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Battling Malone by Louis Hémon (1925) (cont'd)

In keeping with the naturalist style of the novel (the influence of Zola is clear in the detailed anatomical descriptions of characters and the essentialist interpretations that sometimes accompany them), Hémon goes on to give detailed descriptions of Malone’s musculature.  His upper body is over-developed (“The deltoids, pectorals and dorsals attained dimensions that would have been remarkable even on a very solidly built heavyweight […]”), the muscles forming a sort of “breastplate.”  By contrast, the lower torso is remarkably slim, the abdominal muscles popping out from the lean surface like “the shells of a tortoise.”  The arms are not at all muscled, “almost thin,” “ […] but thin and irresistible like the steel pistons that shoot out from an engine.”

Unlike Serrurier’s, Malone’s remarkable body, Hémon specifies, is not conventionally beautiful: “Compared to the beautiful Greek athletes that marble had brought to life among us, Pat Malone would have seemed disproportionate, almost monstrous.” (53)  Only boxing insiders recognize this body for what it is, a fighting machine, and only they can appreciate its particular form of utilitarian beauty:

Most of the men who were looking at him, to whom the daily sight of unclothed  bodies working out had given some knowledge of anatomy and an acute sense of muscular mechanics, understood that they were in fact in the presence of an abnormal being, specially designed for fighting.  Having sensed that, he became beautiful in their eyes, beautiful like the greyhounds, the whippets or the bulldogs they kept in their kennels, beautiful like a specialized animal, selected for a single task, and thought of as ungraceful and ugly by the uninitiated. (53-54)

Malone’s fighter’s body is also, by extension, perceived as an English body:

The major, looking at Malone’s body, characterizes him as “a real old-fashioned Englishman […] It looks as though there are a few of them left! […] A real fighter […]” (54).

Malone’s corner men  assume, by a simple physical assessment of the two men’s bodies, that the larger, more powerful fighter cannot lose:

For Pat’s corner men, for his friends and all his fellow countrymen assembled together, it seemed obvious that the battle was already won.  They compared with a glance the two men squared off in the ring: the Englishman with his powerfully muscled torso, his mask of a face remaining patient and tough while being punched, and this Frenchman with the all-too-graceful silhouette, who brought to the fight the radiant face of a child playing a game.  This would be a repetition of the old story, they told themselves, the certain triumph of the race that always triumphed in long wars.

But everyone in this French crowd seemed blind to the evidence.  They displayed a curious confidence in their champion, a faith as unshakable as that of a lover for her man.  (156)

Thus the stage is set, not only for a showdown between a beauty and a beast, a skilled athlete and a brawler, but most important, between two “races.”  Hémon is explicit about the nationalist stakes of the Serrurier-Malone fight.  From the first pages of the novel, various characters express English humiliation, not only at having been beaten in the ring or even having been beaten by foreigners but specifically at having been beat by Frenchmen.  There are some passing references to losses at the hands of American boxers as well, but it clear that these defeats by fellow Anglo-Saxons do not have the same sting as those inflicted by Frenchmen, who are perceived to be a completely different “race.”  Indeed, the anxiety produced by these defeats is fueled in large part by the fact that they put into question the traditional “racial” difference between Englishmen and Frenchmen itself. To see English boxers pummeled by Frenchmen in the ring is to see the very notion of that difference literally battered.[14] 

Signing the contract for his fight with Serrurier, Malone himself muses on the “racial” certainty of his victory:

And to think that all he had to do to get all that was beat up a Frenchman! A Frenchman!  Pat laughed a laugh of disdainful pity, and instinctively he executed on the air the simple gesture that would put everything back in its proper place, and humiliate once and for all these impudent foreigners. (144)

The phrase “put everything back in its proper place” (“remettre  toutes choses dans l’ordre”) is noteworthy, the clear implication being that the “proper place” of Frenchmen is to be physically dominated by Englishmen and not the reverse.

During the fight, when someone  laughs at his futile attempts to land a punch on Serrurier (whose defense is characterized by a “miraculous ease”), Malone is humiliated and enraged because of the fact that the man laughing is a Frenchman:

This laugh of mockery and insult coming from a Frenchman, from a man belonging to a race he had always been taught to disdain, turned Battling Malone in an instant into the crazed beast who had terrorized the longshoremen on the docks […] (157; emphasis mine)

Later in the fight, realizing that Serrurier is getting the better of him, he experiences similar feelings of rage and shame, the result of wounds to his “racial” ego as an Englishman:

It was a Frenchman who was trifling with him like this: one of those puppet-men the little children in his country made fun of!  […] Slumped over in his chair, his arms leaning on the ring ropes, Pat blushed up to his ears at the thought, blushed with shame and rage. (159)

The very idea of being bested at a sport of their own invention (in its modern iteration) is ludicrous to the English.  This would be true of football or rugby as well circa 1900 but the stakes are much higher, for all concerned, in the ring than on the playing field: boxing, much more than any other sport, is a signifier of manliness in it most elemental state and the British consider manliness their exclusive domain.[15]

Malone is not alone in his race-based certainty. In the weeks leading up to the Malone-Serrurier bout, the British sporting press propagates the idea that recent French victories in the ring are aberrations, deviations from the natural order of things:

Certain affirmations […] elicited neither protest nor contradiction: the demonstrations being offered up everywhere that the success of the French in pugilism was but an accident.  This was copiously proved.  Eminent technicians examined one-by-one all the bouts in which English boxers had been beaten by their opponents from across the Channel, and explained with perfect clarity that in each one of those cases the circumstances had been exceptional; that, furthermore, the British defeats were the logical consequence of the anti-athletic campaign that had long sought to discredit boxing in the United Kingdom; that the worth of the champions of the old country had thus been so deflated that a few exceptional Frenchmen, far superior to the rest of their compatriots, and on top of that enormously helped out by sheer luck, had been able to brag of a few international victories… All that was over. (145-146)

Other, less technically-minded commentators are even more overtly essentialist in their arguments, going so far as to suggest that while the French were somehow naturally unsuited to boxing, they were good actors and mimics and had thus been able to learn how to ape the moves of the sport but would never be able to assimilate the sport in any real way.  This theory is improbable (it’s hard to imagine how would win a fight by imitating a boxer) but reassuring, reinforcing as it does the notion that there is some essential, racial difference between the men of the two nations:

Other chroniclers, much less knowledgeable about technique, limited themselves to general considerations.  The Frenchman, they pointed out, is an essentially imitative creature, gifted with a lively and superficial intelligence.

The fashion of the typically British art of boxing having caught on in Paris, there had promptly sprung up a certain number of young men who had acquired a sort of superficial polish, who learned the postures and the gestures and had played the role quite nicely, as representatives of a race of thespians would.  And the English public, always good-natured and overly indulgent, had taken them seriously.  But when it came to decisive fights… A few courteous but severe phrases reminded readers, in a somewhat obscure fashion, of the great lessons of history: Waterloo, Trafalgar… (146)

Aside from the absurd notion that English audiences had somehow indulged pitiful French boxing impersonators by letting them win fights, what is of course most striking in this passage is the notion that Frenchmen can act like boxers but under no circumstance could any one of them actually box.[16] These are the terms in which both the sporting press and the more mainstream press generate passionate popular engagement with the symbolic showdown between their country and France.  Large numbers of people, Hémon suggests, end up fervently believing that English pride has been wounded and that the situation must be attended to: “[…] it was urgent that a champion rise up, a messenger from the Lord, to punish this impious impertinence.” (146)

If Pat Malone, the members of the British Champion Research Syndicate, and English sports fans in general experience profound humiliation at the very idea of losing to a Frenchman, the counter-reaction of joy and pride on the part of the French public is no less profound.  Hémon rightly points out that the French were living through a period of self-doubt in the early years of the twentieth century.  He refers to them as a “humiliated nation,” a clear though not quite explicit reference to the lingering crisis of national identity and manhood that followed France’s devastation in the Franco-Prussian War in 1870.[17]  He suggests that watching a compatriot thrash a bigger, tougher Englishman, if only in a boxing match, would go a long way to assuaging French self-doubt.  The fictional boxer who would bring this comfort is the object of unabashed adoration, just as the real-life Carpentier would be.  Indeed, when reading Hémon’s descriptions of French fervor for their fistic idol, it is sometimes hard to remember that he is writing about the fictional Serrurier circa 1910 and not the real-life Carpentier several years later:

Jean Serrurier had just slipped through the ring ropes and the crowd bellowed their adoration at him.

Some men stood up and shouted with all their might; others stayed glued to their chairs, but their hands fell prey to frenzy and clapped together like crazed machines; through the din, women raised high-pitched voices, shouting out words that couldn’t be understood, and then they waved their handkerchiefs as if in welcome, their eyes shining, their lips parted, letting themselves get carried away by their exaltation without shame.  The volume of sound produced by all these voices wasn’t enormous, but mixed in with it was a curiously emotional note.

It was a note of warm gratitude, the gratitude of a humiliated nation, that had long doubted itself and then all of a sudden regains an awareness of its strength and its virtues in a thousand little things, and sees itself in the person of a hundred boys who come from its heart and who reacquaint it with victory.  What was rising up from those shouts was a kind of warm, almost tender, enthusiasm, a feeling that nations fortified with pride do not know. (1530154)

Even Malone himself, no sensitive soul, intuits that there is something different in the emotional tenor of Serrurier’s French fans:  “For the second time, Patrick Malone had the vague impression that in this country, boxing had more meaning than in other countries.” (154)

“For the second time” refers to an earlier passage in which Malone, observing for the first time a French crowd at ringside, senses that the French reaction to boxing is less knowledgeable but more spontaneous, warm and upbeat than that of English fans. He experiences the “obscure intuition” as to why the French would not choose as their “national divinity” an “inhumanly beautiful, cold, haughty Britannia” but rather a “pretty girl, simple and candid, with a smile on her face.”  The new “national divinity” of the French is indeed as pretty, simple, candid and smiling as Marianne: Serrurier/Carpentier himself.

It is interesting to note Hémon’s use of religious vocabulary, not only in the passage above but throughout the novel, to discuss the nationalistic stakes of the Serrurier-Malone fight: the British need a champion who will be nothing less than a “messenger from the Lord,” who will punish the French for their “impious impertinence” and avenge Britannia, their “national divinity;” the British look to Malone “as if to a new Messiah” (59). During the fight, Malone refers to a “great voice that […] imperiously commanded him to triumph” and fears divine retribution if he fails to do so (159).

The French also view their champion as a sort of nationalist avenging angel, sent to wash clean their collective shame and to whom they address something very much like a prayer:

[…] each time the white ephebus appeared in front of him [Malone] seemed to wobble and falter, a great cry always rose up from the crowd like an ardent supplication, the exhortation to hang on in the name of all there was in common between him and them, in the name of past humiliations, of reborn hope, of the country so jealously beloved, in the name of the men of his race who were watching him, panting and clenching their fists, and the women, gone pale, who were biting their lips… (160)

In the seventh round, at the very moment Malone has him in real trouble, the slim, white avenging angel answers the prayers of the crowd with the help of some supernatural power:

And then the slim white silhouette that was already wobbling seemed to be grabbed by the back of the neck by a supernatural hand, supported, held upright, thrust forward.  Battling Malone was up against an unexpected attack, an attack even more furious than his own and he could only back down in the face of the fury of this pale adolescent whose eyes flashed fire and who punched with both hands like a young hero protected by Zeus. (158)

The young white angel is strengthened not only by a “supernatural hand” but by the ardor of his French fans as well, which provides him with “miraculous strength”:

And at the sound of this great clamor, warm and frank, the Frenchman recovered every time a miraculous strength and, instead of defending himself like a stalked beast, he in turn rushed at his opponent, liberated from all fear, with a flame in his eyes. (160)

When he has finished off his opponent, the French spectators rush toward their “young idol, ” the “adolescent with the radiant face” (160-161). Serrurier’s victory, a veritable apotheosis, is the fulfillment of Hémon’s fantasy of the coming of a French athletic Messiah. God, or at least the god of boxing, is clearly on the French side in Battling Malone.

It is important to note, however, that Serrurier’s victory is in fact no miracle at all. Hémon was a true boxing aficionado as well as a novelist and the reasons for Serrurier’s defeat of the hulking Malone are well grounded in pugilistic reality.  Malone has virtually no boxing technique and brute strength alone is not sufficient to give him a victory over a highly skilled opponent.  Hémon emphasizes Serrrurier’s footwork and defensive technique as well as his fast and accurate punching. These are skills Malone simply does not possess:

The Frenchman’s feints [were] fast, his footwork quick and exactly calculated like that of a virtuoso […]  When [Malone] finally charged, he punched only air and saw too late the white body disappear, pivoting on one foot to get away from him. And before he had time to get his back into a balanced stance of attack, two new punches had bashed his lips. (155)

[…] Pat seemed to be pushing in front of him, all around the ring, without ever reaching it, a white body with rhythmic movements.  This was a body that, in the midst of this deadly torment, was playing its own game, a pretty and complicated game played with balletic footwork, calm parrying, and counter-punching of an inconceivable speed. All of this stopped dead in his tracks an opponent dizzied by his own violence, making him bend at the knees. (157)

In his spite of his lack of ring savvy, Malone is smart enough to realize that he must develop some sort of strategy if he is to stand any chance whatsoever of winning the fight.  He does not have the expertise to put a strategy to work in any effective way, however, and Serrurier is far too clever a boxer to be outmaneuvered by his simplistic attempts:

[…] the adolescent across from him contemplated these maneuvers with the indulgent disdain of a sage, taking advantage of them to accentuate his own offensive, but without leaving himself open. (158)

The outcome of the fight proves that boxing will win out over punching, that pugilistic science and style are indeed superior to untrained aggression, strength and size.  With this conclusion, Hémon provides an answer to a plot question that not only fuels his narrative but is also at the very heart of the sport of boxing.  His is thus a novel equally preoccupied by technical questions of sport as by those of literary style and cultural signification.  It is the precise fulfillment of Rozet’s call for a true “athletic literature.”

The extent to which Battling Malone prophesizes Georges Carpentier’s career and the fervent adoration of which he became the object is uncanny. While Carpentier’s pre-October 1911 record was impressive enough to make him a suitable object of eloquence on the part of a few enthusiastic French boxing writers and consequently perhaps an object of fantasy for Hémon, it was by no means  a foregone conclusion that the fantasy would become reality. Hémon’s technical insight as a student of boxing may have given him some ability to predict Carpentier’s future, but it is important to keep in mind that he could not possibly have seen Carpentier fight more than a few times and probably not at all.  Nor could the myth of the French prodigy’s skills have played much of a role. Although, in the first few years of his professional career, Carpentier did win some fights over British (and American) opponents, he also lost some. It was not until later that Carpentier assumed the mantle of the great dragon-slayer of British boxing champions.[18] Carpentier’s mythical status, among both French and British pre-World War I boxing fans, is due to an impressive string of victories and to the astonishing fact that he dominated in so many different weight classes in so short a period of time, winning four European titles in four weight classes in twenty months.  Carpentier became, quite literally, a bigger and bigger threat to British pugilistic pride as each day went by. It is also due to the fact that these victories were increasingly quick and decisive ones:  while it took him ten rounds to put away Young Joseph by KO in October 1911, only two rounds each were required for his KO’s of Jim Sullivan in February 1912 and of Dick Rice in February 1913 and only one for his rematch with Billy Wells in December 1913. The bigger he got, the better he got.

Again, the point is that Carpentier’s role as the invincible nemesis of all British adversaries postdates the writing of Hémon’s novel. Battling Malone is a fantasy about a French champion who will come along to avenge, through the highly symbolic ritual of boxing, the deeply held and deeply humiliating notion on the part of the British that the French are somehow less manly.  Hemon’s dream was of a “slim white angel” of a Frenchman who will prove that skill, technique and intelligence can defeat brawn. As sometimes happens, his dream proved prophetic.

What is perhaps even more striking than the fact of Hémon’s prophecy of the role Carpentier would play in the boxing world and as an icon of French nationalism, however, are the specific details of Hémon’s narrative that prefigure the specific themes of Carpentier’s future career. The fictional Serrurier-Malone fight, as a David-and-Goliath matchup, will become reality in Carpentier’s most celebrated bouts, those against Wells, Beckett, and Dempsey.  As a scientific boxer vs. less skilled brawler scenario, it prefigures Carpentier’s legendary fights against Joe Beckett, Jack Dempsey and Battling Siki.  These are the fights that truly made Carpentier into an international figure, that serve as the cornerstones of the Carpentier myth; they are already present, in fictional form, years before the fact, in Hémon’s novel.  The specific tropes of Hémon’s descriptions of Carpentier read almost as blueprints for much of the writing that the French boxer will inspire in the decade or so subsequent to the writing of the novel: his youth, his beauty, his “whiteness,” his slim silhouette, his graceful moves and lightning speed, his agility, his sang froid in the heat of battle and in the face of much larger and more powerful opponents. Hémon may have been somewhat prescient in his ability, as a student of boxing, to recognize Carpentier’s great potential as a fighter; he was equally prescient, however, as a writer, in recognizing the fighter’s potential as a literary construct. Hémon’s starting point was the reality of Carpentier the boxer, which he then turned into fiction, which fiction later became fact, which fact in turn was turned into myth by sportswriters.

It is very easy to make the mistake of assuming, as many readers and some scholars have, that Malone is a fictionalization of events that had already taken place at the time of the writing, rather than a foretelling of them.[19] The improbable fact is that Rozet’s fantasy of an “athletic literature” written in French by Frenchmen about French champions was realized by Hémon’s novel and that Rozet and Hémon’s shared fantasy of the coming of a French athletic Messiah was realized by Georges Carpentier.

[14] Perhaps the greatest irony of Hémon’s novel is the fact that Pat Malone, clearly of the Irish “race” despite his British citizenship, is extolled as an example of Britishness.  It would be hard to overstate the extent to which the notion of an essential “racial” difference between the English and the Irish was taken seriously in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, a fact of which Hémon had to have been aware, making his choice of title character a curious one. The irony may have been intentional. Return to text

[15] An interesting literary example of how an encounter in the boxing ring might reveal “essential” differences between a Frenchman and an Englishman is found in Henri-Pierre Roché’s novel, Deux Anglaises et le continent, written in 1956 but set in the Battling Malone era (Roché’s boxing scene takes place in 1902).  Claude, a Frenchman visting England, is invited to put on the gloves for an after-dinner spar with one of his English hosts. In a novel that  is largely about comparisons between the French and English cultures, Roché very cleverly includes this little scene to inform readers of the questions concerning French versus English versions of manliness that were raised in the early twentieth century by the adoption of boxe anglaise by the French. See Henri-Pierre Roché, Deux Anglaises et le continent (Paris: Gallimard, 1956). Return to text

[16]  The notion that a Frenchmen could play the role of a boxer, but not actually box, existed in reality as well as in fiction—and lingered long after 1911.  This was precisely the charge leveled against Carpentier by US journalists in the spring of 1920.  Because his first visit to America consisted of a series of exhibition bouts and the filming of a movie, he was quickly and derisively dismissed as a “film boxer.”  It wasn’t until he beat Battling Levinsky the following fall, thereby winning the light heavyweight title, that sportswriters stopped using the insulting and inaccurate nickname. Return to text

[17] See note i above for a few examples of the voluminous scholarship on the way in which sports served, at least in theory, as an antidote to the pervasive and lingering crisis of masculine identity in France in the 1870-1914 period. Return to text

[18] The amazing string of pre-World War I victories would include wins over the following British champions: Young Joseph, for the European welterweight championship, October 23, 1911; Jim Sullivan, for the middleweight title, February 29,1912; Bandsman Dick Rice, for the light heavyweight title, on February 12, 1913; and Bombardier Billy Wells, for the heavyweight title, on  June 1, 1913 (with a rematch on December 8, 1913). Return to text

[19] In a footnote to a paper entitled “Londres dans l’oeuvre de Louis Hémon,” delivered at a conference in Quimper in 1985, devoted to the life of work of Hémon and sponsored by the Fondation Louis Hémon, Max-Hervé Thomas suggests that the fictional Serrrurier-Malone bout “evokes” two of Carpentier’s real fights: against Harry Lewis and Willie Lewis (December 13, 1911 and May 23, 1912, respectively, both in Paris).  Thomas suggests that this leads one to “suppose” a relatively late date for Hémon’s “finishing up” of Malone.  As we know, however, the only manuscript that ever existed for Malone was already locked in a trunk in England when Hémon sailed for Canada in October 1911.  So there is simply no way those fights could have been “evoked” by Hémon in his writing of the novel. What may well be true is that Hémon’s fictional fight descriptions later evoked memories of specific Carpentier bouts in the minds of fight fan readers.  But that fact is, again, a signifier of Hémon’s prescience rather than of the reality on which his story was based.  See Max-Hervé Thomas, “Londres dans l’oeuvre de Louis Hémon,”  in Colloque Louis Hémon: Quimper (Quimper: Calligrammes/Fondation Louis Hémon, 1986), 76, note 103. Return to text