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double jeu

23 july 2012

Michel Nareau's Double jeu is the most ambitious and wide-ranging academic study of baseball fiction to appear in many years. Double jeu is wide-ranging not just in the number of themes it covers, and its extensive close reading of texts. It's wide-ranging geographically, too, ranging up and down the Western Hemisphere to show how baseball serves as a locus for national and transnational cultural issues.

Sport literature scholarship, from its beginnings in the 1980s, can be roughly divided into two varieties, which I've sometimes called eponymously "Messenger" and "Oriard." Following the work of Christian Messenger, scholars look at themes of sport in the literary canon: baseball in The Great Gatsby, tennis in Lolita; such works include sport, but aren't necessarily sport-centered. Michael Oriard's acolytes study instead those works that, to paraphrase Oriard, wouldn't have anything left if you took sport out of them, and do so without regard to received standards of literary quality: genre novels, juveniles, and pulp fiction are as fair game as Don DeLillo, and quite a few of those genre fictions turn out to be well worth reading. Both schools of thought insist that an appreciation of sport as rhetoric, art, and culture greatly enhances our experience of literature.

Michel Nareau takes a distinct third way, though his approach contains elements of both Messenger and Oriard. He writes about a small corpus of fictional works that are definitely "Oriard" texts – they're obsessed with sport – but at the same time have high literary merit ("les grands textes," Nareau calls them on p.10). (Nareau defines literary merit loosely, either by noting that a text has attracted academic criticism, or by noting its use of modernist or postmodernist artistic devices.) As a result, he's not surveying literature or genre so much as a small, rich tip of their intersection, trusting that the concentrated cultural importance of a few works will enable generalizations about the iceberg of lesser literature below.

Of Nareau's eight central texts, I had read only half: The Universal Baseball Association, Underworld, The Iowa Baseball Confederacy, and The Great American Novel. The other four novels come from across the literatures of the Americas (the phrase littératures américaines in Nareau's subtitle is decidedly plural). They include an Anglo-Canadian text (Rat Palms by David Homel), a Québécois text (Bidou Jean, bidouilleur by Alain Denis), one from Cuba (Máscaras by Leonardo Padura Fuentes), and Peloteros, by the Puerto Rican novelist Edgardo Rodríguez Juliá. And of course, the whole point of such a book is to draw me out of my intranational complacency and get me reading more widely. I'm eager to take on the challenge.

Limiting such a study to just eight texts enables some kinds of insights, and prevents others. The strongest aspects of Nareau's work (fortunately also its central elements) are readings of themes like memory, nostalgia, repression, and identity. Seeing the experience of all nations of the Americas in terms of such indispensable themes as European settlement, contested histories, the indigène, rhetorical authenticity, and the tension between home and the frontier, Nareau can read his central themes across three languages and five national literatures (counting English-speaking Canada as distinct from Québec).

In excellent chapters that actively pull toward the joys of reading the primary texts he discusses, Nareau looks at the big trans-American themes reflected in his eight-novel "corpus principal." The marginal position of so many narrators in these novels (writers, observers, fans, researchers, Henry Waugh) throws their rhetorical authority into question, and shows that all discourses of the Americas are contested (chapter 2). Chapter 3 studies the tension between home and frontier, and observes that

Les romanciers étudiés utilisent le tension entre le home et la frontière inhérente aux identités américaines pour faire du baseball le noyau des tentatives d'habiter un espace problématique, une nature immense et une culture à la recherche de repères.

[The novelists under discussion use the tension between home and the frontier inherent in American identities to make baseball the center of attempts to inhabit a problematic space, a gigantic nature and a culture in search of benchmarks.] (212)
(Nareau here uses "repère" – "benchmark" – but his favorite word must be "balise," a guidepost or surveyor's mark; he is concerned with how baseball's clean lines provide order to a "wilderness" continent uncharted in the minds of its European settlers.)

Time is as important as space for Nareau, and memory is just as important as geography; in his chapter 4, he shows how baseball "devient un ancrage pour négocier les assauts des temps concurrents des Amériques [becomes a fixed point for dealing with many simultaneous challenges of time in the Americas]" (229).

I often wanted to read the unfamiliar texts from Nareau's corpus while reading his discussion of them, and even better as a gauge of the quality of his work, as I've said, I frequently wanted to re-read the familiar ones too. It didn't hurt that I read Nareau's close reading of The Iowa Baseball Confederacy during a five-and-a-half-hour, 13-inning game between Minnesota and Texas, a game that featured torrents of rain and the single loudest thunderclap anyone at the Ballpark had ever heard. If ever a game seemed destined to go on for 40 days and 40 nights, that was the one, and it went to show that one of the things we enjoy about magical-realist baseball novels is their frequent extreme verisimilitude.

In his conclusion, Nareau addresses some subsidiary themes (chronology, multiculturalism, and spatiality), and it's clear that he's generalizing from too few data points. Much of what he claims about the multiculturalism of baseball fiction is drawn from Roth's Great American Novel, admittedly interesting for its diverse cast of characters, but hardly representative. And making any kind of large chronological point from just eight texts across fifty years, from several nations and languages, is a doomed proposition. When Nareau says that "la littérature du baseball étudiée, prise chronologiquement, laisse apparaître un mouvement vers l'ouverture continentale [the baseball literature covered here, taken chronologically, shows gestures toward continentalism]" (351), one is tempted to note that a few texts chosen from a genre of hundreds can show just about anything one likes.

I also found several small items to quibble with, often about baseball statistics or paratexts, but I will spare both the reader and the author those quibbles, which hardly affect my assessment of the overall argument of Double jeu. Instead I'll choose one specifically literary point to take issue with. In discussing the intertextual play of The Great American Novel, Nareau notes Roth's appropriation of cliché and malapropism from sources like pulp fiction, journalism, and oral history, and his use of comic vernacular in the dialogue of players like Big John Baal. "Cette pauvreté langagière," says Nareau, undercuts "ceux qui sont considérés comme les héros de la nation, les sportifs, renvoyés ainsi à leur inculture" [this linguistic poverty [undercuts] those who are seen as national heros, the sportsmen, dispatched back to their illiteracy] (323)."

Sorry, M. Nareau, but that ain't how we write books in American :) The vernacular narrators of the literary baseball novel, descended from Jack Keefe and Henry Wiggen, are far from undercut by their struggles with standard English: they're invested with all the greater authenticity. Like their real-life counterparts from Dizzy Dean to Yogi Berra to Mickey Rivers, these guys are the real heroes: anybody whose subjects agree with their verbs is suspect.

But that's a minor quibble. I must say that, for someone afflicted with as much pauvreté langagière as me to read an academic treatment of the Pastime in the French language is one of those special treats in life, reserved for Americans winkled out of our shell of self-reference. Not only did I learn about some texts from beyond our borders and my language, but I got to see a pinch-hitter referred to as a "frappeur suppléant" (268), and the Chicago Cubs described as "éternels perdants depuis 1908" (260). Que pouvait-on demander de plus?

Finally, I want to indulge in some collective narcissism. The 30-year history of the Sport Literature Association has helped define a field of study, and Nareau's bibliography shows the SLA's work paying off. Arete/Aethlon appears frequently in his citations. So too do does scholarship by a host of current and former SLA members: Kerry Ahearn, Frank Ardolino, Neil Berman, Dick Crepeau, George Grella, Bob Hamblin, Allen Hye, Dick McGeehee, David McGimpsey, Don Morrow, and Mike Oriard. We've done well.

Nareau, Michel. Double jeu: baseball et littératures américaines. Montréal: Le Quartanier, 2012.