Saturday, June 22, 2013

Mordecai Richler: On Snooker

Much to the disappointment of my father, I was never into watching hockey. This came to a sad zenith when I'd noticed one night, during the Stanley Cup playoffs, that in his need to share his enthusiasm with someone, he'd dragged the budgie cage into the living room. (I realized from my bedroom what was going on when I heard my dad cheer, followed almost immediately by a startled squawk. Poor bird.) I wouldn't add insult to injury by letting him know this, but I hadn't actually shunned all TV sport watching. As a teenager I went through a phase of watching snooker on TSN. It was a short lived phase, but long enough so that even today if someone was to ask me (and you know how often this comes up) to name a snooker pro, I could have delivered the name Stephen Hendry.

It was that phase and my love of Richler's writing that led me to On Snooker, his last and somewhat obscure full-length publication from 2001. (According to Wikipedia, an essay entitled "Dispatches from the Sporting Life" followed in 2002.)

On Snooker, predictably, is not the most exciting book I'll ever read. However, I do think that Richler's enthusiasm and wit, combined with anecdotes of the sometimes colourful and notable characters in the snooker world, is enough to salvage the book for even those completely green to the world of snooker. (For the record, Richler concedes that while falling into the notable category, Stephen Hendry is definitely not one of the colourful.) While non-snooker aficionados will no doubt pick up some jargon, Richler wisely assumes that most of his readers will have some familiarity with the game or are there simply because his name is on the cover. He does not get into the rules (it's not a how-to book) or even how snooker differs from pool— though I admit stopping to look some of that stuff up online. (I remembered that the table was remarkably bigger but that's about it.) By and large On Snooker is part memoir, part love letter to the sport. I doubt anyone, Richler included, ever expected it to become a bestseller or one of Richler's more memorable works, but it's a pleasant diversion nonetheless. Like snooker.

There were a couple of missteps along the way. A few chapters deal solely with non-snooker topics: for instance Jews in sports. I thought at the time that such diversions would serve as some sort of metaphor: a snooker player setting up a future shot that spectators do not yet foresee, a complicated set-up that appears to be a mistake at first. Alas, the future shots never came. Richler didn't, for example, later reveal that Stephen Hendry was Jewish all along. It's as if he'd gone looking for examples of famous Jewish snooker players, but couldn't find any. Looked for instances of discrimination of Jewish snooker players, couldn't find any. But since he'd found examples of both in other sports, threw in that research anyway and in doing so managed to write enough pages to comprise a book.

Still, there were enough interesting snooker related research that for the most part, Richler stayed on topic. The plight of women snooker players, for example, provided relevant and fascinating reading. The angle I found most compelling was that of drug-testing in snooker. At first it seemed rather silly. I know they want to be recognized as a sport and all, but come on, drug testing?  It's not like steroids are going to help. I envisioned a muscle bound Van Damme guy, in a bowtie but missing his sleeves, shooting his cue and sending a ball into his opponent's face. But then, it was perhaps in Richler's own mocking of the practice that I began to see at least some logic. While some of the players mentioned in Richler's book, including a Canadian, have tested positive for cocaine, Richler balks at the drug testing. That scorn seemed justified when Canadian Olympic snowboarder Ross Rebagliati was disqualified after testing positive for THC, but I think there's a case to be made for some drugs being banned in snooker. After all, even according to some of the snooker players quoted in Richler's book, a lot of the game of snooker is mental, not, for instance, choking under the pressure of a championship. Richler himself, after just declaring that "pot is most-certainly not a performance enhancing drug," goes on to ask, "why should they be deprived of this relaxant during the tense days of play?" Then in snooker, marijuana would be a performance enhancer, wouldn't it? And should those who players who don't wish to partake in an illegal substance feel pressured to use it in order to compete with those that do?

Who would have thought that a book on snooker would yield such a fascinating debate? I'm guessing that Richler did.

William Shakespeare: Pericles, the Prince of Tyre

Pericles was the last of Shakespeare's play for me to read, leaving me with just his sonnets and other poems to go.

One of his more obscure plays, possibly co-written with another, it was still an enjoyable play to end on. It starts off dark enough, though. Pericles tries to win the hand of Anthioch's daughter by answering the king's riddle, even though getting it wrong would mean death. When Pericles hints that he has solved it— that Antioch is having an incestuous relationship with his own daughter— Pericles is unsure of how to answer. He'd also surely be killed for revealing the truth. Being left with no other option, he flees the country.

It is on this journey that he meets Dionyza who offers what is now one of my favourite Shakespeare lines:
For who digs hills because they do aspire
Throws down one mountain to cast up a higher.
I love this cynical image.

It's about this time that Pericles is set up with a new bride and daughter, only it's all short-lived. His wife appears to die during labour aboard a ship during a storm. Her body is placed in a coffin and cast into the ocean, and later Pericles decides to hand his motherless daughter Marina over to his friends Dionyza and her husband Cleon to raise. However, Dionyza has a daughter of her own and because she is jealous, assuming that Marina'll steal all her daughters' potential suitors away, she sells her into a brothel.

But then the story takes a strange turn in terms of tone. What was first a depressing epic, takes a turn for the... better? It's wanders into soap opera territory, with Pericles finding his daughter again (and even with her "virtue" still in tact) and then even his presumed dead wife, who had been revived by a physician shortly after she had washed up on shore. It's one of Shakespeare's more "they lived happily ever after" moments.

It's a departure from a man who often wrote the opposite; have a couple fall in love, then have a violent bloodbath. With Pericles, it was like Shakespeare got halfway and decided, "yes, yes, life can suck, but you know what? A play doesn't need to be about the reality of all that crap, it can be over the top happy if I want to make it over the top happy." Sometimes we need that or we'd all be out of hope forever.