Saturday, September 24, 2011

Women with Men by Richard Ford

This is a book of three long stories, one of which I enjoyed far more than the other two.

The Womanizer is the favored one, a tale about a man dissatisfied with his life and enchanted by the idea of what a better life might be. Martin Austin is his name, a salesman for an industrial products company, and on a trip to France he meets Josephine, a woman to whom he attaches all his starry hopes. For life with his wife, Barbara, has become a dull routine.

Late that night, a Tuesday, he and Barbara made brief, boozy love in the dark of their thickly curtained bedroom, to the sound of a neighbor’s springer spaniel barking unceasingly one street over. Theirs was practiced, undramatic lovemaking, a set of protocols and assumptions lovingly followed like a liturgy which point to but really has little connection with the mysteries and chaos that had once made it a breathless necessity. Austin noticed by the digital clock on the chest of drawers that it all took nine minutes, start to finish. He wondered briefly if this was of normal or less than normal duration for Americans his and Barbara’s age. Less, he supposed, though no doubt the fault was his.

Good prose, there. There and throughout Ford’s writing. But the prose alone is not what makes the story so memorable, nor is it its theme or storyline. What makes the story so memorable is the character of Martin Austin himself.

He wondered, staring at the elegantly framed azimuth map Barbara had given him when he’d been awarded the prestigious European accounts, and which he’d hung behind his desk with tiny red pennants attached, denoting where he’d increased the company’s market share—Brussels, Amsterdam, Dusseldorf, Paris—wondered if his life, his normal carrying-on, was slipping out of control, yet so gradually as not to be noticed. But he decided it wasn’t, and as proof he offered the fact that he was entertaining this idea in his office, on an ordinary business day, with everything in his life arrayed in place and going forward, rather than entertaining in some Parisian street cafĂ© in the blear aftermath of calamity: a man with soiled lapels, in need of a shave and short of cash, scribbling his miserable thoughts into a tiny spiral notebook like all the other morons he’d seen who’d thrown their lives away. This feeling now, this sensation of heaviness, of life’s coming unmoored, was actually, he believed, a feeling of vigilance, the weight of responsibility accepted, the proof that carrying life to a successful end was never an easy matter.

He’s a bumbling fool, this Martin Austin, at once attuned to the way is which success in life hangs on the most precarious of balances, but utterly unable to connect that wisdom to any of the actual choices he makes in life. The story is a detailed summary of how he blindly throws his life away, all the while in ironic opposition to his near constant perception that he is in control of things. He is confident, mostly, swept up in the exhilaration of risk, and convinced that in his choice to abandon one life with Barbara and launch another with Josephine he has never been more alive and in control of his destiny.

It would be pleasant to walk there with Josephine, Austin thought, to breathe the sweet air of chestnut trees and to stare off. Life was very different here. This apartment was very different from his house in Oak Grove. He felt different here. Life seemed to have improved remarkably in a short period. All it took, he thought, was the courage to take control of things and to live with the consequences.

Except that Austin is in control of nothing. He’s jumped out of the plane, but now he’s in free fall, and he’s left his parachute behind. And the essence of his unrealized powerlessness is wonderfully displayed by Ford in one of the most painful but beautifully-written sections of the story.

Austin and Barbara are childless, but Josephine isn’t, and when he shows up practically unannounced at Josephine’s apartment in Paris—after separating from his wife and risking his job—he manages to convince Josephine to let him watch her young son, Leo, while she runs an important errand. Although he promises not to leave the apartment, he takes the boy to a nearby park, and promptly loses sight of him as his mind swims euphorically in his new-found courage and all the freedom and control it has offered him. Ford is brutal with the reader as he communicates the inexorable foreboding and terror. We’re horrified for Leo and, oddly, sympathetic for Austin, sympathetic in a way only men can be with their hapless and dimwitted selves.

When he looked around again, Leo was not where he’d been, standing dreamily to the side of the older boys, watching their miniature cutters and galleons glide over the still pond surface. The older boys were there, their long tending sticks in their hands, whispering among themselves and smirking. But not Leo. It had become cooler. Light had faded from the crenellated roof line of the Ecole Superieure des Mines, and soon it would be dark. The man having his picture taken was walking away with the photographer. Austin had been engrossed in thought and had lost sight of little Leo, who was, he was certain, somewhere nearby.

He looked at his watch. It was six twenty-five, and Josephine could now be home. He scanned back along the row of apartment blocks, hoping to find her window, thinking he might see her there watching him, waving at him happily, possibly with Leo at her side. But he couldn’t tell which building was which. One window he could see was open and dark inside. But he couldn’t be sure. In any case, Jospehine wasn’t framed in it.

Austin looked all around, hoping to see the white flash of Leo’s T-shirt, the careening red Cadillac. But he saw only a few couples walking along the chalky paths, and two of the older boys carrying their sailboats home to their parents’ apartments. He still heard tennis balls being hit—pockety pock. And he felt cold and calm, which he knew to be the feeling of fear commencing, a feeling that could rapidly change to other feelings that could last a long, long time.

Leo was gone, and he wasn’t sure where. “Leo,” he called out, first in the American way, then “Lay-oo,” in the way his mother said. “Ou etes-vous?” Passersby looked at him sternly, hearing the two languages together. The remaining sailboat boys glanced around and smiled. “Lay-oo!” he called out again, and knew his voice did not sound ordinary, that it might sound frightened. Everyone around him, everyone who could hear him, was French, and he couldn’t precisely explain to any of them what was the matter here: that this was not his son; that the boy’s mother was not here now but was probably close by; that he had let his attention stray a moment.

“Lay-oo,” he called out again. “Ou etes-vous?” He saw nothing of the boy, not a fleck of shirt or a patch of his dark hair disappearing behind a bush. He felt cold all over again, a sudden new wave, and he shuddered because he knew he was alone. Leo—some tiny assurance opened in his to say—Leo, wherever he was, would be fine, was probably fine right now. He would be found and be happy. He would see his mother and immediately forget all about Martin Austin. Nothing bad had befallen him. But he, Martin Austin, was alone. He could not find this child, and for him only bad would come of it.

Across an expanse of grassy lawn he saw a park guardian in a dark-blue uniform emerge from the rhododendrons beyond which were the tennis courts, and Austin began running toward him. It surprised him that he was running, and halfway there quit and only half ran toward the man, who had stopped to permit himself to be approached.

“Do you speak English?” Austin said before he’d arrived. He knew his face had taken on an exaggerated appearance, because the guardian looked at him strangely, turned his head slightly, as though he preferred to see him at an angle, or as if he were hearing an odd tune and wanted to hear it better. At the corners of his mouth he seemed to smile.

“I’m sorry,” Austin said, and took a breath. “You speak English, don’t you?”

“A little bit, why not,” the guardian said, and then he did smile. He was middle-aged and pleasant-looking, with a soft suntanned face and a small Hitler mustache. He wore a French policeman’s uniform, a blue-and-gold kepi, a white shoulder braid and a white lanyard connected to his pistol. He was a man who liked parks.

“I’ve lost a little boy here someplace,” Austin said calmly, though he remained out of breath. He put the palm of his right hand to his cheek as if his cheek were wet, and he felt his skin to be cold. He turned and looked again at the concrete border of the pond, at the grass crossed by gravel paths, and then at the dense tangle of yew bushes farther on. He expected to see Leo there, precisely in the middle of this miniature landscape. Once he’d been frightened and time had gone by, and he’d sought help and strangers had regarded him with suspicion and wonder—once all these had taken place—Leo could appear and all would be returned to calm.

But there was no one. The open lawn was empty, and it was nearly dark. He could see weak interior lights from the apartment blocks beyond the park fence, see yellow automobile lights on rue Vaugirard. He remembered once hunting with his father in Illinois. He was a boy, and their dog had run away. He had known the advent of dark meant he would never see the dog again. They were far from home. The dog wouldn’t find its way back. And that is what happened.

The park guardian stood in front of Austin, smiling, staring at his face oddly, searchingly, as if he meant to adduce something—if Austin was crazy or on drugs or possibly playing a joke. The man, Austin realized, hadn’t understood anything he’d said, and was simply waiting for something he would understand to begin.

But he had ruined everything now. Leo was gone. Kidnapped. Assaulted. Or merely lost in a hopelessly big city. And all his own newly won freedom, his clean slate, was in a moment squandered. He would go to jail, and he should go to jail. He was an awful man. A careless man. He brought mayhem and suffering to the lives of innocent, unsuspecting people who trusted him. No punishment could be too severe.

Austin looked again at the yew bushes, a long, green clump, several yards thick, the interior lost in tangled shadows. That was where Leo was, he thought with complete certainty. And he felt relief, barely controllable relief.

“I’m sorry to bother you,” he said to the guardian. “Je regrette. I made a mistake.” And he turned and ran toward the clump of yew bushes, across the open grass and the gravel promenade and careful beds in bright-yellow bloom, the excellent park. He plunged in under the low scrubby branches, where the ground was bare and raked and damp and attended to. With his head ducked he moved swiftly forward. He called Leo’s name but did not see him, though he saw a movement, and indistinct fluttering of blue and gray, heard what might’ve been footfalls on the soft ground, and then he heard running, like a large creature hurrying in front of him among the tangled branches. He heard laughter beyond the edge of the thicket, where another grassy terrace opened—the sound of a man laughing and talking in French, out of breath and running at once. Laughing, then more talking and laughing again.

Austin moved toward where he’d seen the flutter of blue and gray—someone’s clothing glimpsed in flight, he thought. There was a strong old smell of piss and human waste among the thick roots and shrubby trunks of the yew bushes. Paper and trash were strewn around in the foulness. From outside it had seemed cool and inviting here, a place to have a nap or make love.

And Leo was there. Exactly where Austin had seen the glimpse of clothing flicker through the undergrowth. He was naked, sitting on the damp dirt, his clothes strewn around him, turned inside out where they had been jerked off and thrown aside. He looked up at Austin, his eyes small and perceptive and dark, his small legs straight out before him, smudged and scratched, his chest and arms scratched. Dirt was on his cheeks. His hands were between his legs, not covering or protecting him but limp. As if they had no purpose. He was very white and very quiet. His hair was still neatly combed. Though when he saw Austin, and that it was Austin and not someone else coming bent at the waist, furious, breathing stertorously, stumbling, crashing arms-out through the rough branches and trunks and roots of that small place, he gave a shrill, hopeless cry, as though he could see what was next, and who it would be, and it terrified him even more. And his cry was all he could do to let the world know that he feared his fate.

It’s a fascinating piece of writing, heart-wrenching and true from start to finish, as Austin continues to deceive himself until the very bitter and painful end. When it’s over, and Leo is reunited with his mother, Josephine has the harshest of all possible verdicts for Austin and his wayward understanding of himself.

She shook her head and crossed her arms tightly and looked away, her dark eyes shining in the night. She was very, very angry. Possibly, he thought, she was even angry at herself. “You are a fool,” she said, and she spat accidently when she said it. “I hate you. You don’t know anything. You don’t know who you are.” She looked at him bitterly. “Who are you?” she said. “You do you think you are? You’re nothing.”

You don’t know who you are. He doesn’t. That, ultimately, is his crime, and the object lesson for us all to take away from this story. How many of us, wandering through this life from job to job and relationship to relationship, don’t know who were are, and what wreckage are we leaving behind?

In the end, Austin remains clueless, wondering to himself in his small Paris apartment what is it that connected or detached him from the people around him, and if it is something that he could have controlled, or if he is just a victim to some larger force that pushes people together and then drives them apart.

+   +   +   +   +   +   +

The third story in the book is called Occidentals, and near the very end I stumbled across a short exchange that I think well summarizes Ford’s view on writing and the essential question he is asking in each of the stories in this book. In Occidentals, Matthews is an author, and here he is meeting with a French translator about the forthcoming foreign publication of his novel.

“Your book will be better in French, I think,” she said. “It’s humorous. It needs to be humorous. In English it’s not so much. Don’t you think so?”

“I didn’t think it was humorous,” he said, and thought about the street names he’d made up. The Paris parts.

“Well. An artist’s mind senses a logic where none exists. Yet often it’s left incomplete. It’s difficult. Only great geniuses can finish what they invent. In French, we say…” And she said something then that Matthews didn’t understand but didn’t try. “Do you speak French?” She smiled politely.

“Just enough to misunderstand everything,” he said, and tried to smile back.

“It doesn’t matter,” Madame de Grenelle said, and paused. “So. It is not quite finished in English. Because you cannot rely on the speaker. The I who was jilted. All the way throughout, one is never certain if he can be taken seriously at all. It is not entirely understandable in that way. Don’t you agree? Perhaps you don’t. But perhaps he had murdered his wife, or this is all a long dream or a fantasy, a ruse—or there is another explanation. It is meant to be mocking.”

“That could be true,” Matthews said. “I think it could.”

“The problem of reliance,” she said, “is important. This is the part not finished. It would’ve been very, very difficult. Even for Flaubert…”

“I see,” Matthews said.

“But in French, I can make perfectly clear that we are not to trust the speaker, though we try. That it’s a satire, meant to be amusing. The French would expect this. It is how they see Americans.”

“How?” he said. “How is it they see us?”

Madame de Grenelle smiled. “As silly,” she said, “as not understanding very much. But, for that reason, interesting.”

“I see,” Matthews said.

“Yes,” she said. “Though only to a point.”

“I understand,” Matthews said. “I think I understand that perfectly well.”

“Then good,” she said. “So. We can start.”

Now, go back a read that again. Except every time it mentions “French,” think “Women,” and every time it mentions “English” or “American,” think “Men.” The things that separate French and English literature are the same things that separate Women and Men. What Women find satiric and silly, Men find deadly serious. And vice versa, I suppose.

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