This year, the Edinburgh International Book Festival has been privileged to welcome two of the United States’ most distinguished novelists; Paul Auster is the austerely if bleakly comedic post-modern writer perhaps best known for ‘The New York Trilogy’, while Richard Ford has recorded something of the spirit of his age through the eyes of Frank Bascombe, the principal character of a quartet of novels, beginning with ‘The Sportswriter’ through to ‘To Be Frank’.
‘Between Them’, however, is a departure for Ford. A remarkably honest pair of portraits of his own parents, these memoirs unavoidably suggest certain things about their writer; Ford unsuccessfully applied mouth-to-mouth resuscitation to his father at the age of fifteen. Ford senior was a travelling salesman in the southern states, and his son freely admitted that had his father not died when he did, his own life might not have taken the trajectory it has.
Somewhat more reticent when talking of his mother, who lived with Ford and his wife until she died, his sense of affection and connection remained clear. The two memoirs were written at different times, and this may be reflected in their differing treatments, Ford himself acknowledging that it took him considerable time to transfer the notes he had made concerning his father into coherent prose.
It’s intriguing, if possibly useless, to speculate on what elements of their own lives Ford’s parents passed on to their only child. What remains, however, is the character Ford has lived with longest, Frank Bascombe, whose arc to some extent mirrors that of Ford himself; both at one time reported on sports and both have sold real estate. Frank’s fundamental decencies, one suspects, also reflect Ford’s own values, even if the character’s propensity to tumble into darkly comic misfortunes not entirely of his own making are wholly the device of the storyteller.
On this occasion, though, the writer did not have the same opportunity to make it up as he went along, and the richness of this event was made up in part of an audience who asked some highly pertinent and perceptive questions that reflected on Ford’s achievement in writing as honestly as he could about his own parents.
Richard Ford will also appear on Monday 28th August, in conversation with Kirsty Wark on the current situation in the United States.
Richard Ford, Between Them; Remembering my Parents, Bloomsbury, £12.99