Richard Ford: Canada

This is an extraordinary book. It sets out, in detail, the life of a boy growing toward manhood, following an inept robbery of a bank by his parents. The key to the boy, Dell’s, success in overcoming all the setbacks that followed this event is slowly disclosed, and is given its final form only at the end of the novel, when Dell, now a teacher, tells his students that “I believe in what you see being most of what there is… and that life’s passed on to us empty. So, while significance weighs heavy, that’s the most it does. Hidden meaning is all but absent.” That’s not the way I personally look at life, but it’s a mark of Ford’s greatness as a writer that he convinced me that it is a valid philosophy for him, although not for me, valid in that it allows Dell to rebuild his life and survive. Survive rather well, in fact.
Along the way we meet characters who are remarkably well described. Even if we don’t really understand them, they are very real to us. Arthur Reminger, accidental murderer and revolutionary, is an unlikely character to find in a small town in Saskatchewan. Reminger’s woman friend, Florence, is a welcome arrival on the scene, a counter to the unbalanced Reminger. Charley, the weird general help: it’s hard to tell how accurate, or even believable, his tales about Reminger Ford intends them to be. And there’s a host of minor characters who appear briefly, but whose identity is sketched in faultlessly.
It isn’t just the characters that are written about so well. The descriptions of Great Falls, of Dell’s home there, of the state prison, of the drive into Canada, and, above all, of Fort Royal, are done so well. Canada is a remarkable country, so diverse, the great cities, although we don’t see them in this book, attractive and interesting, but there is the other side to Canada, the rural decay. You drive through Canada, and you keep coming across awful places like Fort Royal and Partreau, desperate in decay. But these places are set in the most beautiful scenery in the world. There are two ways of looking at the prairies: one is the way some people think about East Anglia. Very flat, Cambridge, they say. Nothing there. Others look at the huge skies, the clouds sailing towards the north-east, and say that on a good day you can see forever, they see the hidden meaning. Ford sees Canada, and life, in the first way, it is a valid view, written about convincingly, but it isn’t mine. It’s no surprise that Ford’s best friend is Raymond Carver.
The story of his run-in with Alice Hoffman, who reviewed an earlier novel, the Sport’s Writer, in the New York Times, is well-known. What Hoffman wrote is (and this is a quote):
“Though ”The Sportswriter” aims for a tough, realistic stance it suffers from a lack of compelling action and an emphasis on Bascombe’s dry meditations obscures and minimizes the complex domestic structure the author initially presents. MR. FORD is a daring and intelligent novelist, but in choosing Bascombe as his narrator he has taken a risk that ultimately does not pay off. The authorial voice is so weakened that we are left only with the observations of an emotionally untrustworthy narrator. This is not to say that the author doesn’t allow us some access to Bascombe’s psyche. Certainly, his observations about a former athlete hold true for himself, for what he needs ”is to strap on a set of pads and beat the daylights out of somebody and quit worrying about theories of art.” He never trades theorizing for action. Bascombe’s inability to write fiction, which should illuminate his inability to connect emotionally, instead seems trivial. Even mourning is replaced by self-analysis, so that Bascombe’s lost son seems less a ghostly presence than a tiny piece of glass set in the kaleidoscope of self-scrutiny.”
Exactly the same criticism can be made of Canada, and, probably, of all Ford’s books, although I’ve only read two others, The Sportswriter and Independence Day.
In retaliation for her criticism, Ford shot a hole through her latest book (Fortune’s Daughter) and posted it to her. “Well my wife shot it first,” said Ford, rather proudly. “She took the book out into the back yard, and shot it. But people make such a big deal out of it – shooting a book – it’s not like I shot her.”
Canada is a fine example of a book that is outstandingly well written, and you have to admire it, but in the end, it is a portrayal of a view of life that is sterile and unsatisfying. It’s a book I would give 10 to for literary merit, and not recommend to many people as a good read. And that shoots a hole through what we think we’re doing when we decide “Is this a good book?” Or “Should this book win a prize?”.

Marilynne Robinson: Home

Marilynne Robinson: Home

Marilynne Robinson has published three novels. They all deal with family life and relationships between members of a family. Two of them, Gilead and Home, relate much the same events as seen from two families. The first novel, House-keeping, was published in 1980, and immediately established Robinson’s reputation, winning the PEN/Hemingway award for a first novel. It recounts the history of a family living in a remote town, Fingerbone, in the American mid-west, particularly two sisters, Ruth and Lucille. They are brought up by their grandmother, then by their comic great-aunts when their grandmother leaves, and finally by their mother’s eccentric sister Sylvie. Ruth comes under Sylvie’s spell, but Lucille wants to live a normal life, and runs away to live with her schoolteacher. Fingerbone is the site of disasters: it is where their grandfather dies in a spectacular train crash, where their mother dies when she drove a car over a cliff, and where the glacial lake on which the town is set floods, and brings disaster to everyone. The novel is a story of the girls’ struggle towards adulthood, written in the most beautiful language.

There was no other novel until 2004, 28 years later, when Gilead was published, winning the Pulitzer Prize. It is an extended letter to his four year-old son from the Reverend John Ames, in his seventies, nearing the end of his life, telling his son of his life, and of the life of his father, also a minister, and of his grandfather, another minister who preached soldiers into the civil war to free the slaves. It recounts the conflict between fathers and sons, and the conflicts of John Ames with his great friend, Boughton, and the conflict of his great friend, and himself, with Boughton’s prodigal son Jack Boughton.

Then after a gap of only four years, in 2008, this novel, Home, was published, winning the Orange Prize in 2009.

I suspect that this novel will divide readers over the reason why we read novels. When I first started reading novels seriously, that is, as something to talk to my friends about, I read a little book, Aspects of the Novel by E M Forster. Forster starts by telling us that ‘the fundamental aspect of the novel is its story-telling aspect, but [that] we shall voice our assent in different tones.’ He cites three readers who are asked what a novel is. One is vague: Well – I don’t know – it seems a funny sort of question to ask – a novel’s a novel; another is aggressive: ‘tells a story of course – he dismisses art, music, literature, ‘give me a good story’. The third is regretful: “Yes – oh dear yes – the novel tells a story.” This third man, Forster confesses, is himself. Telling a story is the fundamental aspect without which the novel could not exist. He “wishes it could be something else – melody, or the perception of truth, but not this low atavistic form.”

Forster’s own novels all tell a story, but there is something else more important to many of Forster’s readers (and to Forster himself). It is the exploration of the characters: why they are how they are, why they say and do what they do.  No-one would deny that Howards End and A Room with a View tell stories that enthral, but it is the character development that makes them great novels. Are there readers who can rate them as great novels without thinking anything of the delineation and development of the characters?

This is also true of Marilynne Robinson’s novels; she has taken the novel even further in the direction in which Forster was heading. Where is the story in Home? It’s a poor timid creature. It hardly exists. Many readers will complain: nothing happens. Things do happen: Jack tries to kill himself, but he’s been destroying himself all his life, and in the end he leaves, and things are as they always were. The two old ministers struggle to maintain their children’s faith, and fail. Most readers will think that Jack and Glory have a view of the world that is healthier and more generous to others than that of the ministers, the ayatollahs of nonconformity.

What is important (to me, at any rate) is the way in which the language in which Marilynne Robinson writes shows how history lives on through generations, pervasively present even when betrayed and forgotten. She doesn’t tell us about this, she shows it through the words the characters speak. The ultimate expression of show not tell. This is a novel about family relationships, and how parents imprint certain beliefs and patterns of behaviour, or, because of some antipathy, lack of belief and an antagonistic behaviour, on their children. All the children leave, of course, in their own way, all except poor Glory.

Marilynn Robinson’s novels are not easy reading.  They are hard work, and if you take them seriously you often find yourself putting them down, thinking about them, and then going back and re-reading a scene.  There were times when I wasn’t sure at first what was happening.  An example is the provision of clothes for Jack, some of them his father’s, and Jack’s response to these gifts, which in the end I thought was underlining Jack’s fear of being swallowed up again by his family, after he has so painfully broken away. And there are subtleties about this.  Not all gifts of clothes are unacceptable.  Clothes  play an important part in the story – an example is the shirt with the sleeve embroidered by Jack’s woman friend.

A rewarding book to read, and a book to remember years afterwards.

A prehistoric play school

At a recent talk at the University of Cambridge Jess Cooney gave a fascinating account of the research that she and Dr Leslie van Gelder have been doing on the marks, known as finger flutings, made 13,000 years ago in the Ruffignac caves in France.  Besides the drawing of mammoths, bears and other animals, our prehistoric ancestors made decorative marks by running their fingers through the soft material extruded from the limestone.  These were often made by running the index (second), middle and third (ring) finger together so that there are three grooves, sometimes straight, and sometimes curved. There are also sets of grooves crossing other grooves, interpreted as symbols.

Because children’s hands are smaller than adult hands, it’s possible to tell that some of these flutings were made by children, and Jess Cooney suggested that there were flutings made by a child as young as three. The relative length of the digits can be different in men and women (in women, the index finger (the second) is usually about the same length as the ring finger (the fourth), whereas in men, the ring finger is usually longer than the index finger. Also, because this relative length is fixed in the womb, it is likely that some of these children were girls (see here for information on finger length).

Anyone who has seen children making patterns in mud or sand on the sea-shore, or finger painting will recognise this activity, and it’s fascinating to imagine those small children, so much like our own, making their contributions to the artistic endeavour that has characterised our species.

You can listen to Jess Cooney’s talk, see film of the caves and the flutings and read about her research here  on the University Research  site.