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a masterpiece

Prize writer: Ford

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RICHARD FORD: A master wordsmith regarded as one of the best of his generation

Richard Ford has long been hailed as one of his generation's most eloquent voices. For that matter, the Pulitzer Prize winning author has been likened to Philip Roth, John Updike, Saul Bellow and Ernest Hemingway. He has also been hailed as the voice of the twentieth century America more times than he can count. So when his new novel Canada, his first in six years, was described by John Banville, writing in a recent review in The Guardian, as 'a masterpiece', Ford admits to being somewhat relieved. "That means I've bridged the gap, " he laughs, "So I completely accept that. "

That's just it about Ford. He is unfailingly gracious and invariably mischievous about praise - or criticism for that matter - but largely indifferent to it. Though it wasn't always so. He'll happily tell you about that infamous "old shooting which no one will let me off the map for" back in 1986 when, after receiving a bad review of The Sportswriter from Alice Hoffman, he and his wife Kristina took a pistol and shot a hole in two of Hoffman's novels and mailed them back to her publisher. "Somebody wrongly reported that we'd sent them back to Hoffman. I wouldn't have done that. That would be very rude. But we've overcome that now. I'm hoping as I get older to rub some of those elbows a little softer, " he says.

It was, of course, The Sportswriter, the first in his Frank Bascombe trilogy, that catapulted Ford into the league of all-time greats, making its way onto Time Magazine's 2005 list of the best English novels since 1923. Not that Ford is the kind to remind you of such things. At 68, Mississippi-born, Maine-based Ford still retains the genteel manners of the American south as well as a southern cadence in his accent. In fact the man emanates an uncontrived style right down to his acclaimed sentences. Sinewy, sonorous sentences that elevate the humdrum into the near numinous in four collections of short stories and seven novels, including The Sportswriter and its 1995 sequel Independence Day, the first novel ever to win both the Pulitzer Prize and the Pen/Faulkner Award. The third in the trilogy, The Lay of the Land, was a 2006 National Book Critics Circle Award Finalist and a New York Times Best Book of the year.

His sentences in Canada too are a minor miracle. Even the opening passages of this majestic, leisurely novel look set to become one of the all-time classic literary openers. "First I'll tell you about the robbery our parents committed. Then about the murders, which happened later, " declares its narrator Dell Parsons, who begins by telling us of his 15-year-old self, his twin sister Berner, and of his parents, their unhappy marriage and ill-conceived crime. A crime that ruptures their family and sees Dell spirited across the border to Canada's Saskatchewan province to evade life in an orphanage. A vast ambitious meditation on life's unequal parts, its possibilities, the novel was seeded by Ford's experiences of "unphraseable sensations" in Saskatchewan and its prairies across two decades. But it remains very much a novel about borders, about becoming and undoing and, in particular, that invisible boundary between normalcy and aberrance.

Ford is at pains to map every conceivable calibration of normalcy in Canada. "We take normalcy for granted. We think things are in a steady state and that we can rely on the future to some extent. And then it's all a confection. That's all normalcy is, a made-up state. It's constantly being tested by circumstances, tested by our own characters, by the unknown, and we'd like to ignore its relationship to aberrance or chaos but it's there nonetheless. It's there in every representation of drama that we see. It's there in Henry James's remark about the closeness soft bliss to bale. It's the drama of everyday life. "

He is at pains, too, to tell you he grew up as "a very happy child in a very happy environment". But like the youthful character of Canada, he knows full well the vagaries of normalcy. His own father, a Mississippi starch salesman, died suddenly when he was in his mid-teens. "He died right in front of me, right out of the blue, in essence. Those kinds of things can be very imprinting about how reliable normal life is. Sometimes people ask me 'Why do you write about families in stress or families verging on chaos?' and I say, 'Well I guess I always felt that was a possibility. ' But I hope the books, even though they might be sombre in places, will finally be consoling. "

He also likes to tell you he was 19 before he came to literature. "I was kind of always looking round saying 'Is that all the heck there is?' Then when I was about 19 I read (Faulkner's ) Absalom Absalom and I thought, 'Oh I get it now, there is more and this is it. '" He began writing soon after, at the age of 23, and from that moment on staked his life on writing books that would impact on people lives. "I bet I could do this. I took one big bet in '68 that I'm going to do this and make it work. I wanted my books to be a contributor to people's lives because books were such a contributor to mine. I made a life commitment to write about things that I have sympathy for and I very much have sympathy for people going along in life, " he says.

Four decades on Ford admits, "I still feel every time you sit down and write a book you're gambling against the odds. But it's not over till it's over. And what drives my writing is a high sense of purpose which can be summed up by a line of F R Leavis, who
said that 'Literature is the supreme means why which you can renew your sensuous and emotional life and learn a new awareness. ' That's what I want to do. I don't know any higher purpose than that for myself. " He adds, "And I don't want to do less than that. "

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