Age bestows its many gifts with a kind of mysterious grace.
My father, a witness to the many horrors of World War II, developed a passion for gardening when he retired. The sergeant became the nurturer of marigolds and daisies.
After retiring from the University of Chicago as an English Professor, Norman Maclean began writing the stories he told his children over the years. The result was a River Runs Through It and Other Stories. For me, the opening sentence ranks as one of the best in modern American literature — “In our family, there was no clear line between religion and fly fishing.”
Middle age has given me the short story. This seemingly dying form, now resonates on more strings. The song has become symphony. I thrive on character, nuance, rhythm, parsed dialogue, perspective and the artfully truncated glimpses of life.
One such symphony is Richard Ford’s collection of short stories, A Multitude of Sins.
Published nearly a decade ago, it contains nine stories and a novella. In an interview with Dave Welch of Powells.com, the Pulitzer Prize-winning Novelist says that he wrote three of the stories (Privacy, Crèche and Quality Time) separately.
“When I saw what those stories were about — they were beginning to add up — I thought, I think I know what kind of seam I’m mining here.”
One might read deep into the title to a provocative source: “And above all things have fervent charity among yourselves: for charity shall cover the multitude of sins.” Peter 4:8. KJV or “above all, love each other deeply, because love covers over a multitude of sins.” NIV.
Ford has said that he “thought they were about the way people fail each other. Fail themselves, even.”
These stories are about all kinds of infidelities. About the curious choices people make and the choices made for them by spouses, lovers, and families. About the distances we create and the closure we crave. It is the same song played with surprisingly different notes.
Privacy, the first story in the collection, begins with “This was at a time when my marriage was still happy.”
It is February and a couple is living in an apartment that is a converted factory. “A living space with only a great open room with tall windows front and back, and almost no electric light.”
The second paragraph ends knowingly, “We had been married for ten years and were still enjoying that strange, exhilarating illusion that we had survived the worst of life’s hardships.
The unnamed husband is a writer who feels himself failing. “Later we would stop for an hour in a bar and have coffee or a brandy, and talk intensely about the translations my wife was working on, through never (blessedly) about the work I by then already failing at.”
The character’s wife, working long hours, typically falls into bed fatigued. Fueled by coffee and literary frustration, the husband walks the floor from window to window, looking out into the night.
One cold night he sees a woman slowly undressing inside a long yellow-lit apartment — oblivious to the world outside.
“Because of the distance, I could not see her well or at all clearly, could only see that she was small in stature and seemingly thin, with close-cropped dark hair — a petite woman in every sense.”
He turns this furtive glance into a nightly ritual. While his wife sleeps, he walks to the window with a pair of opera glasses and watches the woman. The sight of the woman “… made the world stop and be perfectly expressible as two poles connected by my line of vision. I am sure know that all this had to do with my impending failures.”
The husband does this for a week and then suddenly stops when the woman does not appear one evening. I will not reveal the ending because it contains a twist worthy of O’Henry.
The emotional chord that Ford so deftly plays, is the interior world of things felt but not said. The private world of the mind is both knowable and unknowable. The gulf in the marriage is beginning to grow — and among their many conversations — it is the one subject that remains in the singular privacy of their minds.
He is aroused by the sight of the woman. Bu his vision of her is alluringly distorted and open to interpretation.
But for Ford’s character there is only self-confession and an awareness that this is a critical psychological moment for his marriage.
The seeds of estrangement have been sown. And what is private blooms over time in all its curious incarnations.
That’s what resonates.
Next week, part 2.
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