Wednesday, March 29, 2017

Voices of the Page

Every stage of life brings new pleasures along with its new challenges, even senectitude, which on the whole is more on the challenging side.  One of the pleasures of a financially adequate retirement is that it allows us to play at a doll’s house version of being Patrons of the Arts.  We are officially designated Friends of most museums within a hundred-mile radius, and we give token financial support to numerous other cultural and educational institutions.  On Friday night we attended a local fundraiser for People and Stories/Gente y Cuentos, a group that “believes in the power of literature to change lives”—a mission statement most literature professors can get behind.

            For us this fundraiser was not hard duty.  It began with a low-key supper party given by a board member, a delightful friend who is also a superb cook, the other guests being amiable and interesting conversationalists.  Then it was off to the Nassau Club for further socializing and a reading by Richard Ford, a prize-winning author of considerable eminence, and a very nice fellow to boot.  He’s the right man for the job in more ways that one.  He has a fine southern voice, strong and audible but not domineering.  I knew about his niceness first hand, as I had a few encounters with him many years ago when he was settled in Princeton for a while.  And even though a crowded fund-raiser was hardly the occasion to puff at the embers of a tenuous acquaintance lapsed for at least three decades, I could inwardly bask in something of the satisfaction of the man in that Browning poem who “once saw Shelley plain.” 

 Richard Ford, writer and reader

            I happen to be a lover of the short story, which is naturally the genre of choice for “People and Stories,” and I had correctly anticipated that we would hear a couple of good ones.  In fact we heard precisely two: one by John Cheever, the other by Ford himself.  There was a salient connection between them.  They shared a title (“Reunion”) appropriate for their shared narrative situation and setting, a brief meeting of two men in Grand Central Station.  In Cheever the principal characters are father and son.  The narrator is Charlie, the teen-aged son, a child of divorce, who by pre-arrangement is meeting up for lunch with his long-absent father during a fortuitous layover between trains.  Ford’s story is both a beautiful homage to Cheever and a free-standing gem on its own.  And how classical, and how literary is that!   Everybody knows what “writing” is, but not everyone knows about “literature”.  Literature is artistic writing consciously engaging with other artistic writing, as Virgil engaged Homer, Dante engaged Virgil, Milton engaged Dante, and most English poets since have bobbed about in Milton’s wake.  In Ford’s “Reunion” the Grand Central encounter is a chance one between two men of middle years, their first meeting since in an indeterminate but not distant past the discovery of the Narrator’s adulterous affair with Man Two’s wife had precipitated unseemly fisticuffs, marital dissolution, and (possibly, but only possibly) increments in self-knowledge.

            There is probably general agreement that Cheever is one of the all-time great masters of the short story.  I certainly think so, even if I hold that John Updike is even greater.  It took me a while to warm to either of them.  Their cognate fictional social worlds of the East Coast bourgeoisie, as circumscribed as the world of Jane Austen and to me equally foreign, was hard for me to credit until I had absorbed a few years of encountering their offspring in Princeton classrooms and taken out my own subscription to the New Yorker.  Cheever and Updike are both gone, but not forgotten.  I have the Library of America editions of both on my shelves.

John Cheever (1912-1982)

            Many centuries ago even private reading was done aloud, and early writers sometimes call words “the voices of the page”.  Almost any good piece of writing is magnified by being read aloud.  Dramatic literature demands it.  Our literature was born in orality, the word spoken or sung, the word heard and engaged. Modern technology is perhaps returning us to a bardic culture in which recitation is scarcely subordinated to composition.  My wife, a voracious reader, does her reading mainly through earbuds.

            What happens in Cheever’s “Reunion”?  Practically nothing, and a very great deal.  A young lad who barely knows his father, yet yearns for connection to him, has a ninety-minute opportunity for connection between his trains in and out of the city.  The father will treat him to lunch.  But though they enter four different restaurants, there is no lunch.  What there is is a display of the father’s character so appalling, so awful, and so economical that the embarrassed reader learns in three pages what would require ten pages of discursus to lay out.  This is mostly achieved through the invented spoken words of one character. The mother never appears, but you intuitively grasp the essence of the marriage and the inevitability of the divorce.  You don’t even need to be told by the young narrator what in fact you are told in the story’s first and final lines: “that was the last time I saw my father.”

Though I did not remember having read Cheever’s “Reunion” before, I had a dim sense of déjà vu—or was it entendu?—while listening to Ford read.  When I went to the Internet in search of a text, I discovered a possible explanation.  There is actually a New Yorker podcast of Ford reading the story.  In fact, I take it he has made something of a set piece out of tandem public readings of the two “Reunions”.  You don’t need to take my word for it.  You can hear it for yourself.