For many years, I had wanted to read C.L.R. James’s famous Beyond a Boundary, to quote the blurbs on the back “the most important sports book of our time” (Warren Susman) and “a dazzling guide to all our contemporary games” (Robert Lipsyte). Finally, a week or so ago, looking for a break from Tolstoy, I noticed it on the shelf, said to myself “Why not?” and pulled it down.
I should preface my remarks, which are not in line with the quoted blurbs, by saying that I came to the book (like your average Yank) knowing nothing about cricket other than its fabled exemplification of British upper-class ideals. I had thought this might not be a great obstacle—I had, after all, read a number of books about soccer with enjoyment despite my lack of expertise—but it turns out that an intimate acquaintance with the history, terminology, and experience of the game is a prerequisite to the enjoyment of large chunks of the book. I skimmed pages and pages full of stuff like this: “I was an off-side batsman, drive, cut and back-stroke through the covers. Of course, I could also hook.” “This is what happened to George in Australia: 23, 82, 131, 34. Then he failed steadily: 27 run out and 16; 0 and 11 (Test, to Grimmett both times); 3; 14 and 2 (Test); 19 and 17.” “Constantine in the first innings went in at No. 8 and made 24 not out. The score was 132 for eight in the second innings when Burton joined him.” I perused Wikipedia’s excellent entry on the game, with its very useful illustration of the fielding positions (cover, point, gully, and so on) and related terms (deep, fine, forward, backward), but it didn’t really help. You have to know what all of it means, in the way I know what is meant by “a hard bouncer to third” or “an easy double play.” Don’t get me wrong: I have no desire to make fun of what I don’t understand (I got over the apparent silliness of terms like, well, “silly mid-off” a long time ago), and my respect for the game was if anything increased by realizing how much there was to understand. But there was no help for it: understanding it would take far more effort than I was willing to put into it, so a great deal of the book was lost on me.
Furthermore, it is not a book of the sort I expected: a carefully designed fabric in which the strands of sport, autobiography, and politics were woven together to create a brilliant pattern. It’s more like a collection of essays loosely united by those themes. It starts with pure autobiography (focused, to be sure, on the cricket games played just outside the window of the house in which he grew up), moves to his attempts to establish himself in England, passes on to the history of cricket as a game, and winds up with an impassioned brief for West Indian cricket and the nationalism of which it is an inextricable part; some of the chapters could be excised without the book as a whole suffering in the least. This meant that I could skim long sections with an easy conscience, since I knew it would not much affect my appreciation of the whole, but it made me wonder why the book is so revered… except that, of course, I know that someone who knew nothing of baseball would think the same of Roger Angell’s The Summer Game or John Thorn’s Armchair Book of Baseball or Arnold Hano’s A Day in the Bleachers.
My advice to someone who shares my ignorance of cricket but wants to get the best out of the book would be to read the first chapter, “The Window,” James’s evocation of his childhood; Chapter 18, “The Proof of the Pudding,” an exciting account of the scandalous behavior of the West Indian cricket crowd in 1960 and its consequences; and in between, Chapter 8, “Prince and Pauper,” which focuses on the West Indian cricket hero Learie Constantine and James’s relations with him following his journey to England in 1932. Here is the crucial paragraph that sums up the book in its last sentence:
I accepted [Constantine's] offer, and we agreed to meet in England the following spring. The plans were as rapid in the making as in the telling. At the time he had, I think, dined in my house once. I doubt if his wife and mine had yet met. We didn’t know it but we were making history. This transcendence of our relations as cricketers was to initiate the West Indian renaissance not only in cricket, but in politics, in history and in writing.
The story he tells about the West Indian renaissance is a good one; you just have to extract it from the sticky wicket on which it resides.
A couple of items of linguistic interest: the etymology of the word cricket is, in the OED’s word, uncertain; and James repeatedly uses a phrase between wind and water in a way I am unclear about, e.g. “That particular [Victorian] age he [W.G. Grace, the Babe Ruth of cricket] hit between wind and water.” The OED says “along the line where anything is submerged in water or in damp soil, esp. on the load-line of a ship, which, as the vessel tosses, is alternately above and below the water’s surface,” but that doesn’t help much.
I’m still not ready to go back to Tolstoy, but that’s OK—my wonderful sister-in-law just gave me a copy of a book I’ve long wanted, Entertaining Tsarist Russia: Tales, Songs, Plays, Movies, Jokes, Ads, and Images from Russian Urban Life 1779-1917, edited by James Von Geldern and Louise McReynolds. I’m about to dive in!