Full of High Sentence
By Richard Ford
When Richard Ford’s novel The Sportswriter was published in 1986, the praise it received was heavily qualified. The novel’s “ambition” was respected (from the “Briefly Mentioned” section of the New Yorker), as well as Ford’s “technical virtuosity” and “singular voice” (Kirkus Reviews) but those merits were “squandered on disposable wisdom” from a hero whose “penchant for the poetical” led mainly to unintended bathos. Alice Hoffman, in a review for the New York Times that remains one of the most perceptive commentaries on the novel, concludes that The Sportswriter “suffers from a lack of compelling action and an emphasis on Bascombe’s dry meditations that obscures and minimizes the complex domestic structure the author initially presents… The authorial voice is so weakened that we are left only with the observations of an emotionally untrustworthy narrator.”
Twenty-seven years later, Ford has achieved a level of respect that approaches early canonization. The Sportswriter became the first novel of a trilogy about the eponymous journalist Frank Bascombe. Its sequel, Independence Day, won both the Pulitzer and PEN/Faulkner; its appearance, in 1996, marked a point of maturity beyond which Ford’s further writings were received as the work of a writer who had already made his name.The third installment, The Lay of the Land, appeared in 2006. All three novels have been issued together in a single-volume Everyman’s Library edition. (Ford recently read from an unpublished Bascombe story at an event in New York City, suggesting that the book may have to be expanded in another few years.)
His reputation is that of a modern master of the tradition in prose fiction that Zadie Smith, in a 2008 essay titled “Two Paths for the Novel,” calls “lyrical realism”: the path “along which one might wave to Jane Austen, George Eliot, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Richard Yates, Saul Bellow.” His work is decidedly “literary,” completely averse to any allegation of resembling genre fiction; at the same time, it eschews all interest in the experimental or the avant-garde. At first glance, Ford seems resolutely uninterested in changing the rules of how fiction is written—more concerned with excellence than innovation, a craftsman content with the most classical norms of his art form.
But Ford’s prose in The Sportswriter, so superficially stable and conservative, actually synthesizes deep and antagonistic traditions in prose style—a significant part of why the novel’s earliest reviewers felt it to be a failure. And what Ford attempted also failed to draw the praise of those looking for bold prose experimentation. I do not think that The Sportswriter is wholly successful at what it set out to do. But I do think that it is a good deal more provocative than anyone has recognized it to be—and the faults with which its critics charge it are attributable to its latent and surprisingly bold stylistic vision. And it requires close examination—line by line, word by word—to figure out how that vision works.
A specimen paragraph will do. Frank Bascombe lives in exurban New Jersey; his first marriage from which he has two surviving children, ended in divorce after the death of his oldest child. At this point in the novel, he has taken his girlfriend—Vicki, a young nurse who grew up in Dallas—on a work-related trip to Detroit. (Bascombe attended the University of Michigan.) After his only planned interview went very badly, he and Vicki have gone to see the Belle Isle Botanical Gardens. A late April snowfall has blown across the east side of Michigan.
The Botanical Garden turned out to be cold and alien-feeling, though we trudged down aisles of ferns and succulents and passion flowers until Vicki announced a headache. The most interesting rooms all seemed to be closed—in particular a re-creation of an eighteenth-century French herb garden, which we could see through the glass door and that caught both our fancies. A sign hung in the window saying Detroit was not generous enough in its tax attitudes to support this century properly. And in less than an hour we were back out in the cold and snow of afternoon on the windy concrete steps. A muddy playing field stretched away from us toward the boat basin, with the big river invisible and low behind a crescent-line of poplar saplings. Public places can sometimes let you down no matter how promising they start out.
Ford likes complex sentences. Every sentence of this paragraph contains multiple clauses; the first and last use concessive clauses (“though we…” “no matter how”), and the tone of the entire passage sounds ambivalent as a result. The interesting rooms are disappointingly closed; the garden cannot be maintained; the hothouse is paradoxically cold. In a mild pun, the first instance of the word “cold” equates climate with mood, although the addition of “alien-feeling” stresses mood—so that when the word recurs in the fourth sentence (“the cold and snow of afternoon”) in a context that would normally have brought out only the climatic meaning, the sense of mood comes out more clearly than it would have otherwise. This idea of frigidity, attenuated through wordplay, contrasts with the warm, libidinous connotations of intervening words: “succulents,” “passion flowers,” “interesting,” “fancies.” Those words incite just enough of their ideas to be forcefully denied. Sentences this large create lots of space in which to inlay conflicting emotions and moods. Ford also finds a clever objective correlative for that conflict in the setting of a greenhouse beleaguered by an early-spring snow.
Desire is obstructed: the girlfriend has a headache, the doors to the inner gardens are closed. Prosaic reasons interfere—taxes, that least sensual of causes. The contrast between the romantic past (18th-century France—Versailles, the court, the Sun King, Marie Antoinette) and the grubby present (1980s Detroit) lingers into the sentences describing Frank and Vicki’s exit. (Even the word “re-creation,” with its endashed emphasis on the “re-,” brings out the Quixotic element in the visit, the irretrievableness of the past.) The visit, too brief, thrusts us back into the harsh cold with vicious speed. We encounter a two-sentence flash of lyric bleakness:
… the cold and snow of afternoon on the windy concrete steps. A muddy playing field stretched away from us toward the boat basin, with the big river invisible and low behind a crescent-line of poplar saplings.
The turn towards a distinctly poetic diction happens gradually. The vocabulary stays resolutely down-to-earth at first, though the applications begin to depart from workaday usage. To start, in the phrase “windy concrete steps,” the steps themselves are not, of course, windy, but rather are windswept. Or, perhaps, the sense is that the area of the steps, which are made out of concrete, is windy. But the problem is that “concrete” refers to the material of the steps, while “windy” refers to their vicinity, requiring us to interpret “steps” both ways at once. We are subtly, slowly entering extended usage. “Stretched” is a metaphorical use of that verb, however commonplace; it resonates against the metaphors of suppressed and denied desire earlier in the paragraph.
But by the time we reach the last clause, the syntax and diction have turned decisively lyrical. To take the most ordinary of words: the use of “with” here can be construed as a temporal preposition meaning “at the same time as” (: “the field stretched away from us [at the same time as] the big river [stretched] behind a line…”). This usage is extremely rare, and seems quite Latinate: the Oxford English Dictionary remarks that this sense (“collocation of space”) is quite extended, and possibly archaic.
“The big river invisible and low” can only be construed as anastrophe—a Yoda-like inversion of normal word order—in English (as opposed to the standard—if clunky—”the big, invisible, and low river”). Moreover, this word order is what we would expect from a Romance language: for example, “le grand fleuve invisible et bas.” We are hearkening back to the influx of Norman speech into the ancestry of the English language, as well as to the territory of the kinds of Renaissance-era translations of French and Italian poetry that were obsessed with preserving original word order.
Note also the assonance (vowel repetition) that has begun to take over with the recurrent short”i” sound: “basin, with the big river invisible”—as well as the later half-rhyme in the phrase “behind a crescent-line.” By the time we reach the image of “a crescent-line of poplar saplings,” all pretense of colloquial speech has been lost. We are fully immersed in the lyrical tone of what we could (naïvely) call “high literary language.” “Crescent-line” is pure contrivance, and the specificity of “poplar” is a literary touch as well. (Names of trees, birds, and flowers always are.)
It is here that the prose does something interesting that helps us peer into the heart of Ford’s style in The Sportswriter. As the fifth sentence ends and the sixth begins, we enter a moment when the play of sound begins to predominate over the sense of words, so that idea seems to emerge from the phonological characteristics of the arbitrary signifiers more than anything else. The sonic ingenuity of this moment is worth lingering upon and scrutinizing closely:
“… poPLar saPLings. puBLic PLaces…”
primary alliteration: the combination of a bilabial stop (B or P) with a lateral liquid (L)
“… Poplar saplings. Public places…”
secondary alliteration: the voiceless bilabial (P)
“… poplar SaplingS. public plaCeS…”
complementary alliteration: alveolar sibilant (S)
“… poplar saplings. Public places…”
vowel diversity: None of the vowels repeat (phonologically speaking)
It is unlikely that this is the result of outright calculation; these results are usually only half-intended, the result of a long apprenticeship to the English language. Ford spoke about this in his Fall 1996 interview with the Paris Review:
FORD: I’m always interested in words, and no matter what I’m doing—describing a character or a landscape or writing a line of dialogue—I’m moved, though not utterly commanded by an interest in the sound and rhythm of the words, in addition, I ought to say, to what the words actually denote. Most writers are probably like that, don’t you think? Sometimes I’ll write a sentence that sets up an opportunity for say, a direct object or predicate adjective and I won’t have a clue what the word is except that I know what I don’t want—the conventional word: “the night grew dark.” I don’t want “dark.” I might, though, want a word that has four syllables and a long a sound in it. Maybe it’ll mean “dark,” or maybe it’ll take a new direction. I’ll have some kind of inchoate metrical model in my mind. One of the ways sentences can surprise their maker, please their reader, and uncover something new is that they get to the sense they make by other than ordinary logical means.
INTERVIEWER [Bonnie Lyons]: You’re unusually sound-oriented for a fiction writer.
FORD: I don’t exactly know why that is, but probably it was just the way I could do it. And even though I may be “sound-oriented,” I’m not sure that shows up in the sentences I write in ways the reader would necessarily notice.
Those four words of Ford’s are a sequence whose prosody any writer might spend their life looking for. They are in the same class as James Joyce’s sentence “the void awaits surely all them who weave the wind,” or Elizabeth Bishop’s perfect twinning of assonant pairs in three lines of her poem “At the Fishhouses”: “He has scraped the scales, the principal beauty, / from unnumbered fish with that black old knife, / the blade of which is almost worn away.” But lest we let ourselves be too seduced by sound, we have to note where this transition leads. In this passage, a lyrical moment of place-setting yields to aphorism:
… with the big river invisible and low behind a crescent-line of poplar saplings. Public places can sometimes let you down no matter how promising they start out.
Having worked in the narrative first-person for nearly the entire passage, Frank Bascombe suddenly shifts into the second—chatty, warm, like a man across from you at the bar. Bascombe loves digressing into generalities, into maxims. He—and, by extension, Ford—does this throughout the novel. These are the instances of “disposable wisdom” and “observations of an emotionally untrustworthy narrator” that the novel’s critics complain about. Almost any given page has its examples:
She smiles as if she’s realized this moment that children become our parents, and we just become children again.
Women have always lightened my burdens, picked up my faltering spirits and exhilarated me with the old anything-goes feeling, though anything doesn’t go, of course, and never did.
I silently pledge never again to be in their number. I am finished with that and them. Life’s ashore, after all (though God love them).
This habit provokes two questions. First, and fundamentally: what is the nature of this narrator? And secondly (and more engrossingly): what is the literary genealogy of this kind of narrator?
To begin answering the first question: our narrator works in the first-person. He is identified with Frank Bascombe, the protagonist of the novel. He frequently lapses into second-person, though not in a Bright Lights, Big City way as much as a borrowing of the essayist’s voice. His consciousness dominates this passage and the novel: the flash of indirect speech (“a sign saying [that] Detroit was not generous…”) subordinates the sign’s existence beneath the umbrella of Bascombe’s memory. The same is true of the temporal clause “until Vicki announced a headache”—that’s not even indirect discourse: it’s actually recasting Vicki’s speech as a transitive verb, an action instead of a thought. He is ruminative, and good with the English language: Bascombe’s profession as a writer and journalist justifies the capacity for eloquence with which Ford endows him. The entire novel reads somewhat like a long personal essay. It often resorts to flashbacks; the chronology, while never unclear, does hop around a lot. We frequently delve into memory, and memory is sifted for these occasional ingots of stand-alone thoughts, assessments of life as a whole.
Ford is clearly in dialogue with not just the context of his times, but the deeper history of the novel, at least into the mid-19th century. Writing in the early 1980s, he is working in the shadow of the great first-person narrators of the mid-twentieth century: Nabokov’s Humbert Humbert, Salinger’s Holden Caulfield, Roth’s Alexander Portnoy. In terms of subject matter, he is tilling the same fields as Updike’s Rabbit novels and Bellow’s Herzog, and he adopts the same high-lyric style as those two writers, who must have loomed like giants at the time, when both were still alive (though they’ve only grown more untouchable in death). The Rabbit books and Herzog worked in third-person, though, and Ford is creating a chimera of their topics with a change of view: as a result, we behold the middle-aged man contemplating his own life, desires, and failures from his own perspective. In order to justify and try to match the lyric intensity of Updike and Bellow, though, Ford has to concoct a narrator who could have the same kind of writerly voice. Nabokov did this by making Humbert Humbert a European literature professor; Ford does so by making Bascombe a writer whose literary pretensions failed him, who lapsed into sportswriting.
Many critics have compared his prose style to Faulkner or to Hemingway; I confess I fail to see those quite as clearly as I do the traces of his nearer contemporaries, though the Absalom, Absalom! model of novel as near-continuous monologue seems a fair precedent here. (Those comparisons often seem to refer to Ford’s earlier two books, however.) But I do see two older, more European traditions in the novel coming into dialogue and ultimately conflict in Ford’s prose.
On one hand, there is the movement towards lyricism, euphony, and exactness of description that came to modernism via Walter Pater and Henry James and ultimately from Flaubert. This tradition almost always prefers the third-person, and loves the consciousness-depicting-tricks of reported speech and thought. It also idealizes an impartial, unintrusive narrator who recedes into the background of the storytelling process.
On the other hand, there is the Proustian voice of the novelist-as-essayist, given over to reflection, assessment, and derivation of ideas from the stuff of life at large. Novel, essay, and memoir often start to sound alike. This mode of narration operates almost entirely within the first person. Proust seems the right touchstone within modernism, but it is possible that the aphoristic voice in that Proustian style springs from other sources. (George Eliot, whom Proust studied closely, springs to mind—but she was just the apotheosis of a Victorian tendency to moralize in narrative, and an older, Continental affection for aphorism as its own genre.)
The latent problem, of course, is that the first tradition eschews the very kind of aphoristic voice that the second values. In marrying the two, Ford stages a literary-historical dialectic over the extent to which a narrator can or should draw lessons from the narrative—sum up, turn a clever phrase, assess, point out, remark.
I do not think that Ford is necessarily aware of this interplay in terms of the literary genealogy I have used here. I do, however, believe that the novel shows that he is far more aware—and skeptical—of the aphoristic tendencies of Bascombe’s voice than his critics allow. Alice Hoffman writes in her review, “[I]f there are layers of irony and perception, they are too subtle and diffuse.” But the plot of the novel reveals a great deal of irony surrounding Bascombe’s often sententious pronouncements. Even if the irony is ambivalent and frequently exists in tension with a longing for some kind of sincerity, that does not lessen the fact of its presence. The way in which Ford ironizes his narrator is, in fact, pronounced with almost ham-handed clarity, in a moment of metafictional reflection when Bascombe steps off the plane in Detroit, thinking back to his days as a failed writing professor:
And I feel exactly what at this debarking moment? At least a hundred things at once, all competing to take the moment and make it their own, reduce undramatic life to a gritty, knowable kernel. This, of course, is a minor but pernicious lie of literature, that at times like these… we are within ourselves and not able to detect other emotions we might also be feeling, or be about to feel, or prefer to feel. If it’s literature’s job to tell the truth about these moments, it usually fails, in my opinion, and it’s the writer’s fault for falling into such conventions. (I tried to explain all of this to my students at Berkshire College, using Joyce’s epiphanies as a good example of falsehood. But none of them understood the first thing I was talking about.)
Bascombe has banal little epiphanies on almost every single page of the book. But he’s also capable of realizing within one of those little epiphanies that they might be seductive and false—or worse, silly. Ford makes this anxiety even more pronounced by giving Bascombe a tragicomic double in the novel. His name is Walter Luckett. He’s a divorced man, part of a group of divorcés with whom Bascombe spends his time. Luckett has singled out Bascombe to hear his secret, that he’s had a homosexual affair in the wake of his divorce. Luckett is portrayed as ridiculous in an unendearing way—histrionic, awkward, intellectually dull. (The Sportswriter will be important for critics studying the changing depictions of gay men in literature in the late 20th century.)
“Maybe we all need to be poor, Frank. Just once. Just to earn the right to live.” ”Maybe so, Walter. I hope not. I wouldn’t like it very much.” ”But don’t you feel sometimes, Frank, like you’re living way up on the top of life, and not really living all of it, all the way down deep?” ”No, I never felt that way, Walter. I just always felt like I was living all the life I could.” ”Well, then you’re lucky,” Walter Luckett said bluntly.
Luckett commits suicide, and the novel again veers metafictional in presenting his suicide note to Bascombe:
Dear Franko, I woke up today with the clearest idea of what I need to do. I’m absolutely certain about it. Write a novel! I don’t know what the hell it will be for or who’ll read it or any of that, but I’ve got the writer’s itch now and whoever wants to read it can or they can forget about it. … Eddie Grimes is me. It’s a novel about me, with my own ideas and personal concepts and beliefs built into it. It’s hard to think of your own life’s themes. … I would like this to be an interesting letter anyway if it can’t be a best-selling novel.
Though the suicide swings the dramatic mode of Luckett’s story arc from comic to tragic, Bascombe fails to understand him in either case; in Bascombe’s eyes, Luckett remains silly, if also pitiable. But it’s pretty obvious that Ford understands Luckett very well. That ironic perspective—the realization that one person’s epiphany is always some other’s cliché—makes Bascombe’s own aphoristic voice sound less sincere. Bascombe can’t be taken at his word; the reader can never take him altogether seriously. And even he himself can see his own ridiculousness at points. For all his mockably serious self-absorption, his moment of crisis—and Ford’s novel—springs from an inability to take himself seriously because of this power to see the silliness in his reflections and his life. The salient 20th-century everyman who is his progenitor in this regard is not Rabbit Angstrom or Moses Herzog or Leopold Bloom. It is J. Alfred Prufrock.
Like him, Frank Bascombe is full of high sentence, and maybe even a bit obtuse—as Hoffman and other critics rightly note. But they misinterpret Ford’s ambivalence towards the protective stance of irony that he adopts as an outright lack of irony. This is a misreading: Ford has plenty of capacity for irony. But he can’t decide how far he wants to take it, and so we are forced to hold two interpretations of each of those little maxims in our minds at the same time. On one hand, he earnestly means them; on the other, he does not. When Bascombe informs us that “Public places can sometimes let you down no matter how promising they start out” with the same seriousness that he declares, “Children become our parents, and we just become children again,” it is impossible to tell whether the former is debasing the latter or the latter is dignifying the former. Both claims are vague enough to be, at the very least, trivially true. But why should the reader care?
Bascombe’s observations are less interesting in and of themselves than by virtue of what Ford uses them to say about the way we all experience life. Where Flaubert eschewed sententiousness in an attempt to touch an underlying reality, Ford actually adopts that kind of sententiousness alongside the lyric style whose original goal was to depict the real more vividly. By doing so, he not only suggests that sententiousness is a (perhaps inescapable) part of that reality—just one more piece of mental furniture we can’t rid ourselves of. He also shows that sententiousness often grows out of that very attempt to touch reality more deeply: the poet knows that the “poplar saplings” must lead into the “public places,” independent of the truth of either statement.
In essence, he’s puncturing the beautiful balloon of thought that Proust sent sailing into the azure: Ford’s prose style in The Sportswriter has evolved in order to aestheticize the experiences of incompleteness and uncertainty, as experienced by a single person who repeatedly tries to find meaning in those experiences, but cannot believe in his answers on account of that very same sense of incompleteness and uncertainty. These “gritty, knowable kernels” of thought that emerge spontaneously from life—from the lives of most people—feel like moments of deep insight. But one person’s insight looks to another very much like Walter Luckett’s ramblings look to Frank Bascombe, and like Frank Bascombe’s meditations look to a reader of The Sportswriter.
The paragraph when we revel in Bascombe’s eloquent discomfort as he and his girlfriend wander the Botanical Gardens takes on the aspect of a well-turned metaphor for the novel itself, and its perceptive manipulations of a seemingly unassuming prose style. Despite initial promises, the space turns out to be “cold and alien-feeling,” although it is still verdant with the hothouse flowers and curling ferns of Ford’s classically beautiful prose. The plants that drew us and which seem most interesting remain aggravatingly distant: we can sense that we are close to real revelation; we can even see it through the window—but we cannot actually encounter it directly. We are walled off from it by a transparent but unyielding irony.
We may want to demand more from a novel. But if Ford gave us those moments without reminding us of their ridiculousness from time to time, he would simply be perpetuating the same “minor but pernicious lie of literature” that he complains about—the lie that every revelation matters, that epiphanies always have worth. Ford’s real insight is that any faithful representation of a person’s thoughts requires tendentious claims and sententious declarations. This may seem like a cop-out—a novelistic cowardice—or merely a disappointment. But novels can sometimes let you down no matter how promising they start out. The most honest ones admit it.
Spencer Lenfield is a Rhodes Scholar currently studying classics at Oxford University. He blogs at loosesignatures.blogspot.com.