Wrestliana, by Toby Litt, is part memoir, part biography. It is an exploration of fathers and sons, and what it means to be a man, particularly in our modern world. I wondered whilst reading if I could be amongst its audience, if I could understand. Certain elements of the narrative made me uncomfortable. I found myself wanting to point out that girls play football and mothers stand on touchlines. Despite it being an intensely personal story I needed to step back from the author and focus on the writing.
Toby Litt’s forebears lived in Cumberland in the eighteenth century. One of them, William Litt, was, for a time, a local wrestling champion. He was also a writer and published the original Wrestliana – ‘a history of wrestling from its origins’. Toby grew up hearing his father talk of his great-great-grandfather: the wrestling; his time as a smuggler; the loss of a small fortune; his escape to Canada where he died. When Toby decided that he wanted to be a writer the only story his father wanted him to tell was that of William.
This is also, however, the story of Toby. As well as exploring the lives of his wider family, he shares: how he was bullied at school; his time living in Prague; his hopes for his own two sons; how he teaches Creative Writing. When teaching dialogue he tells his class:
“When two men say Hello in the street, one of them loses.”
Toby describes himself as competitive and many of his musings are around whether, in any given situation, he has won or lost. This attitude overflows into his writing life, his thoughts on other writers and their work. I baulked at the apparently disparaging comments about John Boyne whose books I enjoy. I understood better when I read an interview Toby gave to The Word Factory from which I quote:
“For other writers, the job is to entertain, to tell fulfilling stories. The writers you mention – you could also have included Henry James – are Modernists, Make-it-new-ists. They were the writers who got to me. I suppose I thought they were trying to do something more difficult and worthwhile. An entertainment doesn’t attempt to change its audience – it reassures them that, going in, they have all they need to understand and enjoy it. As a reader, I wanted to be changed by what I read. I didn’t want to be myself. Books were a way for me of moving gradually away from who I started as. I think that’s what books have done for me.”
Following the John Boyne encounter, Toby mentions his reaction when a book he believed was amongst his best work was entered for the Booker Prize, and the crushing disappointment he felt when it was not longlisted. The pages on writers and literary prizes are enlightening.
Toby has long eschewed sport but, once immersed in his extensive research about William, found himself considering the importance placed on a man’s physical size, strength and prowess. William’s politics, his beliefs, are described as
“manly, patriotic, straightforward”
Toby considers: his own life as a family man and writer, those moments when he ‘won’; if this is all that matters and if, in aging, the best times are gone. There is an undercurrent, a fear of, inferiority, or being seen as such. Perhaps a more competitive person than I will empathise.
Everything that William wrote, of which there is still a record, is dissected and examined in forensic detail to provide a picture of the man, the life he led, and why. This includes gaining an understanding of the style of wrestling at which he excelled and which is still practised in the north of England. Toby visits to observe and talk to those involved. I found the sections describing in detail the sport the least interesting. The history on the other hand proved engaging, as did the comparisons and attitudes across the generations.
Toby deploys the analogy of wrestling to life and this spills over into his relationships with his father and his sons. There appears to be a need to prove oneself different yet better, to escape from under the family shadow yet still be deemed worthy. Near the end of the book he regrets that his sons cannot compete in the traditional wrestling bouts he has been learning of. I wonder what they would think of this idea.
Despite my inability to empathise with the author’s attitude to being a man in the modern world, the book offers an interesting history and perspective. I would have preferred the impact of the women involved to be taken more into account but understand it is intended to be only about the men. A need to feel macho may be beyond my comprehension but in presenting his thoughts and feelings so honestly the author offers insight into what can prove toxic concerns. It is an alluring read.
Wrestliana is published by Galley Beggar Press. To support their work please consider buying direct, or from an independent bookshop.