“Cool Guy” Nick Hornby in Vienna

26 11 2007

Slideshow: Some impressions from the Gala for Nick Hornby at the Rathaus in Vienna, November 2007. Copyright: Matthias Wurz

“We are proud to devote the City Hall to literature,” declared Councilor for Cultural Affairs, Andreas Mailath-Pokorny to packed audience at the Buchwoche (Book Week) on Nov. 18, 2007. Nick Hornby, the author of Fever Pitch (1992) – his first novel landed him a huge success – was celebrated like a pop star in Vienna.

The selection of this year’s title for Eine Stadt. Ein Buch, therefore, was a calculated marketing event by Mayor Michael Häupl and the publisher Echo, as it tells the author’s life story from the perspective of – in Hornby’s words –“significant football events.”

In 2008, Vienna co-hosts the European Football Championship EURO 2008, and therefore it was no surprise to find Hornby’s book distributed this year. 100,000 copies were given away for free to Viennese readers. Previous writers included Toni Morrison, Frederic Morton and Imre Kertesz.

N.B.: For recent scenes of Vienna during the EURO 2008, see my other entries here in this blog!

On that day – a Sunday when Austria’s largest book fare came to a close – the city also opened the magnificent Christkindl Markt (Christmas Market) in front of the Rathaus. As thousands of Viennese families wandered about between the booths, offering Christmas decorations, bakeries and Punsch, hundreds of Nick Hornby fans literally stormed the temporary Literaturcafé at the Buchwoche that afternoon to hear one of Britain’s prolific contemporary writers in his only public reading in the city.

At 5.50 pm, Nick Hornby, rather small in stature but with a big cheeky smile, entered the Café, situated in one of the most magnificent rooms of the Rathaus. The doors had been closed already due to safety regulations a few minutes earlier, but nevertheless, an audience of about 250 Hornby fans cheered their hero when entering the stage.

The declared fan of Arsenal London, one of the oldest professional football clubs in the UK, described in Fever Pitch his unconditional allegiance to his club, whose home games he hardly ever misses still today.

“Arsenal is not the boring team anymore. They win a lot these days,” he said, but added jokingly, “Nevertheless, they were ashamed when they read my book.” And as to revive the difficult times of the club, Hornby read from one of the memorable football games at Wembley, March 1969, when Arsenal played against Swindon Town, a Third League Team, and dramatically lost. The drama, however, continued for the young Hornby in the classroom, knocked to the ground in the schoolyard the next day:

“As I lay in the grammar school dirt it occurred to me that I had made a grotesque mistake; it was my fervent wish that I could turn back the clock and insisted that my father took me, not to Arsenal v Stoke, but to a deserted hotel dining room or the zoo… For the first time in my life I was different and on my own, and I hated it.” (page. 20)

The atmosphere of the game and the emotions of the 12-year-old Hornby are vividly rich in details. Given the enthusiastic response by the audience, he evidently also touched those listeners, like myself, who have no immediate connection to the sport.

“I didn’t want to write about what’s going on on the pitch; but write about me and the events on the pitch.” They are more about life, like break-up of relationships or family matters of a teenager.

However, when glancing through the equivalent passage in the German translation, I cannot disguise my disappointment, as the tension that created a lively scene in Hornby’s original reading did not come across well here.

“I did not need to research this book,” Hornby recalled, “Those games that were memorable I have written about, and those I have forgotten were not. Full stop.”

And while the reading draws to a close, hundreds of fans cue patiently to get their Fever Pitch copies signed, while others engage in heated discussions about football. After all, the Austrian National Team lost England 0:1 two days earlier.

Monday, Nov. 19, 7.00 pm: I am back at the Rathaus. This time the event was different: A Gala organized in honor of Nick Hornby, given by Mayor Michael Häupl mainly for the sponsors of Eine Stadt.Ein Buch, and therefore closed to the general public. Though, those who were invited to come were promised a more informal meeting with the writer at the following dinner.

Otherwise, the show, moderated by Alfons Haider – his recent 50th birthday gave him extensive news coverage – was society entertainment. The youngish entertainer did his utmost to keep his audience on the feet for about two hours. Austrian politics was not left untouched, neither was Austrian football.

But the evening was not only about football, but rather football and books. And so, host Michael Häupl pitched in that Vienna is indeed a city, “where books can be promoted (successfully),” Within four days, all copies of Hornby’s free book were distributed, the audience is reminded.

But does the Mayor spend more of his spare time reading or watching football games, Alfons Haider asked. “In fact,” Häupl replied with a tone of remorse, “I spend more time with books than on the football pitch”. Though he would love to have more time to watch good football, Häupl added.

Then, for a short time the attention focused on the junior players of Austria Wien, who all hope to become professional kickers one day. The five boys aged between 10 and 12 were dressed in Arsenal football shirts, were able to share their skills with Nick Hornby, who had been playing football for some time, but had to give it up following an operation.

“He is not in good shape,” one of the youngsters declared to a laughing audience, and once the group pictures were taken, they rushed offstage and Nick Hornby entered the limelight. The atmosphere was not unlike a football match or a pop concert, and the writer jokingly admitted that he enjoyed the attention of fans: “I could do this all day long. It’s the writing I have a problem with.”

So, what are his predictions for the European Championships 2008, Haider asked. “I am positive that Austria will win the European Championships,” Hornby announced to an astonished audience with a twinkle in his eyes; no one, of course, took him seriously. And as he repeats the declaration into the TV cameras, the auditorium cheers.

The Gala drew to a close with a kind of Seitenblicke interview of Hornby by Nadja Weiss (Kronen Zeitung) and Sabine Spögler (ORF). The quality of the questions only allowed Hornby to reply in famed English humorous fashion.

Would he rather receive the Nobel Prize for Literature or be able to play football like Pelé? “I hope I don’t offend anyone in this room when I say that the Nobel Prize for Literature is always awarded to obscure Albanian poets. I’d rather like to be able to play football like Pelé.”

The audience was in hysterics, when Hornby was reminded that Austria’s Elfriede Jelinek received the Nobel Prize in 2004. His facial expression showed amazement and surprise at first, but he elegantly rescued the situation by saying “So, I have offended everyone in the room then,” adding that he read all about her, as his eyes twinkle again. In football, this was an elegant pass beyond the lines of the opponent.

As the evening entered the informal part with a lavish dinner, people conversing in small talk over a glass of wine, others hoped to get a chance to get Nick Hornby signing or engage in a short informal conversation, but were hugely disappointed. The punctilious media schedule did apparently not allow for more flexibility, so numerous Hornby fans were turned away. And so were media, except Television and Radio, and photographers.

A charming evening, therefore, ended with a sour note; but in the end I was not the only one who was turned away with an unsigned book.

This is an excerpt, the full article was published in December 2007 in The Vienna Review.




One response

5 05 2008
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[…] regulations a few minutes … when Arsenal played against Swindon Town, a Third League Team, …https://mwurz1975.wordpress.com/2007/11/26/cool-guy-nick-hornby-in-vienna/Random thoughts and serendipity ” A note of thanks for an IM teamTrackBack URI. Sorry, the comment […]

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