One of the reasons I love sports writing is that it doesn’t necessarily have to concern a sport that you’re into. Examples: I can really take or leave boxing, but would say that The Fight, Norman Mailer’s incantatory and sweat-soaked depiction of the Rumble In The Jungle, is my favourite sports book of all time. One of the reasons I’m now a cycling fan was the serendipitous reading of both Tyler Hamilton’s The Secret Race and William Fotheringham’s Put Me Back on My Bike within the space of a few weeks. And the experience of watching cricket, although I’m fairly sure it’ll never be my favourite sport, has been made immeasurably more gratifying by reading C.L.R. James’ superlative memoir Beyond a Boundary.
I feel a bit iffy over some sports due to their stultifying pace (hi, golf and American football) or their questionable contribution from actual sportsmen (Formula One, with your loaded formats and tiresome manufacturer’s monopoly, I’m looking at you). Then again, maybe I just haven’t read the right book about those sports yet. Horse racing is a slightly different matter, because I know I will never, ever enjoy watching it. And yes, it’s the animals-in-sport thing, and the gambling thing, which are obviously huge issues; debates for another time. So I picked up Gerald Murnane’s Something for the Pain with the same mix of initial trepidation, and almost immediate relief, that I felt with John Jeremiah Sullivan’s phenomenal Blood Horses, which comes from a similar stable. Trepidation, because of the questionable subject matter, and relief – because the writing is extraordinary.
Made up of a series of loosely chronological racing-related vignettes that chart Murnane’s lifelong obsession with the turf, Something for the Pain marks itself out from the start as something more than a sports book. Murnane’s intention, as he makes clear, is to capture the idea of horse racing as it unfolds in one’s mind, rather than to describe the action in front of him:
The fact is… I’ve never sat astride a horse, let alone urged it into a gallop or even a canter. During all the countless hours I’ve spent on racecourses, I’ve never really looked at a horse.
Conversely, it is the ritual and human spectacle of racing that rivets Murnane, marvelling that he is still able to recall horse names from the pages of the Sporting Globe nearly seventy years later; the colours of the jockey’s uniforms; how the riders were fixed in time as they rounded the final bend. He kept pictures of these action-packed last yards on a notice board above his typewriter, and eventually they became the only evidence that these races ever happened; another looming and recurring motif in the book is the passing of events into obscurity, and the attempt to rescue them from oblivion. He tells stories from the racing world that may never have surfaced again without this book.
It is obvious that Murnane is primarily a (rightly lauded) novelist; Something for the Pain is brimming with apt metaphor, concise description and easy, almost casual insight into human beings and horses. For him, the racing world intersects with the spiritual: Murnane quotes Paul Éluard as he stands in a cathedral, thinking, naturally, of the turf: “There is another world, but it is in this one.” Though no book will really convert me to horse racing, this one comes pretty damn close, and deserves to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with the very best of the genre.
Something for the Pain is published 26 May by Text Publishing
Post by Tom
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