Tuesday, 7 April 2020

Book review: The Tennis Partner, Abraham Verghese (1998)

I bought this memoir on AbeBooks after a person I follow on Twitter named Michelle Matthews posted, on 19 November last year, a link to a Slate article listing nonfiction works from the 1990s.

Subtitled ‘A Doctor’s Story of Friendship and Loss’, the book deals with the author’s experience with a friend met at his teaching hospital in El Paso, Texas, in the early 90s. Abraham Verghese was working there as a specialist in infectious diseases and internal medicine, and David Smith was an Australian who won a scholarship to study medicine in the US on the strength of his tennis prowess. Outside of the hospital, Abraham and David bond over the games they play together on local tennis courts. Smith was a better player but they shared a love of the game.

Verghese and his wife Rajani are ethnically associated with southern India, where a vibrant Christian community has lived for the best part of 2000 years. The marriage was breaking down at the point where the book starts, and so Abraham valued highly the interludes with David. Initially moving out of the family home where his wife and two young sons lived, Abraham found a rental apartment nearby in the town, which is on the US-Mexico border.

At work, Abraham was senior to David, and the author made concessions as the younger man struggled with his own demons. While Abraham uses his powerful diagnostic acumen to see things about David that perhaps only a doctor could see there is, in the memoir, a lack of attention given to Abraham’s relationship with Rajani. Though the author is attentive to the reasons behind the changes in David Smith’s circumstances, the reasons for the breakdown of Abraham’s marriage are obscure. It just didn’t work out, and we’re left to be satisfied with that. This is not like a book of Knausgaard’s, where every stray thought is captured and displayed in the author’s attempt to render meaning.

When he is being sincere it’s perhaps unfair to blame an author for not being innovative, but Abraham’s reluctance to include certain things in his account reduces the power of his story. Abraham alternately sees a flaw in David’s character and evidence of an illness but he seems not to accurately read his own reactions to the problem and the reader of the book is left wondering if he is perhaps not a reliable witness. On the other hand it is clear Abraham is a subtle observer of the world, as the following extract demonstrates.
My friendship with David, during its inception, and during the heady period when our lives revolved so much around each other, had held out the promise of leading somewhere, to something extraordinary, some vital epiphany – what, precisely, I couldn’t be sure of. Still, that was how it felt – magical, special. And that was enough; that was reason to keep going. 
Playing tennis seemed to express this, as if it were a beautiful experiment we two had created out of thin air. The uniforms were simple, the equipment rudimentary, but in our rat-a-tat volleying at the net, in our mastery of spin, in the rallies, in the way the rackets functioned as extensions of our bodies, in the way we came to know each other’s tics and idiosyncrasies, in the way we controlled the movement of a yellow ball in space, we were imposing order on a world that was fickle and capricious. Each ball that we put into play, for as long as it went back and forth between us, felt like a charm to be added to a necklace full of spells, talismans, and fetishes, which would one day add up to an Aaron’s rod, an Aladdin’s lamp, a magic carpet. Each time we played, this feeling of restoring order, of mastery, was awakened. It would linger for a few days but then wane. The urge to meet and play would build again.
Abraham shows in this colourful passage how he had control of his material, and the book serves, like one of his games of tennis with David, as an attempt to put order on his world. For anyone, tiny shifts in the balance of things can lead to going off kilter or to spinning onto a dangerous trajectory. The passage shows how sport can function as an antidote to a need for other ways of mitigating the pain of existence.

I enjoyed reading ‘The Tennis Partner’ and completed the whole of it in a few days. I love literary journalism because reality has a different texture from fiction. Neither is better than the other, but they do different things. To be able to give a satisfying structure to a tale drawn in all its details from real life is a special talent, and it provides its own pleasures for the reader.

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