10 Aug 2012

Nabokov on Boxing

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That ferociously raised eyebrow would intimidate any opponent.

Everyone knows that the late Vladimir Nabokov collected butterflies and played tennis as a young man, but who would ever have imagined that this rarified Russian intellectual boxed at Cambridge and once published an appreciative essay on the sweet science?

The Times Literary Supplement offers the first English translation of Nabokov’s December 1925 essay on a heavyweight boxing match between the German Hans Breitensträter and the Basque Paolino Uzcudun.

What matters, of course, is not really that a heavyweight boxer is a little bloodied after two or three rounds, or that the white vest of the referee looks as though red ink has leaked out of a fountain pen. What matters is, first, the beauty of the art of boxing, the perfect accuracy of the lunges, the side jumps, the dives, the range of blows – hooks, straights, swipes – and, secondly, the wonderful manly excitement which this art arouses. …

At the very tip of the chin there is a bone, like the one in the elbow which in English is called “the funny-bone”, and in German “the musical-bone”. As everyone knows, if you hit the corner of your elbow hard, you immediately feel a faint ringing in the hand and a momentary deadening of the muscles. The same thing happens if you are hit very hard on the end of the chin.

There is no pain. Only the peal of a faint ringing and then an instantaneous pleasant sleep (the so-called “knock-out”), lasting anywhere between ten seconds and half an hour. A blow to the solar plexus is less pleasant, but a good boxer knows just how to tense his abdomen, so that he won’t flinch even if a horse kicks him in the pit of the stomach.

Read the whole thing.

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