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.
That the American short story is alive and well is obvious, and no one champions it more than Bausch, who has always encouraged readers to seek out subtle exponents of nuance such as Grace Paley and William Maxwell, and his own peers Ford and Wolff.
Peace is a classic war story. Bausch creates a group of men who are terrified of dying but also resigned to it. There are shades of Wolff and Robert Olmstead. The dialogue is well handled, as is the characterisation, but, in Marson, Bausch has a sympathetic central character caught up in an intense moral dilemma.
It is possible to feel the rain Bausch describes; smell the defeat of the soldiers as that rain turns to snow. A doe picks through the wet forest, oblivious to the terror the sound of her approach causes for the soldiers. Every tree may be concealing the enemy.
It is a different setting for Bausch; his natural territory is the ordinary, the slightly modified suburban ordinary. He is particularly good on men and women, achieving a type of rugged Updike crossed with Carver.
In one of Bausch’s stories, The Fireman’s Wife, a woman thinks of her father-in-law, who reminds her of “those pictures of hungry, bewildered men in the Dust Bowl thirties – with their sad, straight combed hair and their desperation.”
Although Peace is dramatic and suspenseful, with a twist that opts for the unexpected, Bausch can also be very funny. In the dialogue-driven title story from Aren’t You Happy for Me? a father is informed by his daughter that she intends to marry an older man. “ ‘Jesus,’ announces the exasperated father. ‘I mean he’s older than I am, kid. He’s – he’s a lot older than I am . . . Honey, nineteen years. When he was my age, I was only two years older than you are now.’ ”
When the two-way telephone conversation becomes a three-hander, with the aged suitor joining in, the father shouts, “You’re too old for my wife, for Christ’s sake.” It is sharp, snappy comedy that is also true to Bausch’s reflective style. Resigned to her daughter’s decision, the girl’s mother remarks: “Who knows, maybe they’ll be happy for a time.”
In another story in that collection a husband, in the silence following an argument, glances over at his wife on the way home, noting “the unpleasant downturn of her mouth, the chiselled, too-sharp curve of her jaw – the whole dishevelled, vaguely tattered look of her – as though he were a stranger, someone unable to imagine what anyone, another man, other men, someone like himself, could see in her to love.”
Something Is Out There, Bausch’s eighth volume of short stories, was published in the US in the spring of 2010. It is wonderful but is yet to be published in the UK. Peace won Bausch a wider audience, and certainly an Irish readership, many of whom have already sought out the Knopf edition.
Announcing that the short story is alive and well is mere understatement: it is flourishing, and American writers, invariably deferring to Irish masters such as O’Connor and Trevor, are more than holding their own. Something Is Out There is not just a catchy title but also a statement of fact. The short story is out there and better than ever – as Bausch, in the company of the compelling traditionalist Keegan, herself a most dramatic, almost theatrical reader, will confirm tonight.
The Irish Times Poetry Now Award 2012 shortlist
The Irish Times Poetry Now Award is presented annually to the author of the best single volume of poems published by an Irish poet in the previous year.
The shortlist for the Irish Times Poetry Now Award 2012 is:
Hands – Carcanet Press
A Hundred Doors – Cape Poetry
Speech Lessons – Gallery Press
Farmers Cross – Faber and Faber
The Cotard Dimension – Dedalus Press
Moya Cannonwas born in Dunfanaghy, Co Donegal. She is the author of three other collections of poetry, Oar, The Parchment Boat and Carrying the Songs.
Michael Longleyis the author of several award winning collections of poetry. He was chosen by the Ireland Chair of Poetry Trust as Irelands Professor of Poetry from 2007-2010.
John Montague's New and Collected Poems were published this year. In 1998, Montague was chosen as Ireland’s first Professor of Poetry.
Bernard O'Donoghuewas born in Cullen, Co Cork, in 1945. He has published five collections with Faber.
Macdara Woodswill launch his Collected Poems at Mountains to Sea/Poetry Now. He is a member of Aosdána.
Previous winners of the award include Derek Mahon, Harry Clifton, Seamus Heaney and Dorothy Molloy.
The winner of this year’s prize, judged by James Harpur, Mary Shine Thompson and Gerald Dawe, will receive €5,000. The winner will be announced in The Irish Times on Saturday; the award will be presented at Poetry Now at this week’s Mountains to Sea book festival.
The Irish Times will print shortlisted work each day this week, beginning with poems by Moya Cannon and Michael Longley.
Why should the evening sun
which blasts light through the tops
of the slender yellow poplars in the valley
and of the red wild cherry trees on the hillside;
which lingers, a fillet of light in the dusk,
on the green ridge slanting down
to the hermitage of Santa Eulalia;
which shafts, a slightly opened blue fan,
onto range upon fretted range
of peaks to the west,
why should it flood me too
with unaccountable joy?
From Hands, published by Carcanet Press.
Reprinted with permission
It is like a poem. It is better than a poem,
The citation for my fathers Military Cross
Dividing itself into lines like this: For
Conspicuous gallantry and devotion to duty
In leading the waves of his company in a raid
And being the first to enter both objectives
In spite of a severe shrapnel wound in the thigh.
After killing several of the enemy himself,
He directed the fire of his Lewis gunners
And rifle bombers on to a working party
Of over 100 of the enemy, and controlled
The mopping-up of the enemy dug-outs.
Kept alive by his war cry and momentum,
I shiver behind him on the fire-step.
From A Hundred Doors, published by Cape Poetry. Reprinted with permission