The short story is fluourishing in the US, and no one champions it more than the likeable and laidback Richard Bausch, who takes part in this weekend’s Mountains to Sea books festivalLITERARY FESTIVALS celebrate the communal heart of reading and writing, and are far less contentious than prizes. Readers come to see and hear writers whose work they have admired. It can add a further dimension, or at least consolidate the wonder. Writers are storytellers, and it is always exciting to hear them reading their stories.
The fourth Mountains to Sea books festival begins today in Dún Laoghaire and continues until Sunday. The programme is rich, and among the many splendours is an inspired pairing of the Irish writer Claire Keegan, author of Foster, with one of the finest living US masters, Richard Bausch, a laidback, likeable character who enjoys pointing out he doesn’t write because God wants him to: “I write because it’s fun.”
His fiction reflects his engagement with life and the living. In the story Last Day of Summer a 16-year-old boy is forced to leave childhood behind when his mother becomes ill. Throughout his novels and stories he is showing how men and women try to make sense of life, often failing in the process. There is pathos, a good deal of humour, truth and an extraordinarily well-pitched sense of timing.
Bausch is also a musician; it may account for the instinctive fluidity and ease of his work. There is a disarming lack of pretence. Funny and intuitive in person, his central theme is that we make mistakes not because we want to but because we can’t help making messes.
Throughout his literary career Bausch, not quite a southerner but close in his vision as well as inflection, has taught at various universities and loves working with students. “I don’t teach writing,” he says. “I teach patience.”
He was born in Fort Benning, Georgia, in 1945, a twin son to a family with four previous children. He served in the US air force from 1966 until 1969. Yet it was not his personal experience of war that influenced his remarkable narrative Peace (2008) but that of his father, Robert Carl Bausch, who served in Africa, Sicily and Italy during the second World War. Peace is dedicated to his memory. Bausch snr had told his sons about something he saw happen in Sicily. It remained in Richard Bausch’s memory for more than 30 years; then it became Peace, possibly his finest work to date.
Bausch has been widely anthologised in the US, published in the journals that matter, from the New Yorker to the Atlantic Monthly, and revered by fellow writers of the stature of Richard Ford and Tobias Wolff. As long ago as 1995 a fire-cracker introductory collection, Aren’t You Happy For Me?, was published in the UK, thrilling critics who decided they had personally discovered yet another American literary messiah.
But that was it, and Bausch appeared to return, at least as far as European readers were concerned, to the literary underground inhabited by a surprising number of gifted US writers, including Denis Johnson, William Gay, Ron Rash and Daniel Woodrell, author of Winter’s Bone, who is also reading in Dún Laoghaire this week.