Richard Ford’s Canada

Richard Ford’s Canada

     To most Europeans, the differences between the USA and Canada seem minimal. They occupy a single landmass; the inhabitants speak English with similar accents; they wear the same clothes and enjoy the same pursuits. If pressed, we might observe that Canada is emptier and (as Michael Moore pointed out in Bowling for Columbine) its people are less likely to shoot each other – but that’s about it.

So it’s interesting, and educational, to read a novel in which Canada defines otherness. For the narrator, Dell Parsons, it’s a place of exile, a diversion from the life he was supposed to lead.

The book begins with Dell and his twin sister, Berner, living quietly with their parents in Montana. Their father has given up a career in the Air Force to become a car salesman, but proves ill-suited to the job; when he runs into financial trouble, he persuades their mother – a teacher – to help him rob a bank. The plan fails, and in the aftermath Dell finds himself driven across the border and given shelter of the most basic kind in a small town in the middle of nowhere. There he is taken up by another exile, Arthur Remlinger, who owns the main hotel; but before long Dell finds that he has jumped from the frying pan into the fire.

I have long believed Richard Ford to be the greatest living American novelist – an F. Scott Fitzgerald with lower social horizons but the same perfection of narrative tone and gift for wise generalisations about life and human nature. Canada, however, doesn’t find him at his best. Its main fault – oddly for an author who embraces a pared-down, low-key style – is that it gives us too much information, explaining and elaborating when this is completely unnecessary. Most obviously, Dell refers throughout the 400-odd pages to ‘Berner, my sister’, as if we could possibly have forgotten his relationship to this key character; and when, at an anxious moment, his mother passes the time by cleaning the bath tub, he adds as an aside ‘which Berner always left dirty’. Does this contribute to our understanding of Berner, or anything else? No.

The unfolding of the plot, meanwhile, is low-key to the point of perversity. It has dramatic – not to say sensational – elements aplenty: not just the robbery, but suicide, incest and a double murder. Ford chooses, however, to tell us far in advance what’s going to happen (whether the robbery will succeed, who’s going to die), so that the tension is minimal. Reading Canada, I wondered at times whether he was lapsing into self-parody, as Anthony Powell did at the end of his career in The Fisher King.

Having said that, the book gets better as it goes along. There’s an obvious change of gear halfway through, when Dell arrives in Canada: Ford’s evocation of the bleak, almost abandoned township in which he finds himself is mesmerising, and the enigmatic Arthur Ramlinger is a chilly, fascinating character. As for the final few chapters, which bring us up to date with Dell’s subsequent life, they are really excellent – above all in their brave and wise contemplation of death.

After putting the book down, I found myself wondering how many other novels had been given the name of a real country. Kafka’s America was the only one that came to mind. Curiously, he wrote it without having visited the place, and one can’t help wishing him alive to see its present state. Perhaps only he could do justice to Trumpland; or will Richard Ford’s next novel prove otherwise?

Stories To Die For

Stories To Die For

     The American publishing house Scribner recently announced that it planned to issue ‘the last complete unpublished stories’ of F. Scott Fitzgerald in April. To fans of Fitzgerald, such news would once have brought unalloyed excitement; but after the damage done to Harper Lee’s reputation by Go Set a Watchman, one can’t help feeling apprehensive. Will I’d Die for You (as the collection is to be called) remind the world that his stories are as entrancing as his novels, or will it expose unimagined shortcomings?

Scribner declares that the stories ‘provide new insight into the bold and uncompromising arc of Fitzgerald’s career’ and include pieces he could not sell because ‘their subject matter or style departed from what editors expected’. They deal with ‘controversial topics, depicting young men and women who actually spoke and thought more as young men and women did, without censorship’.

The key question is how Scribner defines ‘controversial’. It is not as if Fitzgerald presented a sanitised view of the world: though rightly celebrated as a great romantic writer, what gives strength and credibility to his work is that he never overlooks the mundane and seamy side of life. The most prevalent themes in the already published stories are disillusionment and the power of alcohol to wreck people’s lives: in The Rich Boy it comes between the protagonist and the girl he should have married, in May Day it leads to violent death. Nor does Fitzgerald shy away from sex: his unsparing dissections of married life, such as Two Wrongs and The Rough Crossing, have adultery as a central theme, while his most substantial novel, Tender Is the Night, hinges on the greatest taboo of all – incest.

But he was not entirely wedded to realism, and what is particularly interesting about the short stories is that they venture into a realm which has almost no place in his novels: the Gothic. His best-known story, The Diamond as Big as the Ritz, is a case in point. As a portrait of a family rich enough to buy anything on earth, it is clearly the wealth-obsessed author’s ultimate fantasy, and he delights in cataloguing their extravagances, such as an ebony-roofed limousine upholstered in cloth of gold. But what seems at first a simple jeu d’esprit has a darker side: the family is served by slaves, and those who discover the source of their wealth must be silenced. The fantasy ends in mayhem and madness.

Some tales belong directly to the ghost- and horror-story tradition: The Cut-Glass Bowl focuses on a wedding present with a curse, while A Short Trip Home involves an encounter with a dead man. Where Fitzgerald makes the genre his own, however, is in stories which  combine the disturbing with exuberant comedy. The Curious Case of Benjamin Button is remarkable not only for its inspired premise (Benjamin is born as an old man and grows younger as the years pass) but also for its hilarious satire: the hero is initially branded a cad for ignoring the laws of nature, but overcomes opposition to his marriage by financing his father-in-law’s pet project – ‘his History of the Civil War in twenty volumes, which had been refused by nine prominent publishers’. The brilliance of The Lees of  Happiness – the tale of a man and a woman bound together by their devotion to a stroke victim – lies in the way Fitzgerald gradually modulates the narrative tone in the course of its two dozen pages: opening with an almost Dickensian facetiousness, it turns first to more subtle comedy, then to sober realism, and finally to deep pathos.

His short stories are also remarkable for giving centre stage to seedy characters who would merit only walk-on parts in the high-society world of his novels – above all Pat Hobby, the roguish Hollywood screenwriter who appears in no fewer than seventeen tales.

But the cardinal reason for reading anything by Fitzgerald is the pure beauty of his prose, evoking the elusive and the evanescent, marrying the physical to the abstract, as in Winter Dreams:

‘Later in the afternoon the sun went down in a riotous swirl of gold and varying blues and scarlets, and left the dry, restless night of Western summer. Dexter watched from the veranda of the Golf Club, watched the even overlap of the waters in the little wind, silver molasses under the harvest-moon…It was a mood of intense appreciation, a sense that, for once, he was magnificently attuned to life and everything about him was radiating a brightness and glamour he might never know again.’

If anything in I’d Die for You comes close to that, it will have been worth the 80-year wait.