Sunday, June 1, 2008

Sports Illustrated and Proust

In April, Odette at Reading Proust in Foxborough linked to a fine post from On-Screen Scientist, detailing one reader's initial inspiration for reading Proust: the words of 1950s quarterback Ronnie Knox, as quoted in the November 3, 1958 issue of Sports Illustrated:

[Quarterback Ronnie Knox of the Toronto Argonauts, an I-like-football-but man: "If I had to make the choice between a month of playing football and a month of reading Marcel Proust, I'd take Proust."]
The Sports Illustrated archive is now online, free to any reader, so I decided to see what part Proust has played in SI history. Between 1958 and 2004, Proust's name appears on thirty-two occasions. Most of these appearances involve metaphorical madeleines. For instance:
Memory works on its own principles. In Remembrance of Things Past, Marcel Proust claims that it was madeleines, small, molded cookies, that had brought his memory, the scenes of childhood and adolescence, flooding back into his mind. The mere taste of a cookie and one of the world's great authors was off for 1,000 pages of reminiscence.

That's O.K. if you're French, but the American in search of his past needs something stronger than cookies. For me it is airplane glue. [J.D. Reed on model-airplane construction, January 5, 1976]

Like Proust's madeleine, the jumbo shrimp provoke a remembrance of the season past. [Robert F. Jones, September 19, 1977]

Its wooden-ness, like Proust's madeleine, opened the floodgates of memory. [Sarah Pileggi on a yo-yo, December 27, 1982]
Steve Rushin weighs in with back-to-back madeleines (no, not really — I'm just attempting to show that I can use a sports metaphor):
The scent of a pastry set Proust off on a recollection of childhood three volumes long, each the size of a breeze block. Likewise, the distinctive odor of the Metrodome — of concrete and Raid and grill disinfectant — had me instantly feeling 16 upon inhaling it again last week. [October 21, 2002]

One whiff of a long-forgotten pastry set Proust off on a three-volume remembrance of things past. For me, insect repellent is Little League baseball, just as sledding is instantly evoked by a speedball of Swiss Miss and Vicks VapoRub. [July 7, 2003]
Sometimes the name Proust is a trope for all things brainy and difficult:
Where sport is concerned, a revolution has occurred. Bearded and barefoot students today find it possible to think about the draft, drugs, Marcel Proust and Fran Tarkenton simultaneously and without any sense of ludicrousness. [John McCormick, May 20, 1968]

Academic accomplishment and social activity are more important at Virginia than football success. For instance, the 1975 football program contains articles dealing with William Faulkner and Marcel Proust, and drinking during games often takes precedence over such things as paying attention to cheerleaders. [Robert W. Creamer, December 8, 1975]

As for pitching, well, like Cleveland general manager John Hart, we'll get around to that later. For now it's a lineup that's deeper than Proust that has the Indians flying. [Tom Verducci, May 24, 1999]
And sometimes Proust signifies fragility:
"I always said he had a delicate side. It comes out completely unexpectedly. It's his Proustian side. Tell me was he very attractive? I try to be broad-minded." [Ernest Hemingway, dialogue from "Miss Mary's Lion," January 3, 1972]

Did Proust jog? Why, the man could hardly get out of bed. [Ron Fimrite, October 8, 1979]
There are some wonderful one-of-kind Proust moments. Here, two comparative literature students liken writers to basketball players:
Proust (Bob Cousy) — Good peripheral vision.

James Joyce (Lew Alcindor) — If you like him, he's the greatest.

Yeats (The old Celtics). [Peter Ellis and Jan Feidel, April 26, 1971]
And a surprising passage in an article about boxers Ingemar Johnasson and Floyd Patterson invokes Proust's cork-lined room. Ponder a world in which the general reader was assumed to know enough to understand the reference:
Pursuing his happiness, if not Ingemar's, Patterson has been sparring in the Napoleon Room, Section 3. This is a free-form auditorium with ghastly brass chandeliers and cork walls. It might better be named the Proust Room. [Gilbert Rogin, March 13, 1961]
Quarterback Ronnie Knox has some fellow Proustians among athletes and sportswriters:
"I can't stand fiction, except for Dostoevsky and Melville, so I stick mainly to books about sociology, philosophy and political thought. I read a lot of Kafka, along with Camus, some Proust, Hegel, Rousseau and Mill." [George Saimes, Buffalo defensive back, on his literary tastes, October 18, 1965]

"He's a bulldog on a story, but a sweetheart of a man," says sports editor Ed Pope of the Miami Herald, who was a reporter for 50-odd years and still recalls his first meeting with Povich, at the 1950 Sugar Bowl. "I was walking down a corridor of the old St. Charles Hotel," Pope says, "and I saw him through an open door. There was my idol, the first and only sportswriter I've ever seen reading Marcel Proust." [Saul Wisnia, on sportswriter Shirley Povich, September 18, 1995]
But Proust of course was no sportsman:
"Be at No. 15 Place Vendôme Monday morning at 9:15 sharp," the wire read. No. 15 Place Vendôme is the address of Paris' Ritz Hotel, where two days earlier my wife and I had met the owner, Charles Ritz, and had promptly earned his disapproval of our fly-casting techniques. I wanted to talk to him not about fishing but about the literary associations of the Ritz—which is so very rich in them—but when I asked Charles for his recollections of Proust, who for years dined there nightly, he said, "I may have seen him. He was another flyswatter." That was Charles' name for anybody who was not a fly-fisherman. I dropped the subject." [William Humphrey, July 16, 1979]
The no. 1 Proustian at Sports Illustrated was Robert Cantwell, a journalist, biographer, and, in the 1930s, a novelist. A memorial tribute by publisher Kelso F. Sutton in the December 18, 1978 SI quotes F. Scott Fitzgerald praising Cantwell as a writer who "'learned a better lesson from Proust than Thornton Wilder did and has a destiny of no mean star.'"

Here is Cantwell writing about Emily Post and invoking Proust's world:
Mrs. Post had a good deal in common with the characters in Proust's novels, a sort of lordly impracticality that was coupled with shrewd common sense. [June 22, 1964]
Emily Post in Sports Illustrated? Yes, the article is about motor sports, and Post wrote By Motor to the Golden Gate.

A more extended Proustian excursion, from a profile of Jacqueline Piatigorsky, chess-tournament sponsor:
A vague, opaque expression seems to settle on her features when she remembers Paris, but from the bits and fragments of her recollections you can recognize something: she lived in the sort of social and intellectual world that Marcel Proust described in the early, glowing volumes of Remembrance of Things Past. Devoted students of Proust have carefully traced the connections between the Rothschilds and the originals of some of the characters in Proust's great novel, and Gaston Calmann-Lévy, Proust's publisher, was a close friend of Jacqueline's parents. Faced in reality with the sort of elegance and sumptuous grandeur that Proust evoked so brilliantly in fiction, she wanted to get the hell out of there. [September 5, 1966]
Cantwell's monument to Proust is the article "Bright Threads in His Tapestry," a piece on the role of sport in Proust's life and work, with some beautiful evocations of the second volume of In Search of Lost Time, the world of Balbec and la petite bande of girls who captivate the novel's narrator. Just one passage:
Easily amused by anything ludicrous, they are turned off by people who are thoughtful, sensitive, shy or constrained, qualities, they say, which "don't appeal." But they make an exception in his case, and soon he is spending most of his time among them, awkwardly trying to keep up with the games they play naturally, philosophizing over matters they take for granted. His first impression of them was altogether wrong. They are the daughters of well-to-do families, followers of a new informal fashion, the products of a new wealth and leisure and the habit of physical culture. In love with all of them, he gradually centers on Albertine, "the bacchante with the bicycle" and "the frenzied muse of the golf-course." She has laughing eyes and colorless cheeks, her polo cap giving her a tough, rakish air. The novel turns imperceptibly into the story of their love affair. "Now I was keenly interested in golf and lawn-tennis," he remembered. "The world seemed more interesting to me…I was a new man." [December 17, 1973]
Any Proust reader will want to read all of Cantwell's piece. Anyone else has likely given up on this post by now.

[This post is for my friend Stefan Hagemann, who knows baseball and Proust very well.]
All Proust posts (via Pinboard)

comments: 2

Anonymous said...

Thanks, Michael. I enjoyed the post a great deal, especially your invitation that we imagine a world where such references are generally understood by average readers, so to find your generous dedication at its conclusion was, as Krusty the Klown would say, the sweetest plum.

Michael Leddy said...

I'm glad you enjoyed this post, Stefan.