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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction


The Mighty Walzer

Howard Jacobson

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To purchase The Mighty Walzer

Title: The Mighty Walzer
Author: Howard Jacobson
Genre: Novel
Written: 1999
Length: 388 pages
Availability: The Mighty Walzer - US
The Mighty Walzer - UK
The Mighty Walzer - Canada
The Mighty Walzer - India

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Our Assessment:

A- : entertaining, very well written

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
The Guardian . 1/4/2000 Nicholas Lezard
The Independent A 21/8/1999 Bryan Cheyette
The Independent . 6/5/2000 .
The Observer . 23/4/2000 Tristan Quinn
The Spectator . 4/9/1999 Gerald Jacobs
Tablet . 27/4/2011 Adam Kirsch
TLS . 20/8/1999 Jonathan Bate

  From the Reviews:
  • "No, if the story has a fault, it is that at times it seems as if Jacobson has something else on his mind. Another story altogether, perhaps (the next one ?); or just maintaining the flick and vigour of his prose, and if the price of this means that we find it hard to distinguish between a few of his ping-pong pals, or note that the brief Cambridge section seems almost contemptuously scanty, then so be it." - Nicholas Lezard, The Guardian

  • "The Mighty Walzer is an amazing achievement because it infuses everyday experiences with a linguistic rhapsody -- a form of Mancunian jazz or Yiddish jive -- rare outside the great US tradition of Jewish writing. Jacobson fills his work with "viral swag" as Oliver's big-hearted father is a trader in "tsatskes" (or trivialities). There are few novelists today who can imbue the trifles of life with such poetry" - Bryan Cheyette, The Independent

  • "A master of confessional humour, Jacobson has written his best novel." - The Independent

  • "Jacobson writes like a player at the top of his game: alive to the comedy and sadness of the mundane, shifting the mood effortlessly. Part rites-of-passage novel, this book is also an exuberant reclamation of minor sporting history." - Tristan Quinn, The Observer

  • "The novel is a classic Bildungsroman of adolescent growth, sexual initiation, departure from home, disillusionment and eventual worldly-wise return to the scene of youthful triumphs and disasters. (...) Puzzlingly, though, for so mature a writer, Jacobson fails to detach himself from the resentment which seethes within his protagonist. As in his earlier novels, this takes the form of a misogyny that is more than just laddishness in the Amis mould. The spite reads as if it is really felt in the writer's guts" - Jonathan Bate, Times Literary Supplement

  • "Here, as often, itís in words themselves that the comedy of Jewishness erupts. The novel is packed with Yiddish words, which are never translated, helping to underscore the sense that Walzer and his friends literally speak a different language from their Gentile peers. (...) Surely no one has ever written, or ever will write, a better ping-pong novel than The Mighty Walzer. But Jacobsonís novelistic talent really shows in the way he makes ping-pong serve as a mirror, in which Oliverís neuroses and appetites are ludicrously reflected." - Adam Kirsch, Tablet

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       The Mighty Walzer is narrated by Oliver Walzer. The bulk of the novel describes his youth and coming of age in 1950s Manchester. A shy Jewish boy living in a house dominated by women (whom he adores -- a bit too much), it turns out he's a natural at ping pong. It's not sport that ultimately gets him out of his shell (to the extent he can get out of his shell) but -- much later -- sex, but he's never entirely comfortable with either.
       Perhaps the most remarkable achievement of the novel is how Jacobson conveys Walzer's passion for both ping pong and women -- and yet also shows how he fails to find full satisfaction in either. This isn't a sports-novel: there's a good deal of ping pong, but it's easily and expertly served up, and -- with a few exceptions (the great debate: to sponge or not) -- as compelling to the reader who has never picked up a paddle as it is to the devoted sportsman. Ping pong is something the narrator is terribly good at, but he can't fully embrace his talent: there are triumphs, but soon enough he abandons the sport. He gets into a Cambridge college (the "exclusively muscular college Golem") in large part based on their need for his table-sport prowess, and so has to take it up again for a while, but his return to form (he easily outclasses almost all his opponents again) is described almost incidentally, the sport almost without meaning to him.
       Part of the problem with ping pong is that it's not taken very seriously -- and even Walzer has trouble taking it seriously:

Something insubstantial, piffling, neither here nor there, like swatting at flies. You don't even know you're playing it. Why didn't they just call it that -- Something Piffling -- and have done ?
     And what do you do, Mr Walzer ? I excel at Something Piffling.
       Oliver Walzer has trouble with success. Most of the book deals with his youth, and only in the last few pages does he recount what happened after Cambridge (summary failure, quickly glossed over), the book ending with a reunion of sorts of his old ping pong club. Here he also mentions an encounter with an Oxford opponent, years after the match. Certain he had failed ignominiously in representing Cambridge, and that they had gone down 0-10 (or perhaps 2-8), the former Oxford player has a completely different recollection -- and even sends a newspaper clipping to prove it: Walzer and his teammates had triumphed, 7-3. It makes Walzer wonder about himself:
     Can a person be so wedded to defeat that he remembers it even where it wasn't ?
     And does that mean I can expect somebody to hail me outside Harry's Bar one of these days and tell me that my life has been one long success story after all ?
       Women are Walzer's other great failing. He starts off badly enough: his household is dominated by women -- aunts and a grandmother and mother, and only sisters (though he pays little attention to them). Among his self-gratifying hobbies was the odd exercise of cutting off out the faces of photographs of his older relatives -- the aunts and even grandma -- and "attaching them to the bodies of the toerags who flashed the lot for Span". It's a disturbing picture, but Jacobson recounts it in just the right tone (and sufficient self-awareness) to get away with it.
       Sex is tough and ugly though; he never gets it completely right. There's little focus on it: the somewhat disturbing initiation and a few other encounters (which turn out to be degrading for the women involved) are the extent of it, the rest -- like his marriage -- mentioned but with almost no detail. It's not pleasant, but it's artfully done. Tone is everything, and he gets that down right throughout. He doesn't need to say much more than:
     This isn't a marriage story. Everybody knows what happens in a marriage and it happened in ours.
       A good deal of the novel also focusses on Oliver's father, who finds some success in swelling swag. It's a fond paean to this lifestyle, of flogging crap, and Jacobson offers an impressive glimpse of this sort of 1950s Jewish life in Manchester. Oliver helps out, but this too is something he's not very good at, but his father does very well, for a while. (Unfortunately, dad has no sense of money or bookkeeping: all he knows is how to sell, and while he's very good at that he can't keep his accounts straight, leading ultimately to his fall.)
       Peppered with Yiddish, the novel also offers many glimpses of everyday Jewish life in those times, from the ping pong club to business to social life and marriage. It's a messy world, as Walzer sees it -- and he goes far to flee from it -- but there's a lingering fondness for it that he can't disguise.
       The Mighty Walzer isn't melancholy -- Oliver doesn't feel too sorry for himself, accepting his failures -- but it is touching. Jacobson has fashioned an impressive and highly entertaining novel. Most of the scenes have fine comic touches, and there are passages which are astonshingly well written. It feels slightly inconclusive -- Cambridge is rushed through, what came after barely mentioned -- but is still a thoroughly enjoyable and very good book.

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The Mighty Walzer: Reviews: Howard Jacobson: Other books by Howard Jacobson under review: Other books of interest under review:
  • See Index of Contemporary British fiction

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About the Author:

       British author Howard Jacobson was born in 1942.

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© 2004-2011 the complete review

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