Tuesday, June 21, 2011


This is a blog post about tennis. Please bear with me on the somewhat circuitous path leading to it.

The aristocratic German nymphomaniac, Countess Franaziska von Reventlow, has in her charming memoirs a chapter entitled “The Era of Pauls.” (It sounds better in German, “Das Zeitalter der Paule”—kindly excuse the computer’s lamentable lack of umlauts.) In the early twentieth century, Schwabing, the bohemian suburb of Munich, was the German equivalent of swinging Paris and Vienna, and the Countess made full use of it, notably during one phase when all her lovers were named Paul.

I have never had simultaneous namesakes in my romantic life, but, distributed over a good many years, Patricias have been of importance to me. Before the definitive, supreme Patricia—my amazing, beloved wife—there was the film and TV professor Patricia Mellencamp, and, still earlier, the radio interviewer Patricia Marx (now Ellsberg), with whom I traveled through Europe.

In those days, I was better known as a film critic, and in Stockholm we socialized with, among others, the distinguished film director Bo Widerberg, best known hereabouts for Elvira Madigan, a fine film but not, in my view, his best. Bo invited Patricia and me to his studio, where he regaled us with bits of his forthcoming feature on the Movieola. While we were watching, he was summoned to the telephone, and, in the cat’s absence, the mice had fun.

So after some fooling around, Pat smuggled in a text reading Klippning (editing) by Patricia Marx och (and) John Simon, which amused the returning Widerberg no end. He also invited us to the premiere of his new documentary, The White Sport, for good or bad never released in this country to my knowledge.

Why “the white sport”? Well, aesthetically, because in those days tennis was played, exclusively and blessedly, only in white; but also, socially, because, exclusively and unjustly, only persons of white skin were able to participate. So the politically liberal Widerberg used the documentary not only as a tribute to the beauties of tennis, but also as a passionate denunciation of its racism. I don’t know what The White Sport did for my politics (if, indeed, I have any), but it certainly turned me into an ardent tennis fan. So here we are at my present topic.

I am only a selective sports fan, and then chiefly if the sport is televised. I do watch the Olympics, both the summer and winter variety, major figure skating events, and soccer when it is World Cup time. But tennis is my true love, albeit only at grand slam time on TV. Right now I am gearing up for serious Wimbledon watching. (Need I tell you how upset I get when bunglers pronounce it as “Wimbleton”?)

Stimulating as the three esses—soccer, skating and skiing—can be, tennis is the only truly beautiful sport that also requires brainwork. Beautiful even nowadays, when tennis dress evokes the Mardi Gras or  trunk dress-up parties. Well, perhaps a little humor is welcome; even the ancient Greeks had, along with their dramas, satir plays. Though happily no longer played in long pants by the men,  tennis still, to my eyes, looks best in white, maybe with a touch of added color as in, for instance, Novak Djokovic’s shirts.

The aesthetics of tennis, however, are much more than dress deep. Still, clothes, though they do not make the man and woman in tennis, are a part of the show.  Thus the barnstorming gladrags of the Williams sisters do not enhance their appearance, but the stylish outfits of tall and comely Maria Sharapova contribute to her appeal. Maria does, nevertheless, present a problem.

It all began with Monika Seles, who seems to have invented the grunt. A totally unnecessary and unbecoming feature of the game of many female and even some male players, it may help them release energy, or so at least they believe. Still, quite a few top players are perfectly able to dispense with this often earsplitting and tasteless addendum. Perhaps the worst offender in this respect is Francesca Schiavone, although she would be unappealing enough even without it.  Tennis, to be sure, is not meant to be a beauty pageant, but good looks, in men as well as women players, do not hurt, especially when you consider that far too many tennis women look like unsightly men in drag.

Martina Hingis used to be the one to watch, not only for physical beauty but also for elegance of play. These days there is rather too much hitting the ball hard from the baseline, and not enough stylish finesse. Of course the truly great players, male or female, combine powerful baseline drive with comeliness of movement and subtle placement of the ball. Still, such stylish play as, for example, serve and volley, is comparatively rare nowadays, although chip and charge, its somewhat poorer cousin, persists. Luckily, there are a few all-round players who can do everything and then some.

Here I instance Roger Federer and Novak Djokovic at their best, who amaze us with, among other things, their  spectacular defensive play, the ability not only to return seemingly unreturnable shots but even score winners off them. Yet there is something beyond either great defensive or attacking play, beyond tactics and strategy, something I would call natural grace.

Roger’s movements are nearly balletic, and I am not referring to acrobatics such as hitting a ball between the legs with back to the net, and even winning a point with it. I mean sheer beauty: litheness, easefulness, elasticity, poise—well, yes, grace. Djokovic, a witty Serb, has this too in his—dare I say it?—a somehow witty way; rubbery, perhaps, rather than silken. There is something wonderfully tongue-in-cheek about the way he goes successfully after an apparently unreturnable shot. Or the way he mounts a sequence of shots like repartee from a great comic actor.

But then there is Rafael Nadal,  He, too, has an all-around game. He can return serve like a brick wall, retrieve fantastic shots like a golden retriever, place winners into corners or on the lines, serve aces as almost any of the major servers champion, and  has been for some time number one in the world. Yet I have scant use for this Spaniard. On the court at least he is without charm, though off court, I gather, he can be quite appealing. His playing, however, is robotic, charmless, humorless, hard-bitten, almost bestial.

Among the women, there are quite a few highly competent players, but not, as of now, charmers among the winners.  Ana Ivanovic had the lovable winner quality for a moment, then promptly lost it. Sharapova is too haughty. For Wozniacki, Clijsters, and Kuznetsova, epithets must be drawn from the tubbier reaches of the animal kingdom; the pleasanter-looking Dementieva and even Bartoli, are unfortunately too unreliable players.

Most attractive and promising these days is the lovely German, Julia Goerges, now ranked sixteenth or seventeenth, but who, I hope, is climbing higher. She has already beaten all the graceless dynamos at least once or twice, and her blog postings, especially in German, are perfectly charming. I am rooting for her to make it to the top, although she may be just a bit too delicately feminine to steadily overpower the cows.

At any rate, tennis is no longer the racially white sport. We have Monfils and Tsonga among the men, and , of course, the Williams sisters, great, charmless power hitters, sort of female Nadals. Althea Gibson was a far more appealing player, as were Chandra Rubin, Zina Garrison and, somewhat differently, Yvonne Goolagong.. Among men, Arthur Ashe was a prince, with and without a racket.

Elegance, ultimately, is what I look for, and wearing white, for me, contributes to it. The only time I published anything about tennis was a profile of Mary Pierce for Vogue.  I yearned to do Hingis, but, alas, John Heilpern had beaten me to it. So I was given Pierce, a good player, but an erratic and, I am afraid, uncharismatic one. I found her French mother rather more interesting. But, at any rate, Pierce favored white; my profile began with “White is Mary Pierce’s favorite color,” a sentence Pierce found to her liking.

There is no getting around it: tennis is the most elegant sport, with the possible exception of fencing, which I took up during my Harvard days, only to have it be discontinued for austerity reasons during World War Two.  Figure skating, though lovely, lacks the head-to-head competitiveness, what with winners determined by several often chauvinist judges and questionable scoring. So now good-bye computer and hello TV screen; Wimbledon is calling, more alluringly than the estimable Bali Hai ever did.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011


I read on the Internet that Anthony Weiner’s (or Whiner’s) troubles stem from a typo he committed on Tweeter: @ instead of D, turning a private misdemeanor into a public offense. Typos are pesky things, and must have caused quite some trouble in the history of publishing—someday surely a bestseller on this subject will cash in handsomely.

Yet even if typos don’t ruin someone’s marriage and political career, they can give a fastidious writer a nasty headache. I have had my share of inflicted typos, although some are harmless enough and even a good source of laughter.

For example: I wrote in my review of High in my column in The Westchester Guardian that Kathleen Turner, as a nun in mufti, wore a pants suit, which came out in print as “ants suit.” This had me wondering what an ants suit might be: An outfit impregnated with an insect repellent to protect you in case you stepped on an ant hill? A technological wonder that could transmute ants into an inexpensive textile suitable for suits?

In another recent review—of War Horse—I compared the pleasure of catching the show to receiving my first major literary award. That became my “fist award.” Now this might make sense if I were a pugilist or could put my fists to an unusual type of intercourse, but since neither applied, this fist caused me quite a fit.

Still, typos, I repeat, are of two kinds. The innocent errors that could not have been committed by the writer, and the culpable ones, that could mistakenly be chalked up to the author. That kind truly hurts.

Moreover, it hurts not only the writer, but also the critic reviewing the book or article in which it occurs, unable to determine whether the guilty party was the author or the typesetter, assuming that such a creature still exists and hasn’t been supplanted by a robot.

It is interesting to note that some genuine mistakes can escape censure by not even looking like typos. For example, a “who” for a “whom” has become so firmly lodged in writing as well as parlance that even a strict traditionalist might forgo making an issue of it. But a “whom” for a “who”—an accusative where a simple nominative is called for—is gross and leaves one disgruntled. Yet even the venerable New York Times abounds in this indisputable authorial error, now that it has seen fit to dispense with the luxury of a resident grammarian along with some other niceties.

Similarly, when I read on the Internet the article entitled “The Twitter Typo That Exposed Anthony Weiner,” I feel justified in blaming its author for referring to a hacker “whom [sic] Weiner claimed had cracked his account.” This whom-for-who fallacy has become so popular that it threatens the supremacy of the misplaced nominative in things like “Thank you for inviting Jane and I to your wonderful party.” That one, impossible to gloss over as a typo and ubiquitous, may well become—disastrously—acceptable colloquial English.

I wish I could recall offhand an example of the rare but not unheard-of occurrence of a felicitous typo, which produces a merry verbal gaffe. Something like an elephant that held a midget in his trunk, or the famous student boner,  ‘The Templar asked Rebecca to become his mistress. The brave girl reclined to do so.”

Who knows? A lucky typo may even become accepted usage, say, “ants suit” for an ill-fitting garment that causes skin irritation. But enough about typos and on to their cousin, the misquotation. I am the victim of a particularly irritating one. In a 1971 review of a play called Abelard and Heloise, I wrote, “Diana Rigg, the Heloise, is built, alas, like a brick basilica with inadequate flying buttresses.” This in reference to a nude scene revealing her as somewhat deficient in the chest department.

To be sure, a basilica, unlike a cathedral, does not have flying buttresses; still, liking the alliteration of “brick basilica,” I took this architectural liberty.  Now it seems that someone unfamiliar with basilicas misquoted this as a “brick mausoleum,” in which faulty form it has become just about my only contribution to various anthologies of quotations, as well as to Miss Rigg’s own charming memoir, No Turn Unstoned.  This is unfortunate, because it would suggest some connection between the gifted actress and death, which I never intended, but which makes my sally worse than it was, and destined to haunt me unto my grave—no mausoleum either.

Wednesday, June 1, 2011


I just read about the arrest of Ratko Mladic, the Serbian ethnic cleanser, and my thoughts went back to Yugoslavia, the lost country of my childhood. Of course, everyone’s childhood is a sort of lost country, but Yugoslavia literally is: it no longer exists. Serbia, however, exists, as does its and the former Yugoslavia’s capital, Belgrade, where I was growing up. But Serbia was never truly my country, because my father was a Hungarian who came to it to make his fortune (he did), and my mother, though technically Serbian, belonged to the Hungarian minority, and never even leaned to speak Serbo-Croat properly.

Emotionally, I felt intensely Yugoslav, and proud of my Serbo-Croat literacy. I had published, at fifteen, a poem in the country’s leading literary magazine, The Serbian Literary Courier, which no other boy my age could boast of. To be sure, it was only a rhymed rendering of “Trees,” by Joyce Kilmer, whom I took to be a woman—Joyce—but it was a pretty good translation, if I say so myself.

So now I would be a man without a country if it weren’t for the United States, to which my family emigrated to our everlasting gratitude, and in whose Air Force I served during World War Two. Never, though, near either front, European or Asian. Still, being in the service, expedited my American citizenship. I was 16 ½ when I came to this country and speak with a slight accent some people find charming, though I’d be happier without it.

Here is how I might have lost it. At age 13, I went to public school in England—the Leys School, Cambridge, to be exact—where I hoped to go on to the famed university. But war broke out, England was being bombed, and my father recalled me to Yugoslavia the following year, before I could shed my accent. I recall that in the military, a fellow soldier (from Brooklyn, I believe) asked me where I hailed from originally. When I told him, he opined that it accounted for my “broken lingo.”

It was nowhere near broken. By that time I had been a junior at Harvard, whence I was drafted, and to which I returned upon my discharge. But it was too late for me to acquire a Boston, Hahvad, or any other kind of American accent. It amused me, however, that I had landed in my second Cambridge, where I took my sweet time earning a Ph.D. in Comparative Literature. I enjoyed being a Cantabrigian, and would have gladly settled in Cambridge, had not the gods wanted it otherwise.

Certainly I sounded foreign enough to Lorne Michaels when I appeared on Saturday Night Live. It was a skit about a good critic played by Jon Lovitz, and a dishonest critic played by me. Chatting backstage, Lorne asked whose army I was referring to when I spoke of my military service. “Ours, of course,” I replied, feeling at that moment very patriotic. “How else do you think we could have won the war?”

It had been a funny year as an English schoolboy, trying unsuccessfully to learn cricket from an odious little brat named Burtsall. He was the only one willing to give me cricket lessons in the Leys School basement, but he was such a pest that I had a powerful urge to slap him. Artful dodger that he was, though, it was only in the common room that he dropped his guard. There was a shilling’s fine for rowdiness there, which protected him. So I went up to the prefect, deposited my shilling in advance, and slapped the hell out of Burtsall. But because this was considered a sneaky, unsportsmanlike attack, the fine was redoubled. Thereafter, even without mastering a perfect English accent, I at least learned British fair play.

I have had my quarrels with both my beloved countries, the United States and Britain; with the English language, properly used, never. (See my book Paradigms Lost.) French, which I know well, may be more delicate, more elegant, more melodious, but English has the richest vocabulary, offers the writer wider horizons. At how many intersections of synonyms or near-synonyms have I pondered which to choose: heavenly or celestial, feverish or febrile, fury or rage? Even from the same etymon, did I want instinctive or instinctual? For the sake of rhythm or euphony, should I pick doctor or physician? And so on endlessly—or ad infinitum.

Language is, in a sense, my country. But Country (capital C) matters to me only during World Cup soccer or grand slam tennis. Even there, I find myself rooting more often for foreign teams and players. Country, otherwise, matters mostly abroad, where some nations are respected, others reprehended. Time was when being American, even by adoption, was hugely prestigious; today there are probably fewer envied Yankees than ugly Americans. I myself do not fancy the thought of being taken hostage or, indeed, getting killed as a mere naturalized American, whose ancestors were never slave owners or warmongers.

Well then, how much does Country matter? In the old days, an American consul could do wonders for you in a foreign country. Being American opened doors when you sought favors, closed them when you needed security. Nowadays I wonder whether an Albanian passport doesn’t provide more protection than an American one.

It might well be a better world in which nationality or ethnicity of any kind did not matter. In my younger days, when I was writing the language column in Esquire magazine that turned into the book Paradigms Lost, I was vastly amused when visiting Yugoslavs gloated about what they called one of theirs teaching the Americans English; next week, some visiting Hungarians relished what they called one of their own doing the same thing. There even exists a book about Hungarians who made it big in America, in which I am one of the chapters, although I never considered myself Hungarian for all the pleasure I derived from reading the very great poets of Hungary in their own language. Translations of lyric poetry always lose a good deal; the great exceptions—and even those of verse drama—are Richard Wilbur’s superb translations of Moliere and Racine.

Then there are the people who, based on my accent, assume I was born in Austria. The truth of the matter is that my smart parents had the good idea of having me learn a foreign language as it were in the cradle by means of a trusted German nanny. So my first language was German. Hungarian I learned from my parents, who spoke it at home., and during a summer in a Budapest kindergarten. Serbian I could then pick up from everyone else, at school or in the streets. I even attended a German-Serbian elementary school. So, for a bit, Germany or Austria was my second country. French came quite a bit later in private lessons from a delightful Frenchwoman.

My country? On occasional visits to Stockholm and meetings with Ingmar Bergman and other Swedish film and literary people—not forgetting a theater date with Bibi Anderson—made me wish Sweden were my country. And when, as a 13-year-old English schoolboy I traveled back to Belgrade on vacation, the Swiss were wonderful to me. A wretched French hotel concierge directed me to the wrong train, and all kinds of trouble ensued.. In Basel, I chose to change trains, and a nice porter who carried my baggage absolutely refused to take money from a boy with an English public school cap.

At the little Swiss border town, where I had to wait to catch the next day the  train I should have taken in Paris that morning, the station personnel were perfectly charming. They turned me into some sort of mascot, and taught me all kinds of things about each train that was passing through. At night, they wouldn’t let me pay for a hotel, but made me as comfortable as possible on a waiting-room bench, and sent me rested and cheerful off on the proper train. That I spoke good German may have helped, but I truly felt that Switzerland was my country.

I have had pleasant experiences also with the Dutch and the Italians, including their police, the carabinieri. Only about the French do I have reservations. Not about the upper classes, which, though somewhat cold, are erudite and witty. And certainly not about the lower classes, which I found good-humored and warm-hearted. Only about the middle class, which, in my admittedly limited experience, struck me as penny-pinching, standoffish, and xenophobic, and aptly called petit—or petty—bourgeois.

Take, for example, the couple from whom I rented a room for most of my Fulbright year in Paris: an engineer and his wife. She would drop in on me repeatedly to admire the books I bought with my allowance—mostly Pleiade editions of the classics—praise me for my French, and boast of having gone to school with the great French actress Edwige Feulliere, whom I revered. But always she informed me that I was by no means to expect her to help me meet the star. Not once did this good woman invite me to have a cup of tea or glass of wine with her and her husband in their living room, or even let me set foot in the rest of their apartment.

On the other hand, the lower-class couple, from whom a fellow Fulbright scholar rented his room, could not have been more delightful even to me, and, because I frequently and lengthily phoned their tenant, proclaimed me jovially le roi du telephone. Just as friendly were the flics (cops) at the prefecture, where I had to report for my carte de sejour. Because they liked my French and my humor, they amiably offered to get me a joint French citizenship, which I equally amiably turned down. Only partly because I did not want to become canon fodder in the then raging Algerian War, and partly because, despite their insistence that it had to be otherwise, I could claim not a single French ancestor.

I remain an admirer of everything about France except the French bourgeoisie. And since that is the class I would have been born into were I French, I never imagined France to be my country. Actually, I would like to think of myself as a citizen of the world, if only the world would offer me joint citizenship with the United States. World-United, what a good thing that would be!