Football Fever

Nick Hornby’s First Novel Puts Vienna On the Same Page for the European Championships

Nick Hornby

Nick Hornby, guest of honor at the gala in the Rathaus, where he talked about his
fascination for football. | Photo: Matthias Wurz

“We are proud to devote the City Hall to literature,” declared Councilor for Cultural Affairs, Andreas Mailath-Pokorny to a packed audience at the Buchwoche (Book Week) on Nov. 18. Nick Hornby, the author of Fever Pitch (1992), his first novel, which brought him international fame, was celebrated like a pop star in Vienna.

This year’s title for Eine Stadt. Ein Buch was a calculated marketing choice by Vienna Mayor Michael Häupl and publishing house, Echo, in anticipation of Vienna’s upcoming role as host of the 2008 European Football Championship: Fever Pitch is a form of auto-biography through – in Hornby’s words –“significant football events.” Some 100,000 copies in total will be given away to Viennese readers through book stores, libraries and special events. Previous writers have included John Irving, Toni Morrison, Frederic Morton and Imre Kertesz.

On the day of the reading – a Sunday when Austria’s largest book fair came to a close – the city also opened the magnificent Christkindl Markt (Christmas Market) in front of the Rathaus. As thousands of Viennese families wandered about between the booths, offering Christmas decorations, bakeries and Punsch, hundreds of Nick Hornby fans literally stormed the temporary Literaturcafé at the Buchwoche that afternoon to hear one of Britain’s prolific contemporary writers in his only public reading in the city.

At 17:50, Nick Hornby, rather small in stature but with a big cheeky smile, entered the café, situated in one of the Rathaus’ most magnificent rooms. The doors had been closed a few minutes earlier “for safety reasons,” but nevertheless, an audience of about 250 Hornby fans cheered their hero as he came out on stage.

Hornby is a declared fan of Arsenal London, one of the oldest professional football clubs in the UK, and in Fever Pitch, he describes his unconditional allegiance to his club, whose home games he, even today, hardly ever misses.

“Arsenal is not the same boring team anymore. They win a lot these days,” he said, but teased, “Nevertheless, they were ashamed when they read my book.” Reliving those earlier times, Hornby read from one of the memorable football games at Wembley, March 1969, when Arsenal played against Swindon Town, a Third League team, and dramatically lost. Hornby’s personal drama continued the next day in the classroom, knocked to the ground in the schoolyard.

“As I lay in the grammar school dirt, it occurred to me that I had made a grotesque mistake; it was my fervent wish that I could turn back the clock and insist that my father took me, not to Arsenal vs. Stoke, but to a deserted hotel dining room or the zoo… For the first time in my life I was different and on my own, and I hated it.”

The atmosphere of the game and the emotions of the 12-year-old Hornby are vividly told, rich in detail. Given the enthusiastic response by the audience, he evidently touched his listeners, even those like myself who have no particular affinity for the sport.

“I didn’t want to write about what’s going on the pitch; but write about me and the events on the pitch,” he said. They are more about life, like break-ups of relationships or the family matters of a teenager.

However, when glancing through the equivalent passage in the German translation, I cannot disguise my disappointment, as the tension that created a lively scene in Hornby’s original reading did not come across well here.

“I did not need to research this book,” Hornby recalled, “Those games that were memorable I have written about, and those I have forgotten were not. Full stop.”

As the reading drew to a close, hundreds of fans queued up patiently (in the best English fashion) to get their Fever Pitch copies signed, while others engaged in heated discussions about football. After all, the Austrian National Team had just lost to Britain two days earlier, 0:1.

On Monday, Nov. 19 at 19:00, I was back at the Rathaus. This time the event was a Gala in honor of Hornby, given by the Mayor for the sponsors of Eine Stadt.Ein Buch. Closed to the general public, those invited were promised a more informal meeting with the writer at the dinner following a floor show moderated by Alfons Haider. The entertainer did his utmost to keep his audience on its feet for nearly two hours, slugging through national politics and the disappointments of Austrian football.

But the evening was really about more than football; it was about football and books. And so, host Mayor Häupl pitched Vienna as a city, “where books can be promoted (successfully).” Within four days, all copies of Hornby’s free book had been distributed, to be read in easy chairs and under duvets all over the city.

But does the Mayor spend more of his spare time reading, or watching football, Alfons Haider wanted to know. “In fact,” Häupl replied, perhaps with a shade of regret, “I spend more time with books.”

Then, for a short time, attention turned to the junior players of Austria Wien, who all hope to become professional kickers one day. The five boys aged between 10 and 12, dressed in Arsenal football shirts, were able to share their skills with Hornby, who had played football for years, until he had to give it up following an operation.

“He is not in very good shape,” one of the youngsters declared to a laughing audience, and once the group pictures were taken, they rushed offstage and Hornby entered the limelight. The atmosphere was not unlike a football match or a pop concert, and the writer jokingly admitted that he enjoyed the attention of fans:

“I could do this all day long. It’s the writing I have a problem with.”

So, what are his predictions for the European Championships 2008, Haider asked. “I am positive that Austria will win,” Hornby announced to an astonished audience with a twinkle in his eyes; no one, of course, took him seriously. And as he repeated the declaration into the TV cameras, the auditorium cheered.

The Gala drew to a close with a Seitenblicke interview of Hornby by Nadja Weiss (Kronen Zeitung) and Sabine Spögler (ORF). The quality of the questions invited a bit of Hornby’s famed dry humor.

Would he rather receive the Nobel Prize for Literature or be able to play football like Pelé?

“I hope I don’t offend anyone in this room when I say that the Nobel Prize for Literature is always awarded to obscure Albanian poets,” he quipped. “I’d rather like to be able to play football like Pelé.”

The audience was in hysterics, when Hornby was reminded that Austria’s Elfriede Jelinek had received the Nobel Prize in 2004. He looked surprised at first, but rescued the situation elegantly by saying, “So, I have offended everyone in the room then!” And adding with a twinkle: “But I have read all about her!”

In football terms, this was an elegant lateral pass beyond the lines.

As the evening entered the informal phase, the visitors turned their attention to a lavish dinner, with conversation flowing over a glass of wine, and hopes rebounding of a chance to get Hornby to sign a book or engage in a short conversation. Sadly most were disappointed. The media schedule apparently did not allow for more flexibility, and many fans were turned away. As were the media, except for the state television and radio, and a couple of pool photographers.

A charming evening, therefore, ended with a sour note, and many left disgruntled,  turned away with an unsigned book.

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