, Henry de Montherlant, Evelyn Waugh and Egyptian author Mustafa Badawi were goalkeepers, either in their youth or, like Camus, at amateur level. Football appears in passing in Camus’s works The Fall, The First Man and The Plague. He is credited with the saying, “Time is an irritating inconvenience between football matches.” In his work soccer and goalkeeping appear in positive light, as if it were an Algerian forward nicknamed “Watermelon” falling onto Camus’s exposed kidneys or kneeing him “in the distinguished parts” that pushes Camus toward engagement in society as alternative to the alienation portrayed in The Stranger. Camus in Paris supports local team Racing because their shirts, blue-and-white hoops, remind him of those from the Algerian university side on which he played. Spotted by a newsreel crew at a match in 1957 Camus is dismissive of the Nobel Prize he received earlier that year but protective of the Racing goalie: “We shouldn’t blame him,” Camus says. “It’s when you’re in the middle of the woods that you realize how difficult it is.” Camus uses the idiom that schoolchildren use when making a goalkeeper switch. “It’s your turn to go au milieu des bois.”

Camus's 1957 essay in France Football. It was written originally to support Racing Universitaire d'Alger, the side he joined in 1928. (Image courtesy Julie Gaucher.)

Nabokov, too, speaks with nostalgia of playing goal as a youth in St. Petersburg and at Cambridge. Footballers appear in many of his works, in Pnin and Pale Fire, for example. In one of his memoirs Nabokov writes, “I was crazy about goal keeping. In Russia and the Latin countries, that gallant art had always been surrounded with an aura of singular glamour.” Nabokov’s countryman, Yevtushenko, too, celebrates soccer in a 1966 essay in Sports Illustrated. With zeal he describes competing against a team that hid knives in their socks. They are called the Destroyers and play on a vacant lot behind a vodka distillery.

I do not believe every word of Yevtushenko’s tale, but he views sport and, in particular, goalkeeping, as participation in a full life. He balances what he calls athletic narcissism, “the cult of the healthy body,” against disharmony that comes from lack of physical activity. He favorably quotes composer Dmitri Shostakovich, known to support Zenit St. Petersburg. Shostakovich speaks of another musician: “What kind of composer is he if he is so scornful of football?” I should not need to point out at this point that these are men speaking about men. As the late Guardian football writer Steven Wells said, football historically in English society, and in much of the world, is a better marker of masculinity than possessing a penis.

In Nabokov, in his memoir Conclusive Evidence, published in 1951, a few dark clouds begin to intrude. The idea of the goalkeeper’s separation from teammates is broached. Nabokov admits gaps in his attention after nights of verse-making and calls the goalkeeper’s work “eccentric art.” Nabokov, fashioning himself, many years after the fact, like famed Soviet goalkeeper Lev Yashin in his peaked cap and black gloves, does more than keep goal. He keeps a secret. He continues:

As with folded arms I leant my back against the left goal-post, I enjoyed the luxury of closing my eyes, and thus I would listen to my heart knocking and feel the blind drizzle on my face and hear, in the distance, the broken sounds of the game, and think of myself as of a fabulous exotic being in an English footballer’s disguise, composing verse in a tongue nobody understood about a remote country nobody knew. Small wonder I was not very popular with my teammates.

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