Occasionally, we'll select stories — old and new, sports and otherwise, relevant and merely sublime — that we urge you to read for one reason or another. Today: newly minted Man Booker recipient Howard Jacobson on ping-pong's "boldest adventurer," Marty Reisman.
"Smash," by Howard Jacobson (originally published in 1999 in the UK's now-defunct Table Tennis News; newly republished by Tablet)
Suggested readers: Man Booker Prize nerds — Howard Jacobson just won the hallowed award minutes ago, quite unexpectedly! — and anyone who has ever read "String Theory"and found themselves pining for a version that is a.) about ping pong and b.) written by a Brit.
Marty wasn't joking when I first met him at the Ninth World Veterans Table Tennis Championships in Manchester twelve months ago. He wore a wild beard then and looked unaccustomed, unsure whether he'd come to the right place and what sort of reputation preceded him, like a leftover Beat poet about to read to a bunch of contemporary kindergarten kids in a non-English speaking country. He was carrying a shoulder-bag containing press-clippings going back 50 years. Everything you needed to know about Reisman, dated and filed, in multiple copies, there on his person. A walking data base of the self. Before I'd known him 10 minutes I was in possession of a hundred sheets of photocopied magazine and newsprint, all celebrating—more or less—his genius. He needn't have tried so hard; there was already great excitement about his presence. Those who travel the world playing veterans ping-pong have long memories, and they all remembered Marty Reisman with the sort of sweet remembrance people reserve for the summers of their early youth. He belonged to the Golden Age of table tennis, when players resembled philosophers of linguistics and prided themselves on the elegance, variety and of course the sagacity of their strokes.
Not everyone recognized him immediately. You're not looking at other people much when you're battling arthritis and want nothing else on earth but to take a ping-pong trophy home to Vilnius to show your grandchildren's grandchildren. But when he began to play, competitors around him stopped to watch, first one table, then another, until finally all 100 tables were quiet, and even the most sponge-committed of the veterans—oldsters with sprung sponge mattresses in their hands, who could stamp-serve and twist themselves around the ball in the requisite Quasimodo manner of the young—had to admit that table tennis played by a master of the old game was a beautiful sight to behold. And more than that, brought back to us why players and non-players alike had once been excited by it, and no longer were.
For table tennis, in the West, is in crisis. No one watches. Television doesn't want it because the ball travels too quickly, because points are over too soon, and because there are no charismatic personalities in the game. Although it embarrasses people to put it this way, table tennis has also become too Asianized for Western taste. First it was the Japanese, now it is the Chinese who are invincible. They are wonderfully athletic players whose speed around the table is breathtaking. But they play as though there is no room to play. They have reduced the confines of the game to a nutshell. And they play as though the world is about to end: not just winning the point but winning it immediately. So gone from the Asianized ping-pong of today are the slow, probing, witty cat-and-mouse encounters between the great lugubrious European players of the thirties and forties, lovers of labyrinthine prose and existential narrative, readers of the secrets of another's souls—what Marty calls the "dialogue" of ping-pong, the classical drama that has a beginning, a middle, and a resolution. Once upon a time they turned up in their thousands to watch attrition table tennis, in which a single point could last an hour. In excess of 5,000 smoking spectators saw Reisman beat Viktor Barna through a tobacco mist in the 1949 British Open staged at Wembley. At this year's equivalent tournament, held in Hopton-on-Sea (Hopton-on-Sea!—not even the English know where that is), just about the only spectator was me. And it's me again, solus, at Fort Lauderdale. And I'm only here to write a lament for the game.
In one sense, the lightning-quick and deadly-silent ping-pong of the modern sponge era is only fulfilling an impulse buried deep in the game's nature. Ping-pong is for the diffident. It seeks solitude. It is a touchy, thin-skinned person's pastime. Gossima, it was once called-something insubstantial as a moth's wing. A good name for a condom you don't notice you're wearing. Otherwise whiff waff—blow on it and it's gone. It was already suffering a crisis of self-confidence when I started playing it seriously in the north of England in the early fifties, a tissue-paper boy drawn to the introspection of the game and the easily bruised natures of its devotees. There was something never fully assured at every level of ping-pong, from the agonies of individual players, embarrassed equally by their own incompetence and the smallness of the arena in which it showed, to the defeatism of administrators, who squabbled ineffectively over rules and equipment and finally allowed every last spectator to drift away, bored by the absence of plot and the lack of adventurism. Anyone in advertising could have told ping-pong it had an image problem. It was perceived to be inglorious. Hence the importance of Marty Reisman, hustler and jester, who more than any other player made a public gift of his genius, refusing to distinguish between the table and the stage. Why, in that famous 1949 final at Wembley, he not only returned Barna's first serve behind his back but retrieved balls as though he were Nijinsky, with a leap and a pirouette. For a ping-pong masochist like me, playing in a shadowland of shame, belittled by the very sport I loved, and playing it precisely in order to be belittled, Marty Reisman offered a salvation of the sort many Englishmen before me have found in Americans. The salvation of magniloquence. Marty aggrandized what he did. He made a hero not a coward of himself. And for me he turned ping-pong from doggerel to epic.
These are the grounds on which I, like many others who cannot decide whether they love him or just suffer him, forgive the omnivorousness, and sometimes even the callousness (poor Steve!) of his triumphalism. The comedian Jackie Mason, who grew up poor with Marty, makes no bones about the self-obsession. "Marty's a tremendous egomaniac," he told me, "but a loveable egomaniac. He can't get over the fact that he's a sensational player. He's still intrigued with himself after 47 years. Like a kid with a new toy. But I never saw him do a bad thing to anybody in his life. If being obsessed with yourself because you're good at ping-pong is the worst thing you ever do—is that so terrible?'
"Smash," by Howard Jacobson [Tablet]