Eamonn Lynskey's Poetry and Reading Blog

December 19, 2014

‘The Sportswriter’, by Richard Ford. Collins Harvill 1986

Filed under: All=Time Favorite Novels, Books — Tags: — tvivf @ 2:25

Instead of a map you might be able to use Richard Ford’s ‘The Sportswriter’ to getThe Sportswriter around some parts of New Jersey, so topographically exact is his writing. Or maybe it’s all fiction? If so, it’s very convincing fiction indeed. He has a real feeling for place and precise location.

Frank Bascombe (also a major character in Ford’s later work) has something of the Holden Caulfield’s about him: the naivite, the endless introspection, the itchy desire to be always on the move, traits somewhat understandable in Salinger’s young adolescent but a little misplaced, it would seem, in a man of 39.

There are reasons. Frank is haunted by the death of his 12 year old son. It happened some years before the start of the novel but he is still haunted by it when we meet him. In his own words: ‘For a time – this was a period after Ralph died – I had no idea about it myself. and in fact thought I was onto something big – changing my life, moorings loosed, women, travel, marching to a different drummer. Though I was wrong.’ This loss is at the heart of the book and  is achingly at the heart of the novel’s first scene where he and his ex-wife get together on a Good Friday morning at their son’s grave. The other great loss Frank has suffered is his marriage. As we read through the book it is impossible not to like Frank, but it’s also impossible not to see why his marriage broke up.

The book tells  a rather sorrowful story, but is far from being a sorrowful book. It is in fact hilarious in parts, especially those parts where Frank finds himself in situations where he has to deal with people whom he has (unwittingly) upset. As well as this, Ford’s wry humour is a constant undercurrent, as is his wisdom pertaining to humans and the reasons why we do what we do to each other.

And the story is Frank’s story, as told by Frank himself in an almost Joycean ‘stream of consciousness’ way, but not quite as strict as with Joyce (thank God: I prefer some filtering). He is always ‘seeing around’ things and getting a good hold on how other people think, and especially as to what they think of him. The book benefits too from being set in a short time span (Good Friday, Easter Sunday) which allows a sharp Joycean forensic analysis of the events.

Certainly one of the best books I have ever re-read.  If you like John Cheever (who gets a mention) and Raymond Carver, you will love this book. Absolutely recommended.

[I met Richard Ford when he gave a series of talks to the participants in a course I was doing in 2012. He is an amiable man with a strong sense of humour who wears his fame lightly. We all liked him very much.]

August 21, 2012

‘The Trial’ by Franz Kafka. publ. by Penguin 1971 (from 1953)

Filed under: All=Time Favorite Novels — tvivf @ 2:25

When I first read Kafka’s The Trial I was fascinated. 40 years on I find it still as fascinating, the more so in fact, because I have had many years in the meantime to confirm how, despite its nightmarish qualities, it is a very realistic work. That is to say, it reflects very accurately the real world and the real  hopes and fears we humans entertain every day.

You’ll say that I speak for myself! and that  not everyone is a neurotic, or is delusional or paranoid. True. But elements of The Trial apply to most people, although I suppose there may be some  who  never in their whole lives have been beset by a worry that has stayed with them a considerable time, and which has grown stronger and more insidious over that time. If there are people like that, I haven’t met them. And I’m not one of them!

The novel is an almost clinical case study of the way an individual can be destroyed by circumstances beyond his control, especially when he begins by thinking that he CAN control events. One of the most affecting parts of the book is K’s early confidence that HE can take charge and wrap things up quickly. Hence his arrogance in addressing the ‘court, which is held in a very bizarre location: ‘He was given the number of the house where he had to go, it was a house in an outlying suburban street where he had never been before’.

As regards the ‘court’ itself, all its musty, pedantic and beaurocratic nature comes through strongly and reminds one of the ‘circumlocution office’ in Dickens’s Little Dorrit.  I am not aware that Kafka (1883-1924) knew anything of Dickens (1812-1870) and so this aspect of their work would seem to be an example of two extraordinary writers ‘zooming in’ on aspect of social organisation’ with equal extraordinary effect ( though maybe Kafka has a slight edge in ‘nightmarishness’?). Both have contributed their names to the language in the form of powerful adjectives.

I have to say that this book has been a personal favorite with me over the years and when I said above that I find it ‘fascinating’ I am using the word its strict sense of  ‘attract or influence irresistibly’  Like everyone else, I have had some personal experience of situations in which one feels an overpowering sense of helplessness. Kafka’s device of having his character overcome by weakness and a sense of suffocation is extremely effective, not least  because it reflects the actual psychosomatic symptoms that one often experiences in situation like this. There is too the feeling that anything one does will only make the situation worse, so the best idea would be to sit still and wait out events. But this is very hard to do because things may be getting worse anyway, and just BECAUSE one is doing nothing. And so perhaps one should intervene…

And so on. A really fine novel, tightly written and extraordinarily perceptive of the human condition, and one which can never be ‘outdated’. The only true parallel in my reading that I can think of is Orwell’s 1984. Humour too, though of the dark kind.

To use a word that is considerably overused and abused: The Trial is a work of genius. One of my all-time favourite  novels. [Translated from the German – Der Prozess  (published posthumously 1925) – by Willa and Edwin Muir (1936)].

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