Although the novel is entitled The Tennis Players, it is less about tennis than it is about academe. The story is told from the point of view of the main character, Lars Gustafsson, who happens to share the name of the author. Gustafsson, a Scandinavian professor of literature, reminisces about one year in his life which he spent teaching a seminar in nineteenth century European thought at the University of Texas. At first, he is able to take advantage of his year in the Texas sunshine to bicycle and to perfect his tennis serve, but he is reluctantly drawn into a series of events concerning university matters that drag him away from his beloved tennis courts.
The novel has many picaresque elements, in that it is somewhat unstructured. While the details are specific and concrete, the separate events are generally unrelated, and the various characters interact only with the central character. For example, Doobie and Bill are students of Professor Gustafsson and are presumably in the same seminar, but they do not seem to know each other. Also, the fact that the author and the central character share the same name and occupation suggests that the novel is, at least to some extent, autobiographical. While the main character is not a picaro because he hardly qualifies as a rascal, he does, as a visitor from Sweden, stand outside the social order of south central Texas and find that many of its traditions and mores are incomprehensible to him.
The title of the first chapter is “Siegfried’s Rhine Journey,” which the narrator explains is an aria from Richard Wagner’s opera Gotterdammerung. It is this tune that Professor Gustafsson tries to whistle as he bikes to his favorite tennis court, across from Fred’s vegetable stand. The hero of the opera, Siegfried, is a respected warrior who goes about slaying dragons and other evil creatures and rescuing damsels in distress. Although the narrator is quick to point out that he is not the legendary, daring Siegfried, nor is he biking his way “down a dark, foggy river toward strange Germanic adventures in gathering gloom,” the juxtaposition suggests that the professor from Sweden is clearly on his way to some peculiarly American adventures.
One adventure involves a student with the unlikely name of Doobie Smith. Doobie, a brilliant student who has learned Norwegian in order to read Henrik Ibsen in the original, is enamored of Berlin as it was in the late nineteenth century. What intrigues the professor about Doobie is her commitment to Nietzschean philosophy and her uncanny resemblance to the photographs of Lou Salome, the young woman whom Friedrich Nietzsche hoped would become his intellectual and personal companion. The...
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