Like many writers, Richard Ford is definitely a “regarder par la fenêtre” — one who “looks through the window.”
In his short story Privacy and his novella-length story Occidentals, Ford’s protagonists peer out of windows in search of what’s beyond.
In Privacy, (See previous blog review) it was the seed of estrangement. In Occidentals, it is a kind of uncomfortable port of call for the characters to view the world.
Ford’s main character, a newly-published novelist named Charlie Matthews is spending a cold and dreary week in Paris two weeks before Christmas. Matthews and his lover Helen are staying at the Nouvelle Metropolic — a hotel that echoes the dreariness of the weather.
“But at the cold window, with Helen snoring in bed and the thin counterpane around his shoulders, Matthews began to feel different, as if the new moonlight and crinkled stars had configured the world newly, and Paris, even the frosted glowing night, seemed to lie forth more than way he would’ve have wanted had he ever let himself want it. A metropolis of bounteous issue; a surface to penetrate; a depth in which to immerse oneself, even reside in it.”
Later in the story, Ford’s character returns to the window.
“He walked to the cold window and peered out again. He could feel both the cold from outside and the last vestiges of heat in the boxed radiator below the sill. Outside, however, the air was all snow and blackness. He could see the Montparnasse Tower, most of its office squares lighted. Cleaning was going on there, like anywhere. But the Eiffel Tower was still absent from where he thought it should be. Lost in the snow. Possibly closed –though now would be the time to visit it, when the City of Light was lighted.”
Charlie watches as a man with a bed roll slung to his shoulders — slips over a wall into a cemetery and disappears into a cloud of white. The specter of death lingers both inside and beyond the frosted window panes.
This is not the Paris of Gigi or Lance Armstrong, it is Paris out of season. The locals have left for warmer climates and the Occidentals — Westerners including German and American tourists have taken up residence in the city.
Matthews is in Paris to meet with the publisher who is creating the French translation of his novel. When published in America, the novel had “gone immediately and completely out of sight.”
“He was a novice — a college professor who’d pumped out into the wider world — plus he hadn’t believed his novel was really good enough in the way that it depicted ordinary, middle-class people caught in the grip of small, internal dilemmas of their own messy concoction.
That was not usually a popular subject, he understood, unless the people were lesbians with sexually abusive fathers, or else homicide detectives or someone suffering from a fatal disease — none of which was the case in The Predicament, which was too much about his own life.”
This is classic Ford, where the landscape is mostly internal. Like John Updike, Tobias Wolff and David Long, the stories aren’t something you escape to, they are stories that come to you — and what resonates is different for each reader.
Ford has often called the short story a kind of “audacious authority.” The idea that a writer exerts him(herself) on otherwise unorganized language, creates utterances that provisionally subordinates our concerns to his (hers) — and we’re induced to read on — drawing us away from what we think toward what the writer thinks.
Ultimately, every act of reading is an act of faith. You invest your time and your mind’s eye for a moment of insight, catharsis, empathy, escape, knowledge, diversion or to unexpectedly illuminate something in yourself.
Ford’s window watching brought back a memory from a time I spent in Spain. I was staying in a small hotel room in Barcelona — just off Las Ramblas — the 1.2 kilometer pedestrian mall that feeds the nightlife of the city.
Directly across from my window was an apartment building and I could see directly into a beautifully appointed room.
Every night, a portly, bare-chested man would sit at a large table and cut up fruit while reading a newspaper. Already there was a story. Who was this man? What did he do for a living? Was the craving of the fruit a nightly ritual?
Like Ford’s protagonist in Occidentals, I love the effect a foreign city has on me. It’s an odd paradox. The experience heightens your radar and forces you to disengage from the routine of how you talk to yourself and it also challenges you to think about who you are in the world.
We are, temporarily, in the “audacious” world of Richard Ford’s mind. His invention are characters that perhaps we hear too much from — the highly-educated, articulate writer who has made a mess of his life and attempts to make sense of it all by writing and conveying the often chaotic interior life of the mind.
Ford’s characters have a ragged journey to tiny epiphanies or a deeper level of understanding. Ford has patience with his protagonists — their insights aren’t always deep and universal — they are personal.
As a writer, Ford has a perfectly honed reticence. He isn’t a literary exhibitionist despite his love of words. He is, rather, honestly invested in his characters — and they don’t grow exponentially but they do blessedly grow.
This is John Updike, John Cheever, and Richard Yates. Or the best of F. Scott Fitzgerald — and large servings of Joan Dideon’s remarkable non-fiction.
What Ford brings to the short story is love of language in all its incarnations — it is language meant to be read and perhaps read aloud with its cadences and pauses and repetitions.
It is about character — the odd dance we have with liking and disliking the entirety of a person. In Occidentals, the character of Helen provides a masterful example of a character that repels and then draws you in when you see the painful depth of her experience.
What Ford does exceptionally well, is write stories that linger. He offers us our own window to gaze into and to take from that scene what we want and what we need.
You can find Occidentals in Ford’s collection called Women with Men. It is worth visiting.