On the evening of June 27, 1996, I strolled a short distance away from the convalescent facility in Nashville's Green Hills where my wife and I had come to visit her grandmother. The old Davis-Kidd bookstore was hosting one of my favorite writers, who'd recently published the second of his Frank Bascombe novels. John Banville astutely hears Ford's Bascombe as a "relaxed existentialist" who's read his Emerson and kept his sense of humor and style through more than his share of adversity.
His authorial voice from the start has been that of a relaxed existentialist. He recognises the essentially contingent and slippery nature of our being here, and the necessity to manoeuvre our way through the world as best we can. Emerson again, from his great essay “Experience”: “We live amid surfaces, and the true art of life is to skate well on them.” GuardianThat's the voice I heard at Davis-Kidd that night. Ford read, we spoke, I told him how much I admired his work and how inspired I'd been by a particular passage in The Sportswriter, his first Bascombe book. I was then, I thought, permanently done with academia. The passage in question:
In my view all teachers should be required to stop teaching at age thirty-two and not allowed to resume until they’re sixty-five, so that they can live their lives, not teach them away—live lives full of ambiguity and transience and regret and wonder, be asked to explain nothing in public until very near the end when they can’t do anything else. Explaining is where we all get into trouble. . .And that's how I acquired this now-ironic inscription:
The irony is that about a month later I decided to crank up the PhD machine one more time. I finally got that degree, thus paving the way for my return to the classroom. I've been there ever since, trying never to forget the value of "ambiguity and transience and regret and wonder," or the trouble awaiting all who explain too much in public.
Eighteen and a half years later, I'm happy to report, the life and the career have been "real" after all. More real, anyway, than I thought possible back in '96.