I am almost the perfect reader for Marshall Jon Fisher’s A Terrible Splendor: Three Extraordinary Men, a World Poised for War, and the Greatest Tennis Match Ever Played, the story of the 1937 Davis Cup match between the American Don Budge and Germany’s Baron Gottfried Von Cramm. I am a literary snob who loves tennis. So, it wasn’t until page 151 that I threw up my hands and said, “I can’t take this book. It’s too pretentious even for me.”
Better adjusted readers will have the same reaction, but earlier. But this is only my opinion. The United States Tennis Writers Association gave A Terrible Splendor an award.
How pretentious, you may ask? The title and a passage in the front of the book are taken from something the Scottish writer Thomas Carlyle wrote about the German philosopher Friedrich Schiller. Then comes the contents page, harmless. Next is an author’s note explaining how Fisher was able to imagine what his characters were thinking so many decades ago.
He cites Rachel Cohen’s book A Chance Meeting and some other heavyweights. Fair enough as far as it goes. But it is like me saying I use the same racquet as Roger Federer, so therefore, our games have something in common. And it is true that A Chance Meeting and A Terrible Splendor are both books with three-word main titles. Sticking to the pretension checklist, the first paragraph of the first chapter draws on the opening of John McPhee’s Levels of the Game.
Later, Fisher describes Von Cramm as enduring the bombing of Berlin while reading Schopenhauer, a German philosopher, in an underground shelter. You could say it’s not Fisher’s fault that Von Cramm wasn’t reading the newspaper, but if there’s an impressive sounding writer or artist from that period between the wars or earlier, you can count on Fisher to wedge his or her name into A Terrible Splendor.
And, eventually, just in case there are any readers who haven’t been bludgeoned into an reverent appreciation that Fisher’s book isn’t a mere story of a tennis match, but is fraught with important political and social themes, he ends it with a quote from that British Isles writer even heavier than Carlyle, heavier than Leon Edel, the Henry James biographer who gets pressed into service back with Rachel Cohen … yes, William Shakespeare.
The reception Fisher’s book has gotten is an example of groupthink. It sounds like such a good story, the Budge-Von Cramm match had so much potential, it must be a good book, right? The book carries blurbs from tennis writers Bud Collins and Peter Bodo. It is also recommended by the managing editor of Vanity Fair, Cullen Murphy. Blurbers don’t necessarily read a book; presumably reviewers do. The guy at The Washington Post liked it. Liz Robbins at The New York Times liked it.
But it isn’t a good book at all. Certainly, Fisher did a lot of research, but the execution is flawed. It is a childish version of erudition linked to a tennis story.
It’s a damn shame, all of the marketing clicked, the Nazis are usually such reliable bad guys. You could have a nice panel discussion with Jon Wertheim, the author of that other greatest match book.
You don’t win a tennis match because you’re researched your opponent's record and are really familiar with his head-to-head with other players. A book must live or die based on what’s on its pages, no matter how many slots your publishers line up on NPR or how many times you cite better writers.
The Budge-Von Cramm match is a good story. An author could use it as a structure to bear a lot of weight. But Fisher piles on an awful lot and doesn’t pull it off. Sorry, the emperor forgot his tennis shorts.