Bench Press

by Sven Lindqvist
Granta (2003)

bench-press

I’ll admit to being a sucker for a self-help book. There are a few from that particular genre tucked away in a quiet corner of my bedroom bookshelf, on the opposite end from the sports books. Bench Press, sits half way between them.

It’s a book that belongs to neither category, though it contains elements of both. In fact, I’m not even sure what kind of book it is – it’s an essay made up of lots of essays, it’s a kind of fragmentary memoir, a selective history of body-building that’s also a book of dreams, a book about self-improvement that offers its reader none of the usual pointers and platitudes.

Ultimately, it’s a book about finding oneself which is possibly why I return to it so often. I love the way it’s composed, almost like music. Like a song-cycle of thematically linked, individually discrete, perfectly formed chapters that each sing out resoundingly on their own. Taken together, they make a strange and compelling whole.

Bench Press seems to lack any kind of central narrative. If it’s a quest, as many such autobiographical explorations are, it’s not about a search for anything obvious – a missing father, a family mystery etc. And I don’t think the author began writing it with a clear idea of what he was looking for. There’s nothing to hook you, to propel you forwards. Instead, it seems to propel you downwards. It’s a book that takes you deeper into its subject, deeper into the author’s dreamworld, deeper into the source of whatever it is – and we have only a few clues to go on – that incited him to begin writing in the first place.

There are a number of recurring images: a new-born’s fontanelle, fire-eaters, desert divers, falling keys. The thread that sews it all together is body-building, specifically his entry into the discipline of weight training. Lindqvist intersperses snappy little chunks of sporting history, from the development of weight-lifting machines to the training techniques of successful athletes, alongside a report on a body-building contest held in Gothenburg. But the aspect of the book that provides its centre of gravity, as it were, is where Lindqvist recounts the effects of weight training on his interior life as his exterior body adjusts to the demands of his new discipline. I can relate to all of it. Reading this book always unleashes surprising recollections and associations.

Body-building was the first sport I got interested in as a teenager. I bought a set of dumb-bells and a chest expander (!) which I worked with at home until I got the confidence to start going to a gym. I bought a book on body-building, read Arnold Schwarzenegger’s biography, studied all the main muscle groups and how to work them: learned my deltoids from my trapezius, my lats from my pecs from my quads, my glutes from my abs. I bought some disgusting protein shake stuff from the health food shop and trained ardently but aimlessly for a while until America came calling.

When I enrolled in high school in El Paso, I expressed an interest in attending the gym. My host brother was a varsity quarterback. He took me to where they worked out, the only time I ever went there – the kids here were operating on an altogether different level. I met boys my age but twice my size, huge mustachioed Mexicans in their early teens built like refrigerators, freshmen that could bench their fathers, all of them proving their might and muscle in a range of vigorous team pursuits that required strength and bulk and power. I felt weak and wan. I tried out for the wrestling team because I had been practising a martial art called Tukido at home for a while and I fancied I could handle myself. I lasted a couple of gruelling training sessions and finally balked after being tangled painfully to the mat during practice by a boy made seemingly entirely of knuckle.

The gym habit never entirely left me, though I’ve never quite felt at home with the heavy mob, the Muscle Marys, the grunters and humphers heaving into floor length mirrors. The vocabulary I had picked up came in useful when I started teaching in Turkey. I met an ambitious young man called Ozdenir, a former Junior Mr Turkey who trained at a gym across the road from the school where I worked. Ozdenir’s plan was to work in the posh hotels in Ankara, to become a personal trainer to rich Westerners, make his fortune, move to America. He was in that school every single day attending every extra class he could, as well as my own elementary class. We became friends – Ozdenir was friends with everybody – and I offered to give him personal English tuition in exchange for a bit of weight training. I taught him the language of the gym: sets and reps, pull-downs and push-ups, curls and squats. All that. And in return he helped me put together a training programme, showed me how to use a few machines, got me to think about my diet. It worked perfectly until we both had what we needed. His English continued to improve at an amazing rate; I trained on my own for a while until my social life started to get in the way.

I still go to the gym a couple of times a week, still lift tiny weights – I kid myself on that I’m building endurance, not mass. Which is kind of also true, but I prefer to annihilate myself on the stationary bike and rowing machines, plunging my heart rate into and out of the red repeatedly until I can barely see. I love that.

And I’m talking about self-annihilation here in the metaphorical sense, of course; the best sense. I realised, not long after my mother died, that I needed to have exercise in my life to keep me happy. I was smoking, I was over-weight, I was in a job I hated, I was in a relationship that was making me miserable. Everything was connected but I couldn’t find a way out.

I had been suicidal before so I knew that I was prone to extremely dark and dangerous thoughts relating to my lack of self-worth. These thoughts weren’t connected to any particular event or situation, it was like it was just in me, like the way you get a really bad cold every few years that keeps you off work. Feeling suicidal was a bit like that. It came over me like a virus.

I took to exercise as a way of staving off the demons. And it worked. But it’s a lesson I repeatedly forget to remember. So much of our psychology is bound up with our physiology. This should not be news to us, but it is. It repeatedly is. We forget we are flesh. We get so lost in our heads and hearts that we let our bodies that carry them turn to mush. Every time I feel the wave of crushing self-hate crashing over me, it takes ages – sometimes months – to realise that I’ve stopped exercising. Or that I’m tired. Or that I’ve been eating shit food. And, yes, they’re all related, one begets the other, but it’s relatively easy to stop the rot. Go to the gym. Get on the bike. Go for a run.

I’m not really interested in why I’m like this. I’m not looking for a narrative, not looking for a reason. I just am, and kind of always have been, kind of always will be – to one extent or another. And I love it when you meet a fellow traveller, someone like Lindqvist, to remind you that your faults and failings and frailties, along with your delts and quads and abs and glutes, are the very things that make you a human, just like everybody else.

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