Australian Clarke’s first US publication is a genius-touched tour de farce that imagines the 20th-century’s intellectual giants competing in the biggest tennis tournament ever held.
The contest, in Paris, goes on for 36 days, one chapter per each, with amusements major and minor abounding from the start. Here are some arrivals, for example: “Buster Keaton was catapulted in from Belgium, Escher arrived through the departure lounge, Dali came by overnight post and Alice Toklas sent herself as an attachment. Einstein said he had come by tram. ‘But there is no tram to Paris,’ corrected George Plimpton . . . . ‘That might account for the time lapse,’ Einstein explained.” And so it goes, for 35 more days, in a wondrously comic tumult of personalities, anachronisms, jokes—and, of course, tennis. The sportswriter’s tone is just-right irreverent—as when “Bertie Russell” plays “the Spockster” (that’s the doctor), or James Joyce goes against “SuperTom” Eliot. Clarke’s one-liners can be sharp as SuperTom’s aces: “Not bad,” says Virginia Stephen-Woolf, “But it would be nice to get a boom of one’s own”; “I was lucky,” says Beckett; “ ‘Marlene [Dietrich] looked great today,’ said Pavlova. ‘I was lucky to get on top of her.’ ” All is not jocular, though. Paul Robeson leaves his country; Rosa Luxemburg is murdered; “Amelia Earhart is also missing”; “Bessie Smith never made it to the hospital”; and Anna Akhmatova “disappeared from the circuit.” Still, amid the century’s tragedies, humor persists, some of it biographic and scientific (“Wodehouse and Isherwood have departed for the US. Einstein left yesterday, last night and again this morning”), tons of it literary (“Eliot was now cautioned for banging his raquet on the ground and yelling ‘Jug, jug, jug, fucking juuuuuugggggg!”), with author Clarke even showing his own stuff in some wonderfully sensitive parodies of the styles of the greats.
Who wins? Find out for yourself, and be dazzled along the way as, thanks to the indefatigable Clarke, you also brush up on last century’s intellectual history.