Tuesday, December 19, 2006

"The sea closes up, and so does the land"

My review-essay on Richard Ford's Frank Bascombe Trilogy can now be read at ReadySteadyBook.

The review points to what I see as its main theme, a theme barely mentioned in any of the many headline reviews of The Lay of the Land and, when it is, is something that evidently doesn't bother the reviewer; it's just another part of Frank Bascombe's unique sensibility. But I'm saying it is not unique and it affects not only the entire trilogy but writing itself. To argue this, I had plenty of material to deal with. One piece of evidence was left out because it seemed a little dubious. And then ...

Here's a passage in Kafka's diary from February 2nd, 1920.

He remembers a picture that represented a summer Sunday on the Thames. The whole breath of the river was filled with boats, waiting for a lock-gate to be opened. In all the boats were gay young people in light, bright-coloured clothing; they were almost reclining there, freely abandoned to the warm air and the coolness of the water. They had so much in common that their convivial spirit was not confined to the separate boats; joking and laughter was passed from boat to boat.

He now imagined that in a meadow on the bank - the banks were only faintly suggested in the picture, the gathering of boats overshadowed everything - he himself was standing. He was contemplating the festival, which was not really a festival at all, but still one could call it that.

He naturally had a great desire to join in, indeed he longed to do so, but he was forced to admit to himself that he was excluded from it, it was impossible for him to fit in there; to do so would have required such great preparation that in the course of it not only this Sunday, but many years, and he himself, would have passed away; and even if time here could have come to a standstill, it would still have been impossible to achieve any other result; his whole origin, upbringing, physical development would have had to be different.

So far removed, then, was he from these holiday-makers, and yet for all that he was very close to them too, and that was the more difficult thing to understand. They were, after all, human beings like himself, nothing human could be utterly alien to them, and so if one were to probe into them, one would surely find that the feeling which dominated him and excluded him from the river party was alive in them too, but of course with the difference that it was very far from dominating them and merely haunted some darker corners of their being.
What has this to do with Frank Bascombe? Well, he too is far removed from yet very close to the life he sees around him. He too believes he requires great preparation to fit in with those less dominated, less haunted by distance. The trilogy might well be that preparation. But there's a closer connection between Kafka's He and Ford's Frank. The picture being observed is Boulter's Lock, Sunday Afternoon by Edward John Gregory, a location "just below Maidenhead" according to my German edition of the diaries. And where of all places does Sally Caldwell, Frank's second wife, end up after leaving Wally, her first husband? Take one guess.


  1. Anonymous1:00 am

    Nice work!

  2. Agreed! Nice work, as always.

    FYI, Ruth Franklin has a profile in this week's New Yorker about Thomas Bernhard. It's all pretty pedestrian stuff, but worth reading to remind yourself (as though you needed reminding) why he's so damn great.


    Elizabeth bought me the new collected Beckett boxed set that is on it's way to me as I write this, yay.

    Happy holidays!

    Todd Colby



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