In Fighters & Writers I mention several of the countless writers who expressed interest in, and were inspired by, boxing, such as Lord Byron, Albert Camus, Ernest Hemingway, Norman Mailer, Budd Schulberg and George Plimpton. I could have, but didn’t, name another literary connoisseur of the fight game, Vladimir Nabokov. In a 1925 essay on the sport published in English for the first time this month by The Times Literary Supplement, the author of Laughter in the Dark and Lolita says “there are few spectacles as healthy and beautiful as a boxing-match.”
Clearly writing for a non-expert audience, Nabokov points out some salient facts that should be widely know but, even decades later, still are not. For example, it was not “commonplace humanity that led to the appearance of boxing gloves,” he points out, but instead a wish to protect fighters’ hands. He astutely observes that calling Jim Jeffries the “great white hope” hinted that “black boxers were already becoming unbeatable.” He’s a little shaky on dates, estimating that the championship fight between Jeffries and Jack Johnson occurred “twenty-five or more years” before he was writing (when it was 15), but he gets something essential right, something that gets to the heart of what Nabokov call “the art of boxing” and its appeal for writers. Recounting the crowd dispersing after a heavyweight bout, he states his conviction that within the witnesses “there existed one and the same beautiful feeling, for the sake of which it was worth bringing together two great boxers, – a feeling of dauntless, flaring strength, vitality, manliness, inspired by the play in boxing. And this playful feeling is, perhaps, more valuable and purer than many so-called “elevated pleasures.” Even if not everyone who saw the fight Nabokov took in at the Sports Palace in Berlin walked away with this “beautiful feeling,” he and many scribblers before and since certainly did.